Historic building may be headed toward demolition

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A sign for the Frank Lloyd Wright Building in Whitefish sits near the entryway to the historic building on Wednesday. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

For the first time in well over four decades, a historic building designed by world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright may be demolished — and it’s located in downtown Whitefish.

Attempts to save the iconic building fell short, according to an anonymous businessman who tried unsuccessfully to put together various purchase deals with potential buyers who would have been committed to preserving the building.

Bill Goldberg of Compass Construction told the Whitefish Pilot on Wednesday that asbestos removal work is underway inside the building on Central Avenue, but did not elaborate on the fate of the building.

However, Montana Preservation Alliance Executive Director Chere Jiusto told the Inter Lake she talked with Whitefish attorney Ryan Purdy, the legal counsel for developer and building owner Mick Ruis, and Purdy confirmed the asbestos abatement is in preparation for the demolition of the building.

John Waters, preservation program manager for the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, said if demolition is planned, it is heart-breaking for the Conservancy, which serves as a first line of defense against demolition or neglect of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings.

“This would be the first time in over 40 years that a viable building [would be] torn down,” Waters said. “It’s a big deal. The last one, in terms of a viable, perfectly usable building [to be demolished] was in 1972.

“We would be very disappointed, to put it mildly,” he added.

The Chicago-based Conservancy worked with the unnamed private party on efforts to put together a purchase deal.

Ruis, who has developed numerous commercial projects in Columbia Falls in recent years, purchased the Frank Lloyd Wright Building at 341 Central Ave. in 2016. His initial plan, reviewed by the Whitefish Architectural Review Committee through a pre-application submitted in November 2016, was to build a three-story mixed-use commercial facility. It’s unclear, however, if that’s still his intention for the property.

Neither Ruis nor his attorney returned phone calls to the Daily Inter Lake.

Following a public outcry from preservationists who want to see the building preserved, Ruis told the Whitefish Pilot in late 2016 he would put the building up for sale. He wasn’t aware of who Frank Lloyd Wright was when he purchased the building, he told the Pilot.

Ruis listed the building for sale for $1.6 million, the same price for which he bought it.

Jiusto said she still holds out hope that historic preservation organizations could put together an 11th-hour deal to save the building.

“We acknowledge that Mr. Ruis took a step back in his plans to take the building down, and it was very much appreciated,” she said. “We believe there are people who would step forward to buy the building and hope very much to be able to talk” with Ruis.

Jiusto said Purdy indicated he would share her wish to further communicate with Ruis.

“We really do hope he would grant us a bit more time and have a conversation about what options might be satisfactory,” she said. “It is an important building and it may be a small building tucked away in Whitefish, Montana ... but it’s really the last significant [Wright] building in Montana.”

A building permit was issued some time ago for the project, but hasn’t been picked up yet at the Whitefish Planning and Building Department, Planning Director David Taylor said.

The city does not require a demolition permit and has no regulations to prohibit a historic building from being removed. The Whitefish Frank Lloyd Wright Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.

It was designed by Wright as a medical clinic, but Wright died in 1959 before the 5,000-square-foot Lockridge Medical Clinic was completed. The clinic became First State Bank in 1964 and was divided into professional offices when the bank moved in 1980.

The building most recently was used by the Morrison and Frampton law offices, which relocated to a new building last year. Sean Frampton and Sharon Morrison owned the Frank Lloyd Wright Building, and when they ended their law partnership of 15 years at the end of 2016 they sold the building to Ruis as part of closing out their partnership.

Bob McConnell, a tenant in the Frank Lloyd Wright Building for many years, said he dearly would love to see the building preserved.

“This is part of the heritage of Whitefish,” he said.

McConnell is a member of First Presbyterian Church, another historic building next door to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building. He said one of his concerns is losing the natural lighting for the church’s stained-glass windows if a multi-story building is erected next to the church.

Taylor said Ruis’ initial plan was to preserve the Frank Lloyd Wright Building in a courtyard and surround it with new construction, but that the developer decided at some point it was economically not feasible to keep the building.

The only protection buildings and sites on the National Register have is if government money is involved. For example, the building could be spared if a federal block grant were used to raze a building. Conservancy officials say it’s a thin line of protection for historic buildings.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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