Fate of Frank Lloyd Wright building still undecided

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Patrick Cote/Daily Inter Lake Frank Lloyd Wright building in Whitefish. Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012 in Whitefish, Montana.

Plans to redevelop the commercial property where the historic Frank Lloyd Wright building is located in downtown Whitefish are still moving forward, but the building owner also is exploring whether the 1958 masonry building can be moved.

“We’re exploring all options. There’s no definitive one way versus the other,” said Bill Goldberg, owner of Compass Construction and the hired contractor for a proposed three-story, mixed-use commercial building that would replace the Frank Lloyd Wright building at 341 Central Ave.

Columbia Falls developer Mick Ruis recently paid $1.6 million to purchase the Frank Lloyd Wright Building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, from Sharon Morrison and Sean Frampton. The building has been used for many years for their law offices and other professional office space.

When it became public knowledge that Ruis intended to demolish the historic building, community leaders decried the loss of a landmark of historical significance.

In mid-November Ruis told the Whitefish Pilot he was dropping plans to demolish the building and intended to put the property up for sale. He said he was surprised by the outcry and didn’t want “hard feelings” from the community.

However, Goldberg and architect Aaron Wallace of Montana Creative attended a Dec. 6 meeting of Whitefish’s Architectural Review Committee, and told the committee they have been instructed to move ahead with the permitting process for a new commercial building on that six-lot site.

The committee discussed the design plans and tabled the project, pending concerns about the mass of the three-story building and the materials proposed for construction, said Wendy Compton-Ring, a senior planner with the Whitefish Planning Department. One committee member said he is concerned about the scale of the building overwhelming the adjacent First Presbyterian Church, also a historic structure in downtown Whitefish.

Goldberg said he’s waiting on bids from a couple of companies about the possibility of relocating the Frank Lloyd Wright building.

“We’re in the process of looking whether we can move the building,” Goldberg said. “We’re trying to find a company that has the experience in moving masonry buildings.”

Even though the proposed project is winding its way through the city’s approval process, Goldberg said all options are on the table.

“We honestly don’t have a direction,” he said. “We’re in constant communication with Mick. We’re updating him weekly what we’re up against so he can make an informed decision.”

MEANWHILE, historic preservationists are pushing to save the historic building.

Chere Jiusto, executive director of the Montana Preservation Alliance, attended the recent Architectural Review Committee meeting and handed out information about how Whitefish could approach historic preservation and steps the city could take to assure historic building preservation, ranging from encouragement to regulations.

“We are in the process of trying to find a good buyer for this property,” Jiusto told the Inter Lake on Thursday, adding that her nonprofit organization has been in touch with the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy.

The Conservancy, a national nonprofit that strives to preserve the work of the late renowned architect, has corresponded with Ruis’ development representative but has not gotten a reply yet, Jiusto said.

She spoke with Goldberg and Wallace at the Architectural Review Committee meeting and said she was pleased to learn Ruis is considering a number of options for the property. Moving the Frank Lloyd Wright building would be difficult with the masonry construction, she acknowledged, “but it does happen.”

“Not all developers slow down when they say they care about a building. Mick Ruis did hear what people had to say and we really appreciate that,” Jiusto said. “Even the smallest Frank Lloyd Wright building is still a treasure. It’s an asset.”

The Frank Lloyd Wright building was designed by Wright in 1958 as a medical clinic, but Wright died in 1959 before the 5,000-square-foot Lockridge Medical Clinic was finished. The clinic became First State Bank in 1964 and was divided into professional offices when the bank moved in 1980. The Morrisons and Framptons bought the building in 2002.

The city has no regulations to prohibit the building from being removed. The Planning Department contacted state preservation officials and learned that “just because something is listed on the historic registry, that does not protect it from demolition,” Planning Director David Taylor recently told the Inter Lake.

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

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