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Wright House, Wrong Neighborhood

Despite its status as a rare example of Frank Lloyd Wright's mass-production concept, the Wynant House in Gary is slowly getting closer to total collapse.

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Almost no one knew that the sagging Prairie-style house in Gary was anything special until Christopher Meyers, then a 25-year-old historic-preservation student, drove by it in 1994 while hunting for a thesis topic. The single-family home, which had been abandoned for 30 years, was a shambles, yet despite the peeling stucco Meyers detected masterful touches. "When you see a Picasso you know it's a Picasso," he says. "Same with Monet, same with Wright." He took his hunch to his professors at the School of the Art Institute, then to historians at Taliesin West. Within a few months he had paperwork confirming that the collapsing relic at 600 Fillmore Street was a genuine Frank Lloyd Wright house.

Meyers's discovery was written up in the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times, and an SAIC publication ran a fawning piece. All of which made him the toast--and envy--of his fellow graduate students and established preservationists.

But then excitement ran up against reality. Conservative estimates of restoration costs came in around $300,000, and no one knew of anyone who would want to sink that kind of cash into a house located in what was at the time the murder capital of the country.

Eight years after his discovery Meyers says he hasn't quite given up on saving the building, but he describes himself as "a turnip that's been bled dry." Then he adds, "I don't know if this house has been bled dry too. All I know is that it's in a very dangerous, precarious position."

Meyers, a northwest Indiana native, left SAIC in 1996, then became a preservation consultant in Gary, first for the city and later for nonprofit groups. A week rarely goes by when he doesn't at least drive past the house, a prefabricated Wright design that was built in 1916 for Wilbur Wynant, the president of the Gary National Life Insurance company.

On a recent rainy Sunday, Meyers spent a good ten minutes wrestling with a rusty padlock on the chain-link fence that's surrounded the house since the spring of 2000. When his key wouldn't open the lock he found an opening in the fence and slid through. He walked past a few beer bottles lying in the calf-high grass and jiggled a key in the back door until it swung open.

The first floor was dark because the windows had been boarded up, making the sound of dripping water more obvious. A temporary roof covers only part of the house. One section it doesn't protect is the maid's room, which is halfway up a makeshift staircase to the second floor and is completely rotted. There's also plenty of residue from a fire started by crack addicts who squatted in the house in the early 90s.

Upstairs the walls that once separated the three bedrooms are gone, but the signature windows--uncovered and shattered in spots--let in some light. The leaking water has undermined the foundation, and now the house slopes six inches. Walking the length of what was once the master bedroom, Meyers said, "I feel like I'm in a fun house. See? Everything is tilting."

Wright's Wynant house dates from a period in the architect's career that Meyers describes as a soap opera and others call "oddly inspired." Wright had just left his wife and six children for "Mamah" Cheney, the wife of a client, and his relationship with his proteges at the Oak Park studio had frayed. Many had left to seek fortune in places such as Gary, which had incorporated in 1906 and, according to Meyers, "was like a frontier land--just being developed like crazy."

Touted as "America's Magic Industrial City," Gary needed hundreds of new houses for workers and managers from the huge new steel mills, and ambitious architects were eager to build them. Seeing Prairie School competitors such as George and Arthur Dean win contracts to design much of the steelworkers' housing, Wright seized on an offer from Ingwald Moe, a friend and prominent contractor who was helping to settle Gary and asked Wright to design his house. It was a large commission at 669 Van Buren Street, and Wright drew up the plans and started supervising the construction. Then he ditched the house in favor of Europe with Cheney. "So the people in charge of the Oak Park studio, basically Marion Mahony, oversaw completion of the Moe house, and Walter Burley Griffin did the landscaping," says Meyers. "And then those two ran off to Australia. It was an interesting period. It's like One Life to Live, it's that dramatic."

When Wright came back from Europe his wife still wouldn't give him a divorce. He threw himself into work at Midway Gardens--a huge dining, music, and amusement complex on Chicago's south side that would be demolished during prohibition--and moved with Cheney to Taliesin, his new spread in southern Wisconsin. One day shortly after they'd settled in, he was away working and a crazed servant set the house on fire, killing Cheney and her children. He was devastated.

When Wright and Cheney had traveled through Europe he'd paid close attention to avant-garde architects and their simple, rectilinear designs, which influenced the prefabricated homes he began planning after he returned. Few people know about these experiments, says Prairie School historian Wil Hasbrouck, who was one of the first to recognize the Wynant house as Wright's. "All of his life Wright tried to develop an inexpensive house for the common man," he says. "He did a lot more tiny houses than he did big ones--just the big ones get all the attention."

That has started to change. The Chicago Architecture Foundation hosted its first lunchtime lecture on Wright's prefab designs in January 2001. "At Taliesen West there's more than a thousand drawings of his precut plans--some are practically scrawled on the back of napkins," says Sam Guard, the contractor and preservation specialist who delivered the talk. "These houses are the last great discovery that there will be on Frank Lloyd Wright, and there's more out there that haven't been found. They may have been so heavily modified from the original that they're unrecognizable, but they're out there."

Wright's prefab homes, made of sturdy cypress and covered in stucco, featured distinctive Prairie School elements such as overhanging eaves, casement windows, and freestanding fireplaces. Wright called them ASB houses, for "American System-Built," and invited Milwaukee builder Arthur Richards to mass-produce them. Before becoming famous as a writer of fiction, Sherwood Anderson was an advertising copywriter, and he described the ASB cottages, town homes, and multifamily flats as "an expression of national spirit...fresh, buoyant, vital." Wright's name was in the early ads, but some later ones substituted a "nationally prominent architect." Guard explains, "This was a guy who'd notoriously gallivanted around Europe for immoral purposes. His name was poison, and scandals were bad for business in those days." But Wilbur Wynant wanted a new style of house, and he hired Ingwald Moe to build one of Wright's ASB designs.

Consumer demand remained steady, though America's entry into World War I would soon cause a shortage in lumber and other raw materials. But by then Wright had shelved his plan to revolutionize housing for the masses--the biggest commission of his career had taken him to Tokyo to build the Imperial Hotel. Mahony and Griffin, by then married, were still in Australia, supervising work on their design of Canberra, and Wright didn't want to delegate oversight of the ASB homes to anyone else. Only two to three dozen were ever completed.

At two stories and 1,800 square feet, the Wynant house is model D101. Completed for about $9,000, it's the only one of its kind ever built and one of only around 16 ASB homes known to be standing; that it survived is remarkable given that building-code enforcement in Gary is typically done with a wrecking ball. But even after Meyers found it not many people stopped by. "I think it's been handicapped by Gary's reputation as not really a vacation mecca," he says.

Gary had gone downhill along with the steel industry, and a few months after Meyers's discovery, Scott King was elected mayor largely because he promised to level every abandoned structure in the city. He pushed for a Gary renaissance and has since managed to attract a new sports arena, casinos, and the Miss USA pageant, though he hasn't shown much interest in the Wynant house.

In 1996 Sara-Ann Briggs, then the director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in Chicago, testified about the house's potential as a tourist draw before the Chicago Commission on Landmarks. Indiana has only seven or eight Wright homes, so Gary's chances of getting the house on the National Register of Historic Places--and getting federal money to restore it--looked good.

No one was sure how a local woman, Michelle Jones, had come to own the Wynant house, though it, like many of Gary's abandoned properties, may have been deeded to her as part of another deal. In 1996, not long after Meyers's discovery made news, Dan Dobrowolski, a resort owner from Chicago, bought it from Jones for $500. "Our intentions were just to make sure the building was saved," says Dobrowolski, who spent a few thousand more trying to drum up interest in it as a luxury rental property. But the house was deteriorating badly, and he eventually sold it to the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, which announced that it would start repairs and sell the house to someone who would work full-time on restoring it. The foundation got hundreds of inquiries from potential buyers, but interest died away when people saw the location and learned how much repairs would cost.

By the time Evelyn Johnson and her daughter Wendes Jones surfaced as the saviors of the property in mid-1999, the Wynant house was close to collapsing. The year before, the two had started the American Heritage Home Trust, a company whose goal, according to Johnson, is "to identify and acquire houses that have architectural and historical significance." Johnson, who's 71, says she's been interested in architecture since she lived in a vintage apartment building in Washington, D.C., in the 80s and that she became a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1990. In the mid-90s, she says, she traveled through England with her daughter, staying in architecturally significant inns while seeing the countryside, and they came home intent on creating American counterparts. "That we could rent to tourists who are interested in cultural heritage," she says, "that is the mission."

A few months after they formed AHHT, Jones saw a magazine article about a Wright house for sale near Chicago. Johnson, a retired stockbroker, lived in Olympia, Washington; Jones, who works for a flooring manufacturer, lived in Martinez, Georgia. Neither had ever been to Gary before, but they flew in and soon persuaded Meyers and Indiana preservation officials that the Wynant house could be transformed into AHHT's first bed-and-breakfast. In February 2000 they bought the house from the Historic Landmarks Foundation for $27,000, under a contract that gave them two years to try.

The arrival of owners who seemed eager to get going on restoration excited Wright enthusiasts across the country, who sent letters of encouragement, along with donations. U.S. Steel had a fund-raiser. John Eifler signed on as the architect, Meyers as the project manager. A Hammond roofer, Pete Korellis, donated labor and truckloads of lumber, and Gary contractor Charles Prewitt offered his services. That fall, Korellis started work on the temporary roof, and Prewitt began cleaning out the debris.

Since then, little else has been done. "We sort of had a dry-up of income," Johnson explains. Apparently very few funds have come in since the summer of 2000.

Eifler says the house now seems like a "sinking ship," but he still thinks it can be saved. "If they got the money and we were allowed to finish some drawings and build it out, I think it would take about nine months," he says. "The goal is to make the exterior look good, then address the interior. One problem is that they're somewhat novices at fund-raising. And the people who give the money are usually responsible to someone else--they have to have something to show for it."

Meyers had helped secure many of the state grants and private donations, and he now asks where the money's gone. In 2000, the most recent year for which AHHT's tax records are available, the company took in $111,529. The return lists AHHT's expenses as $87,064, of which $27,000 went to buy the house and $9,175 for the roof; money also went to stabilization, cleanup, and board-up costs as well as architect and contractor fees and "compensation of officers." Johnson says, "We've used it for other projects, but not all for the house." She notes that there were administrative costs involved in getting their fledgling business off the ground and that some of the money went to cover the women's travel to Gary, hotel stays, and trips to look at other potential AHHT properties. "We are interested in seeing ones all over the country," she says. "Unfortunately, we haven't gotten any prepared yet. We just haven't found the right ones."

Included in the compensation costs was Jones's salary of $18,000 as AHHT's chief operations officer (Johnson took no salary). Johnson says Jones, who'd previously volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, traveled to Gary about five times in 2000, though she hasn't been back since last summer. She also says her daughter has been overwhelmed by the Wynant house. "She is working on it, even if she's not standing right there," she says. "We both work at everything. If I write a letter for a mass mailing she edits it."

Johnson hasn't been back to the house since last summer either. She went stumping then for funds but found few open wallets. "It's quite heartbreaking," she says. "But we've had this experience where people just do not understand the value of the house." And she thinks people's priorities have changed. "Since September 11 people are giving money to human services and things like that. I heard on NPR that there have been symphony orchestras that have had to fold. Sooner or later they'll be giving to the arts again." And she insists that when they do, she and Jones will make the restoration happen. "We would love to have the money--and I'm sure there's a lot of people who think we never will--but we are absolutely committed," she says. "Partly the problem, I know, is that we don't have a track record. But nobody else has the money or wants to do it. People who care about Gary, who made their money in Gary, moved out."

She goes on, "We really are sort of at a pause here, but sometime this summer we expect to do the leveling of the building." Steve Kennedy, chief of grants and administration for the Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology, says that $20,000 in state grant money is still available to make the house level, but AHHT has to come up with matching funds first. "I know they have a fair amount of travel costs," he says. "But the project can't move forward until they have money to pay their bills."

Meyers, who was paid $500 a month as the project manager, quit in November 2000 and says he's still owed money for work he did and for some of his expenses. "I think I may have been naive--I think I would have done anything to save that house," he says. "After all the hurdles I had to cross, I really felt the house had a future. The business plans they presented me with, I thought I could do it. But I got tired of the nepotism and the arrogance. I was no longer interested in working with two women who could basically care less if I had bread on my table."

Prewitt too saw the house as an incredible opportunity. He says that he hasn't done any real work on it in two years and that he too is still owed for work he did. Standing outside the house recently, he wove his fingers through the chain-link fence and said he'd be willing to volunteer if it meant he would work on a Wright house, especially with Eifler. "I can't do it all for free," he said. "But if the house goes back to Historic Landmarks or something like that I'd volunteer. I'd just like to see it get going again."

The two-year contract that Historic Landmarks signed with AHHT was up in February. It required the buyer to "raise the sum of $250,000 within 24 months of the date of closing" or the house would revert to the foundation. But the foundation hasn't moved to take it back. "We can pursue a course of action, but generally choose to err on the side of helping the group," says Todd Zeiger, head of Historic Landmarks's northwest office. "If there are folks who'd like to move forward faster, I'd love to hear from them. The Frank Lloyd Wright name can only go so far."

Asked if she'd be interested in selling the house, Johnson says, "We want to buy low and sell high if we sold it to someone who wanted to do it."

Recognition and respect for Wright's prefab work may have come too late to save the Wynant house, says Barbara Stodola, an architecture instructor at DePaul University who curated an exhibit of his work in Michigan City in 1998 that drew hundreds of Wright fans. "With all the stuff on Frank Lloyd Wright, here's a little niche that hasn't been explored," she says. "Maybe if it were in some other community. But in Gary, where there are so many needs, it's not been tops on anyone's list."

And so the house, which recent estimates say would cost over $500,000 to restore, continues to deteriorate. Meyers thinks it's stood this long only because Wright insisted on using cypress, which is less prone to rot than other lumber. Preservation specialist Sam Guard says, "I don't think I've ever seen attempted restoration on a building in worse condition." He isn't optimistic either. "I'd put the Wynant house on the list with Midway Gardens and the rest of the desecration of America's greatest architect."

Meyers still has a little hope. "It's time to relinquish it to someone who can actually save it," he says. "If somebody doesn't do something soon the house will just be considered a total loss."

For more on architecture in Gary see the Visitor's Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostani.

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