Edifice Complex: Architecture Leaps From Commodity to Collectible

The Edward Durell Stone House in Darien, Connecticut.
(Courtesy Halstead Property CT LLC)

A highly unusual panel discussion was held in New York last winter to analyze the Museum of Modern Art’s decision to raze the former home of the critically revered American Folk Art Museum building, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, to make way for a MoMA expansion. At the much buzzed-about meeting, organized by the Architectural League of New York, the Municipal Art Society, and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, MoMA director Glenn Lowry made his position clear. “Architecture is different from painting and sculpture,” he reportedly told the captivated audience. “We don’t collect buildings and we don’t collect them for a reason.”

Lowry’s remarks came in stark contrast to a decision announced by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, just weeks earlier. In response to the danger the Millstone River’s continually breached banks posed to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman Wilson House in Millstone, New Jersey, an exceptional 1954 example of the architect’s important Usonian houses, the museum acquired the property for an undisclosed sum with the intention of disassembling and shipping its constituent parts to be rebuilt and displayed on the museum’s 120-acre campus in the Ozark Mountains. The announcement, which emphasized museum founder Alice Walton’s mission to preserve and honor American art in all its forms, drew praise from Chicago’s Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, which commended the museum for its dedication to architectural stewardship.

The Bachman Wilson House’s previous owners, architects Lawrence and Sharon Tarantino, understood that relocating the building was essential to its ultimate preservation—the overflowing river near the property had already caused damage to the wood structure. After placing the home for sale on the open real estate market and failing to draw a preservation-minded buyer, the Tarantinos approached Crystal Bridges. Even though the museum had never planned to start an architecture collection, “it was an opportunity to save a very important, historic architectural statement,” explains Rod Bigelow, executive director of Crystal Bridges. “How could we resist?”

Although this particular sale was complicated by the home’s condition, which drove potential competing buyers away from the property, the Crystal Bridges acquisition reflects an increasingly popular attitude toward architecturally significant homes among private collectors. Such buyers now see that historic homes can be collected, preserved, and appreciated much like fine art.

As more art collectors set their sights on major works of 20th-century architecture, auctioneers have followed suit. Important homes designed by prestige architects are now occasionally sold by auction houses better known for their fine art and high-design sales, such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Wright of Chicago and New York. These architectural lots are strikingly different from the foreclosed houses put up for auction at bargain prices, notes Richard Wright, founder and president of Wright.

“I think that auction houses, my own included, are very good at celebrating the historical qualities and the historical value of these properties and helping to generate, in some cases, international interest for the bidding,” says Wright. Although the higher fees associated with auctions mean this route is viable only for the most significant properties, “elevating them into the art market,” explains Wright, sends a signal “that there are signature works of architecture that should trade beyond their local value.” Moreover, the higher profile of an auction sale draws a wider audience—and preservation-minded buyers. Wright’s own experience selling Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #21, one of the architect’s famed Minimalist steel-and-glass boxes perfectly perched in the hills overlooking the Los Angeles city vista, offers a case in point. Preserved by the owner and revered in the public eye, the home and all its contents sold to a South Korean art collector in December 2008 for $3,185,600, the second-highest price ever achieved for a work of modernist architecture at auction.

The Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe’s singular all-glass residence, achieved the record high price for a work of architecture at auction in December 2003. Designed as a weekend retreat for Edith Farnsworth and finished in 1951, the building, near Plano, Illinois, was painstakingly restored by then owner and noted architecture collector Peter Palumbo. The structure sold for $7.5 million at a 20th- century design sale at Sotheby’s New York, surpassing its preauction estimate of $4.5 million to $6 million due to its preeminent role in the history of modern architecture, its fine condition, and the unorthodox approach Sotheby’s took to selling the house.

“That was, in fact, a joint effort between Sotheby’s International Realty and Sotheby’s auction house, and was unusual because generally, real estate is sold by the real-estate division,” explains J. Roger Erickson, senior global real estate adviser and associate broker at Sotheby’s International Realty. Speculation that a collector planned to purchase the home and move it to another state drove the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois to launch a campaign to raise funds for its purchase. The joint efforts of the Sotheby’s auction and real estate divisions elevated the sale’s public profile, which in turn fueled contributions that ensured the fund-raiser’s success. The preservationist team beat a competing bidder for the property, turning Farnsworth House into one of the most beloved house-museums in North America.

The May 2008 sale of Richard Neutra’s 1946 Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs, however, illustrates the potential pitfalls of selling a historic residence at auction. Preservationist couple Beth and Brent Harris acquired the home in 1993 for $1.5 million after it had been alternately unoccupied and poorly renovated by previous owners. The Harrises invested a rumored seven figures in period-accurate renovations, hiring noted Santa Monica firm Marmol Radziner to source materials from Neutra’s original suppliers, and even mine stone from the same Utah quarry from which the original chimney and walls had come. The couple put the home up for sale shortly after they divorced. The twist? The house was entered in a banner sale of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, the first time a building was included in such a high-profile art context. It sold for $16.8 million—more than three times the asking price of comparable Palm Springs properties at the time—but the deal failed to clear escrow for reasons that were never made public. Although the Kaufmann House later sold via a real estate broker for $15 million to a buyer who is dedicated to preserving it, the house’s failure at auction serves as a reminder that historic homes are not merely art objects.

The expected sale of a 1953 Edward Durrell Stone-designed house in Darien, Connecticut, currently on the market for$1.6million, is mired in concerns about the structure’s future. By today’s standards the 2,334-square-foot house is small for its 1.1-acre plot of land; midcentury modernist architects like Stone often placed smaller-scale homes on large lots to emphasize the relationship between house and nature. Homes on the real estate market have an extremely limited buyer base if they come with preservation clauses, and there are no stipulations in place to ensure that the Stone residence won’t be disfigured by new owners—or even razed. The destruction of lesser-known historic properties has become increasingly commonplace when houses are acquired by owners who fail to appreciate a building’s full historic significance. Indeed, the Stone home in Darien may face the same fate if a conscientious steward doesn’t come forward to purchase it. The Architects’ Newspaper reported in late 2013 that a real estate developer has designs on the property for the purpose of building a neocolonial pastiche on its lush grounds.

Homes classified as historic landmarks typically face less of a threat. Frank Lloyd Wright’s William Winslow House in River Forest, Illinois—his first independent commission, circa 1893—has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1970 and is up for sale for the first time since 1955. Listed in December 2013 for $2.4 million, the 5,000-square-foot edifice features built-in dining room benches, a wide foyer that testifies to Wright’s early experimentation with horizontality, and preservation clauses that require an owner to seek official approval from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation before making changes. Those requirements do not tend to bother the kind of buyer who intends to care for the residence, explains Kathy Coumou, a senior vice president at Christie’s International Realty. “People love the story behind a historic home and love to own a piece of that narrative,” she explains.

That’s not to say there aren’t unique concerns on top of the common challenges that come with purchasing any piece of real estate. “The people who are going to buy historically significant homes want to take care of the residence and preserve it in a historic way,” says Wright. “But, of course, there are all the pedestrian concerns: What are the real estate taxes? What are the local zoning laws?” Fine art collectors need not seek approval from municipal bureaucrats to cultivate their properties. But the difficulties—and the joys—of purchasing and owning historic architecture often stem from the essentially public quality of all architecture. Ultimately, dedicated preservationists work both for themselves and for the larger community. Conscientious proprietors guard architecture that both belongs to the owner and exists within the cultural patrimony.

Aby Rosen, cofounder and principal of RFR Holding in New York, knows firsthand the pleasures and pitfalls of collecting historic buildings. The prolific real estate developer owns some of the most important pieces of 20th-century architecture in the United States, including New York’s 1958 Seagram Building, designed by the two most important names in postwar architecture, Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. At the Midtown Manhattan landmark, Rosen is attempting to effect a change many observers believe is too extensive: the removal of Picasso’s painted curtain Le Tricorne, 1919, from the first-floor Four Seasons restaurant. The artwork, many feel, is part of the building’s historic interior—it has hung there since the restaurant opened in 1959—and a judge temporarily barred Rosen’s company from relocating the tapestry in early February. With the entire building listed as a historic landmark, there’s little RFR can do for now to overturn the judgment. Rosen, however, remains dedicated to preserving historic architecture as he sees fit. “People want to rip things down and rebuild,” explains the developer, “but the connoisseur is the one who wants to take what’s there and wants to find a way to make it livable in the 21st century.” It’s an attitude with which MoMA’s Lowry would likely agree. Whether stemming from the standpoint of a collector-connoisseur or a preservationist, such opportunities—and purchases— are on the rise.

Rosen, also a Durrell Stone devotee, purchased Stone’s 1938 A. Conger Goodyear House in Old Westbury, New York, for $3.4 million in 2011 and gave it a thorough restoration. Working with Steven Harris Architects and consulting with the World Monuments Fund, Rosen sought to “keep the spirit of the property alive,” he says, by researching and reviving the residence’s history. “I modernized the whole interior and kept all the original details and all the configurations. I changed a couple things around to make it more efficient on the inside, but I kept the structure and the integrity of the house.” Stewardship, Rosen believes, is a matter of preserving a property’s essential distinctiveness.

A version of this article appears in the May 2014 issue of Art+Auction magazine.