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Lost L.A.: Frank Lloyd Wright's Alice Millard House could be leaving town

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To the grim list of how L.A. houses might be "lost," add a new calamity: architectural outsourcing.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Alice Millard House, known as La Miniatura, is for sale, now on Labor Day markdown in Pasadena from $7,733,000 to $4,995,000. This paper reported last week that broker Crosby Doe has "an international art dealer with Japanese art-collector clients" looking to move the house to a place ominously identified as "elsewhere." Presumably this elsewhere is nowhere in Los Angeles County.

The immediate question is: Could this sale happen? Yes. Money, unchecked, trumps preservation.

The relevant question when cash wins all is: Are Mr. and Mrs. Art Collector getting a deal? Some background to consider before deciding:

Millard was an elegant, blue-haired, arts and crafts book dealer from outside Chicago, where she and her husband lived in a cozy board-and-batten house designed for them by Wright. Because of the success of their early collaboration, the couple hired the architect again to build in an undeveloped subdivision just west of Greene & Greene's Gamble House.

Wright advised Millard to purchase a hillside parcel shaded by eucalyptus. At the time, architects and landscape designers worked to integrate garden and house. Wright set La Miniatura into its ridge and terraced down to a ravine below the living and dining rooms. He organically bonded the house to its site by mixing sand from the hill into the construction concrete, creating a permanent structural flaw undermining the house's long-term stability. The outcome, however, was a bold interpretation of SoCal's indoor-outdoor lifestyle mantra.

After rocketing past the Millards' $10,000 budget, Wright finished La Miniatura in 1923. It was an architectural masterwork of patterned concrete blocks laid up to form a pre-Columbian temple in miniature. At a time when much of white Pasadena distained its Mexican servants, the house was a bold homage to California's past.

Even though she added a small studio designed by Wright's son Lloyd, by 1928 Millard had run out of space. She consulted her financial advisor about further improvements and shared his response with Wright. "He views 'La Miniatura' as a very bad investment. First: because he considers it to be very badly built of very poor material. Second: because he considers that its plan is not adapted to the home life of an average family. Third: The unfortunate notoriety of the leaking roof would greatly prejudice any possible buyer."

This assessment holds true today. The concrete is crumbling; the house is cramped, with no room for the essential spa, wine cellar, theater, gym, ocean-scale fish tank and wood-burning pizza oven; the infamous roof continues to defy technology.

A present-day expense would be the PR spin for a radical dislocation of the house. To assess potential publicity costs, the collectors might recall the public firestorm that ensued when a couple from Minnesota leveled architect Richard Neutra's Samuel Maslon House in Rancho Mirage, thinking us local yokels wouldn't notice it was gone. Answering annoying questions could be pricey. A prodding critic might question how safe La Miniatura would be in a foreign country, say Japan? After all, Wright's 1916 Tokyo masterpiece, the Mayan revival Imperial Hotel, was razed to clear its land for redevelopment. And then there's a potential tangle with the L.A. Conservancy and its booster Diane Keaton, former owner of a Lloyd Wright house.

La Miniatura is a picturesque, poetic, leaky hunk of sandy concrete embedded in California history. The house cannot be moved without trashing its symbolic meaning and design complexity, the very qualities that justify its $5-million price as a collectible work of art. Positives for would-be buyers are profit from the sale of the vacant lot after the house is shipped and any discount the seller might offer to compensate for the scorn heaped on culture vultures. A negative is the pricey replacement lot in Elsewhere.

Considering its impracticality and the inevitable PR turmoil, buying Millard's temple is a risky, impractical investment for house-moving collectors. They are advised to consult their financial planner before proceeding.

There is no charge for this appraisal.

Watters' column on Southern California social history as told through lost homes and gardens appears on the first Saturday of every month. Past columns: latimes.com/lostla. Comments: home@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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