Plans are underway to demolish the historic Frank Lloyd Wright Building in downtown Whitefish and replace it with a three-story mixed-use commercial facility, but a push to save the iconic building is gathering steam.
Columbia Falls developer Mick Ruis recently purchased 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.
Frampton said he and Morrison have agreed to end their law partnership of 15 years at the end of the year. They were also partners in the ownership of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building and decided to sell the building as part of bringing that partnership to a close.
The law firm, now Frampton & Purdy, will move its staff to a new facility under construction near the intersection of Baker Avenue and 19th Street.
On Nov. 1 the Whitefish Architectural Review Committee reviewed a pre-application for Ruis' proposed commercial building and looked at architectural renderings for the project. Most of Ruis' development projects have been centered in Columbia Falls, where he recently built the Cedar Creek Lodge.
Architect Aaron Wallace of Montana Creative said the new building to replace the Frank Lloyd Wright Building includes retail space on the first floor, four business offices on the second floor and four residential dwelling units on a third floor that would be set back as required by city zoning code.
The new building would span the northern two lots of the six-lot site at 341 Central Ave., where an existing parking lot is located.
“We anticipate the rest of the lots would be developed,” Wallace said, adding that the southern lots likely would be used for temporary parking until they're built out.
Former City Council member Turner Askew said he attended the recent Architectural Review Committee meeting out of concern for the historic building that sits just south of First Presbyterian Church, of which he is a member.
“It didn't sound like the committee was excited about the new building, but they couldn't think of any reason to turn [the project] down, other than it's a shame to tear down a Frank Lloyd Wright building,” Askew said.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Building in Whitefish was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd 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.
George Gardner of Whitefish, a museum planning consultant and admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright's work, said he strongly believes the building should be saved.
“It's like tearing down the Statue of Liberty,” Gardner said. “It would be a disaster. It's the only famous thing we have in town.”
Word of the building's forthcoming demise has already reached the Chicago-based Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, a national nonprofit that strives to preserves the work of the late architect.
“Our mission is to make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen,” Conservancy board member Tim Quigley said Tuesday. “Our mission is to look after these buildings and the future of these buildings.”
The Conservancy works with local groups and preservation alliances to save Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. Many cities have local landmark commissions, but there's no such entity in Flathead County, Quigley said.
“I'm hoping we can get a group of local people who are really concerned to express their concern,” he said. “But if the developer is bent on knocking it down, ultimately there is nothing that can be done.”
Whitefish Planning Director David Taylor said the developer's initial plan for the Frank Lloyd Wright Building was to preserve it in a courtyard and surround it with new construction.
However, they apparently decided that was economically unfeasible and now need to remove it,” Taylor said.
Ruis could not be reached for comment.
The city has no regulations to prohibit the building from being removed. The Planning Office contacted state preservation officials and learned that “just because something is listed on the historic registry, that does not protect it from demolition,” Taylor said.
Quigley said the only protection buildings and sites on the National Register have is if federal money is involved. For example, the building could be spared if a federal block grant were being used to raze the building for redevelopment, or if buildings were in the way for a federal highway project.
“It's a thin line of protection,” Quigley said.
Whitefish's Frank Lloyd Wright Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Aug. 14, 2012. It is one of three remaining Wright buildings in Montana; the other two are cottages in the Bitterroot Valley that were part of Wright's first planned community in 1909.
Bob McConnell, an independent contractor for the investment firm E.K. Riley, has been a tenant in the Frank Lloyd Wright Building in Whitefish since 2002. He's still considering his relocation options if the building is demolished; one option is to move to Frampton & Purdy's new building.
McConnell said he would like to see the historic building preserved.
“This is part of the heritage of Whitefish,” he said. “I have been amazed at the number of people who come to Whitefish because it's here. It is a destination.”
McConnell, who belongs to First Presbyterian Church — another historic Whitefish icon — said the church “will sorely miss the ability” to use the parking lot that abuts the south side of the church. He added that there are many local residents who “would dearly love to find a way to purchase [the building] from the current developer before he tears it down.”
Quigley said an effort to spare the historic building has to start at the local level. He encouraged local officials to consider creating landmark laws for future preservation efforts.
“Our hope is to get a group of concerned citizens with some political clout who can make some waves and try to dissuade the owners from taking this route,” he said.
For more information about the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, go to www.savewright.org.