The Wright House?

Pity John Hoffman and Steve Sells, the recent purchasers of a home in Phoenix, AZ.  The two bought a fixer-upper home in Phoenix, AZ for what seemed to be a steal—$1.8 million.  The home had been sold for $2.8 million to the previous owners.

Hoffman and Sells could not believe their good fortune.  “The property is gorgeous,” said Sells.[1]  And it is.  Located in one of the most popular neighborhoods in Phoenix and near the famed Camelback Mountains, Hoffman and Sells figured that the property alone was worth almost as much as their purchase price.  Their plan was to demolish the existing home which, though striking, needed a lot of repair and maintenance.  They would then split the lot and build two homes on it, easily recouping their investment.   The two purchasers successfully applied to the city for permission to split the lot, received permission to demolish the house, and all looked rosy.

But hold the phone.  It turns out that the house that Hoffman and Sells bought is not just any house.   The house was designed and built by that iconic American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright in 1952 for his son and daughter-in-law.   The Wright grandchildren could not afford the costs to maintain the house, and so sold it to purchasers who then sold it to Hoffman and Sells.[2]  A tour of the house reveals the features that characterize the Wright aesthetic—curved walls are echoed by custom cabinets and furniture, and even Wright’s signature red tile can be plainly seen at the front door.   Preservationists requested that the city provide landmark designation for the Wright house just as the new owners were preparing to begin their development plan.  Realizing the importance of the house, the city of Phoenix rescinded the demolition permit and initiated the landmark designation process.

This has wreaked havoc on Hoffman and Sells’ plans for the property.   Surprisingly, both men say they had no knowledge about Frank Lloyd Wright and his stature, and hence had no clue about the significance of the house.  “If [the house] becomes a landmark, we’re out of business,” said Sells.[3]  He and Hoffman planned to fight the landmark designation.  Even if they are unsuccessful and landmark designation status is accorded to the house, however, under Arizona law the designation is only good for three years.

The city sought to find another buyer for the home; that buyer would have to pay the current asking price of $2.379 million.  According to a recent article, such a buyer has been found.   However, the city council representative for Arcadia wants to be sure to discuss the sale with the buyer, noting that the council doesn’t “want to be in a position of dictating what should happen to the property.” [4]

This situation is reminiscent of regulatory takings cases like Lucas or Penn Central where government regulations interfere with a property owners’ plans for their property.  It is interesting to discuss the situation in terms of the considerations surrounding takings.  After all, what is the public interest in preserving a Wright house that would justify public control of the disposition of the house?   And although Hoffman and Sells want to demolish the house, does the public interest change if the new buyer wants to modify the house by painting or remodeling, and what is the basis for that public control?


[1]  Fernando Santos, “Buyers of a Wright Home in Phoenix Reconsider a Deal ‘Too Good to Be True,” New York Times, Oct. 25, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/26/us/phoenix-buyers-of-a-frank-lloyd-wright-home-reconsider.html?_r=0

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Op cit., “A New Buyer Appears for a Threatened Wright House,” New York Times, Nov. 1, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/02/us/a-new-buyer-appears-for-a-threatened-wright-house.html.

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