Heroic Architecture Fanatic Buys Frank Lloyd Wright House for $1 — But Has Only Two Weeks to Save It

Heroic Architecture Fanatic Buys Frank Lloyd Wright House for $1 — But Has Only Two Weeks to Save It
A Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie School style home designed by Wright's associate, John Van Bergen.
(Courtesy urbanrealestate.com)

A dollar can't buy you much these days. But for Joseph Catrambone, a contractor, real estate manager, and self-proclaimed architecture buff living in Oak Brook, Illinois, one dollar secured him a 594-square-foot historic Prairie Style cottage, churned out by Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio in its 1920 heydays. The only caveat: He has about two weeks to devise a plan and acquire the permits to dismantle and remove the building from its present location. "I wake up in the morning thinking how crazy I am," Catrambone told the Chicago Tribune. "It's exciting and crazy all at the same time."

Exciting, crazy, and heroic. Catrambone's plan to relocate the cottage from its original site has saved one of two endangered Frank Lloyd Wright-connected buildings in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette from imminent destruction. The cottage, which currently sits on 1320 Isabella Street, was designed by Austrian-born architect Rudolph Schindler, who was working in Wright's studio at the time, propagating the American architect's patented style before striking out on his own as a prominent modernist architect with an entire platform frame system attributed to his name (the Schindler Frame).

Meanwhile, adjacent to the Schindler cottage is another relic of Wright's influence: a John Van Bergen-designed house that touts the horizontal lines, sunlit rooms, overhanging eaves, and earthy hues pioneered by Wright with his Prairie Style architecture. Though both 1318 and 1320 Isabella Street are stamped with elegant hallmarks of Wright's tutelage, they garner far less attention than, say, the Robie House or Fallingwater. Not surprisingly, when Schaumburg-based developer George Hausen signed a contract to purchase both properties early this year, he had no idea he was treading on hallowed ground.

As soon as talks of demolition began, alarm bells went off. Preservationists swiftly entered the scene, tracing the two buildings back to Schindler, Van Bergen, and Wright and meticulously unearthing original blueprints that would qualify the works as Wright creations. While any Wright association is usually enough to earn a reprieve for buildings facing ruin, Wilmette, unlike Chicago, does not have a landmark ordinance. Like the recently razed Palos Verdes beach house built by Lloyd Wright, Wright’s son, the Isabella Street houses are sitting on prime real estate for aspiring McMansion owners.

Fending off the stereotype of the big, bad developer, Hausen opened the door to the Chicago-based Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. Together, they arrived at an agreement, which placed the Van Bergen-designed house on the market for four months starting on May 1 at a listing of $599,000. The Conservancy is taking careful measures to monitor potential buyers, determined to find a future owner who will preserve the existing residence.

Meanwhile, the Schindler cottage has fallen into the hands of Catrambone, one of a few architecture enthusiasts who jumped at the chance to inherit the impressive artifact. The ceremonious one-dollar purchase fee hides a host of expenses and headaches the new owner now faces: Catrambone must remove each individual wall panel and roof sheath — an estimated $7,000 endeavor — carefully number and organize them, and then store them in pieces until he can embark on the estimated $40,000 reconstruction project in the neighboring suburb of Wauconda.

The venture brings to mind the recent relocation of the Lieb House, a quintissentially postmodern beachside box designed by Robert Venturi and his firm in 1969. Fifty years after its completion, developers began salivating over the building’s original site in Barnegat Light, New Jersey, and it was almost too easy for the community to wish away Venturi’s kitschy construction. But architecture fans dashed onto the scene, dodging the wrecking ball by sending the Lieb House — by boat, no less — to its present safe haven in Glen Cove, New York. The move attracted extensive media coverage and inspired a 2010 documentary entitled "Saving Lieb House."

If all goes according to plan, the Schindler cottage will be reconstructed on Catrambone’s private property by next summer. The proud new owner foresees the one-bedroom cottage serving as a multipurpose room for his family. "The only way you can understand Prairie School architecture is to stay in it," he told the Chicago Tribune. Catrambone hopes to share this understanding as well, with tentative plans to rent out the cottage to equally passionate Wright aficionados. In instances such as these, it seems abundantly clear that architecture, much like a painted canvas or a precious sculpture, can slip from the shadow of its maker and truly take on a life of its own.