Column One: Dramatic, historic and prices slashed, yet no buyers are biting

You don’t need to be an architect to understand how La Miniatura in Pasadena, the first of Frank Lloyd Wright’s extraordinary and experimental textile-block homes, was put together. It’s a form of masonry: rows of patterned concrete blocks serving not just as decoration but as the supporting walls of the house.

So it’s easy enough to picture how La Miniatura could be taken apart, block by block, to be rebuilt elsewhere. Which is exactly what Crosby Doe, the veteran Los Angeles real estate agent, says could happen.

After slashing the listing price over the last two years from $7,733,000 to $4,995,000 and not finding a buyer, Doe says he’s “talking to an international art dealer with Japanese art-collector clients who might be interested in buying the house.”

“With my position in the preservation community, I will probably be crucified for saying this,” says Doe. “But we have to consider all options. We moved the London Bridge to the Colorado River. Why couldn’t we move this house to Japan?”

Doe is not the only real estate agent in town offering a textile-block house by Wright. The firms of Hilton & Hyland and Dilbeck Realtors have partnered with Christie’s Great Estates to try to sell the Ennis House, Wright’s largest and showiest textile-block edifice, perched on a hill in Los Feliz. After extensive restoration, the house went on the market last summer at $15 million. The price has since dropped to $7,495,000, not counting a projected $6 million the buyer should have on reserve for future preservation.

Considering that Wright built only four textile-block homes, all in Southern California, having one reach the market is something of an event. Having two languish on the market for so long is something of a mystery and raises questions about the region’s cultural heritage: Who in the current economy is going to step forward to become the buyer-caretakers of these historic homes? And would the new owners allow public access?

Clearly, these houses are not for everyone. Neither is occupied. La Miniatura is owned by television commercial producer David Zander, an architecture buff who also owns a Greene and Greene home nearby. The Ennis House belongs to a foundation formed five years ago to rescue the house when it seemed in danger of sliding down the hill.

Both houses have maintenance issues beyond Frank Lloyd Wright’s notorious leaking ceilings. And they don’t have high-end comforts for high-end buyers such as spa-style bathrooms or chefs kitchens.

Then there’s the rugged style, influenced by Mayan architecture. Some say the concrete-block houses feel like modern temples, with perforated blocks allowing light to dramatically pierce the walls. But for fans of the open-plan, glass-walled midcentury look, the rooms might simply feel too dark.

Still, many in the architectural community are surprised that the homes have not found buyers. “There’s still a lot of money in this city. It’s hard to believe that someone isn’t stepping forward to support these houses,” says Ken Breisch, who oversees USC’s preservation of the Freeman House, a textile-block house by Wright that was given to the university in 1986 by Harriet Freeman. “Taken as a group, these houses are one of Wright’s biggest accomplishments.”

One historic preservation expert, designer Steven Lamb in Altadena, says he’s surprised La Miniatura has been on the market so long. “If I had an extra $5 million, I’d buy it right away. The dirt alone is worth a million dollars in that neighborhood,” he says. “And there’s something sweet, almost mystical and musical about that house. It has a way of drawing you in and making you want to care for it.”

Jeff Hyland of Hilton & Hyland says buyers are “excited by” the Ennis House as well. “We’ve had many people look at the house who own other Frank Lloyd Wright houses. We’ve had Italians, some English and someone on the Forbes top-20 list who brought his famous architect, or starchitect, along,” he says.

“I’m just not sure why the house hasn’t sold yet,” Hyland says. “You would think it’s an exotic Bugatti or Ferrari, and people with that kind of money would just snap it up.”

The architectural significance of the four textile-block houses, all on the National Register of Historic Places, is well established. Built in rapid succession from 1923 to 1925, the houses represent a new direction for Wright during a mid-career lull: an attempt to transform cheap, lowly concrete (a “gutter rat” in his terms) into material fit for sculpting a building.

The first, La Miniatura, was designed in Pasadena for Midwest transplant Alice Millard, who sold rare books and Renaissance furniture out of the dramatic living room. Never one to refrain from complimenting himself, Wright later said, “I would have rather built this little house than St. Peter’s in Rome.”

Next came the Storer and Freeman houses, both in the Hollywood Hills. The last and most ambitious was the Ennis House in Los Feliz, featured in the 1959 film “House on Haunted Hill.” The compound is advertised as 6,000 square feet on half an acre with “high ceilings and numerous art-glass windows” and “sprawling views of Los Angeles.”

As many critics have noted, the houses nod to the monumentality of Mayan pyramids. Above all they were influenced by the landscape of Los Angeles, which Wright got to know on stopovers while traveling to Tokyo to build the Imperial Hotel before he moved to L.A. briefly in 1923.

Instead of a horizontal orientation like Wright’s famous Prairie Style houses, which hug the flat land, these houses tend to have a more vertical thrust. The Pasadena house is built in a ravine; the others are all built on hills, or into hills.

“These houses are on hills, and they are like hills,” says architect Alan Hess, who has written several books on Wright. “They were brilliant interpretations of the natural landscape and tremendously important to the history of L.A.”

But hilltop sites are never simple. And the construction that made the houses so radical also makes them hard to maintain. Made out of cement mixed with locally sourced sand or decomposed granite, some blocks have deteriorated with exposure to the elements, especially rain.

According to Breisch at USC, the Freeman House “has hundreds of blocks that have crumbled or been removed and need replacing.” They are “still working on finding the right formula to produce new blocks.”

Overall, the blocks of La Miniatura have aged better, perhaps because of its more sheltered location. Experts also note that this house doesn’t have metal rods running in channels along the blocks, meant to “knit” them together. (Hence the term “textile blocks,” which some purists say doesn’t really apply to La Miniatura). In the other houses, some of those rods have rusted and swelled, breaking the blocks open from within.

The crumbling of the blocks was just one of the factors that brought the Ennis House to the brink of crisis five years ago. The house was damaged so severely by the Northridge earthquake of 1994 and the heavy rains of 2004 that the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated it in 2005 as one of the country’s most endangered buildings. That year, several preservationist groups — the National Trust, the L.A. Conservancy and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy — formed a foundation to take over and save the house, which had been red-tagged by the city.

Backed by a $4.5-million loan and smaller donations and grants, that new group, the Ennis House Foundation, soon went to work to stabilize the property. They rebuilt the motor court and a 34-foot retaining wall that had partially collapsed.

“We replaced thousands of concrete blocks,” says Eric Lloyd Wright, the famous architect’s grandson and a Malibu-based architect who is on the Ennis House Foundation board. “We also developed a method for cleaning the blocks without removing them.”

The team also completed less urgent projects inside the main house, like restoring the glass-tile mosaic fireplace.

Then, the foundation ran out of money. Turning to other nonprofits or government agencies such as the National Trust for help, Wright says, was out of the question. “Everyone is too strapped financially.”

Now, the Ennis House Foundation is running out of time as well. Its construction loan of $4.5 million from First Republic Bank, guaranteed by billionaire Ron Burkle, was due in June; the board secured an extension of six months. If a buyer doesn’t materialize, Burkle could end up owning the complicated property himself. (Burkle could not be reached for comment.)

Proprietorship is not the only open question. Wright fans who hike to these four houses with cameras in hand wonder if any will be open to the public on a regular basis like their precursor, the 1921 Hollyhock House. Currently, none are.

The Storer house, which movie producer Joel Silver painstakingly restored before selling it in 2002, is still in private hands.

Breisch at USC says “parking and funding issues both” have limited public access to the Freeman House, which essentially serves as a laboratory for the school’s building science and architecture students. But he does give tours to architecture students from other schools. And he hopes to make it more accessible in the future: “What I envision is that we could open the house up one Saturday a month to the public, and we could arrange transportation,” he says.

As for the Ennis House, board members say that privacy and traffic concerns of the neighbors have made group functions, including fundraisers, difficult. “The neighbors were resolute in their opposition to a public use of the house,” says Linda Dishman, a board member who is executive director of the L.A. Conservancy.

The Ennis House website describes the quest to find “a private owner with the vision and resources to give this beloved Los Angeles landmark the level of care it needs and deserves.” Does taking the house out of the public sphere trouble the board members? “I don’t mind if there’s limited public access now,” says Wright. “The priority is to restore the house, so there is a house to show.”

Doe seems open to different uses for La Miniatura, perhaps because it’s further along in terms of restoration. He says the seller spent more than $2.5 million renovating the guest house and restoring the main house, so “there’s nothing daunting left to do, just some roof leaks and dusting.”

The real estate agent has had exploratory conversations with Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“Michael is one of the few people who understands this property and its importance in depth,” says Doe. “He would really love to do something here, but he needs to find the person to write the check.”

Govan confirmed that he has had visited La Miniatura as well as the Ennis House, saying he would need “a great patron” interested in such “masterpieces of the built environment” for the museum to play any sort of caretaking role.

Doe, meanwhile, says he is pursuing his international prospect as well, though admitting that the chances of relocating the landmark are pretty slim. “It’s a long shot,” he says. “I think the buyers would have to weather some controversy. But it’s my job to pursue every option.”