Efforts to save the historic Frank Lloyd Wright Building in downtown Whitefish came to an abrupt end late Wednesday, and crews demolished the brick building designed by the famous architect overnight.
Building owner Mick Ruis had set a Jan. 10 deadline for preservation groups to raise $1.7 million in cash to buy the building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Local business leaders, the Montana Preservation Alliance and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy all were working toward a deal that would have spared the building.
The Conservancy issued a press release late Wednesday, saying a buyer to put up the full $1.7 million cash required by the owner could not be found by the deadline.
“Attempts to negotiate a more reasonable deal continued until 4:15 p.m. Central Time, but were not successful,” the Chicago-based Conservancy said.
It is the first viable Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building to be lost in more than 40 years.
On Monday, Jan. 8, a full-price offer to purchase the building was submitted to Whitefish attorney Ryan Purdy, the legal counsel for Ruis. The offer was submitted by 341 Central LLC, which was formed by the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy specifically for the purpose of saving the building from demolition. The offer provided for a substantial refundable deposit paid directly to the owner with 60 days to close on the full $1.7 million asking price, and the ability to conduct inspections on the property, which had already undergone an undetermined amount of interior demolition work, the Conservancy said.
On Tuesday morning, Ruis replied to the offer through Purdy with a demand for a 50 percent greater deposit that would be entirely nonrefundable and must paid by 5 p.m. Mountain Time on the very same day. Further terms stated that 341 Central LLC would have until only Jan. 22 to pay the remaining $1.7 million purchase price, and there would be no reasonable time frame for buyer inspections on the building.
“Fencing was installed around the building and crews chopped down surrounding trees, prompting concerns that, without inspections, a potential buyer may not know how much of the interior had already been removed,” the Conservancy press release stated. “As negotiations continued under these increasingly unorthodox terms, [the Conservancy] and its allies attempted to raise the full nonrefundable deposit amount within the near-impossible time frame set.
“With public support for preserving the building growing, evidenced by numerous phone calls and emails from concerned citizens, on Wednesday afternoon the Conservancy offered to submit a substantial portion of the nonrefundable deposit by the close of business on Jan. 10, and requested one more week to allow the Conservancy to launch a crowd-funding campaign to raise the full deposit amount requested on Jan. 9. This offer was rejected, as was a subsequent request to salvage architectural elements of the building prior to or during the demolition process.
“The board of directors of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy agreed the owner’s proposals provided no realistic path to acquiring the building, short of an investor willing to put down $1.7 million cash without reasonable time to complete their own due diligence on the property,” said Barbara Gordon, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. “We certainly attempted to make that happen alongside many other options we explored in the incredibly brief window of time we were given to find a new solution. Complex commercial real estate transactions don’t happen overnight, and we believe a realistic offer was submitted to the owner by his deadline that would allow the organizations working to save this building to continue to fully finance its purchase.
“We in the preservation community are all incredibly disappointed by this outcome, to say the least,” Gordon added.
For more than a year preservation organizations including the Montana Preservation Alliance and the Conservancy have been working to put a deal in place. The owner’s plans to demolish the building first surfaced in November 2016.
“Through the extraordinary efforts of a local businessman, a buyer had been found to purchase the building, but that buyer needed to close another deal before they would have the capital to complete the purchase,” the Conservancy press release pointed out.
“It was communicated to all of us through our local contact working to broker the deal that the developer would not move to demolish the building until late 2018, by which time we expected the intended buyer to have their financing and complete the purchase,” Gordon said. “None of us are aware of why the owner changed his mind and moved up his demolition plans. It left us all scrambling to find a new cash buyer at the last minute. When none could be found, we made several appeals to the owner for more time to mobilize the many small donors from the public who contacted us, wishing to contribute whatever they could toward saving the building, but he would not grant any more time.”
The Conservancy and its local allies first learned on Jan. 3 that preparations for demolition on the building had begun. The next day Purdy communicated that the owner would postpone demolition if a cash buyer came forward with $1.7 million by Jan. 10.
National media interest, direct engagement with a variety of potential cash buyers, and pleas to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, and U.S. Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines followed, but no buyer or consortium could be assembled to submit the full $1.7 million cash in the very narrow window of time with no inspections.
“A lot of people think a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as the Lockridge Medical Clinic was, or a private house that isn’t protected by a preservation easement or local landmark designation, can’t be demolished, but that is not the case,” Gordon said. “Most preservation work happens on the local level. The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy encourages concerned citizens to advocate for strong local preservation protections in their respective communities.”
Ruis, who has completed a number of development projects in Columbia Falls, 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.
The brick building 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 was used by the Morrison and Frampton law offices most recently. When Sean Frampton and Sharon Morrison ended their law partnership of 15 years at the end of 2016 they sold the building to Ruis as part of closing out their business dealings.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.