The fate of Whitefish’s historic Frank Lloyd Wright Building on Central Avenue may be sealed unless a monumental effort to raise $1.7 million comes to fruition by Jan. 10.
Last year, Mick Ruis, the developer behind the Cedar Creek Lodge and Convention Center in Columbia Falls, purchased the 5,000-square-foot building with plans to tear it down and make way for a new three-story commercial development, featuring retail space, professional offices and housing units.
Unaware of its local significance, Ruis was surprised by the backlash from the community, and backed away from his plans after his proposal sparked a negative reaction from those who hope to see the historic site preserved.
Ruis listed the building for sale at $1.6 million, the same price he paid when he purchased it, and posted a “For Sale” sign out front.
“We received no written offers,” Ryan Purdy, the building’s registered agent and an attorney representing Ruis in the transaction, said. “We entertained other alternatives, too. There was a preservation group that wanted to acquire the building as it is, but they were never able to come up with the money.”
Without any viable offers on the table, Ruis decided to proceed with his project, Purdy said.
But when preservation-minded Whitefish residents noticed contractors performing asbestos-abatement work in the building, word got out to the Montana Preservation Alliance in Helena and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in Chicago, which have been working nonstop since Jan. 3 to save the building.
According to Purdy, he relayed a message from Ruis to representatives from the group — “he has agreed to sell it to anyone who puts $1.7 million in his hand by the 10th of January.”
“This news really felt like a gut punch considering the progress that our local partners had made in finding a preservation-minded buyer,” Barbara Gordon, executive director of the nonprofit Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, said. “There was no indication that the developer planned to demolish the building. The Conservancy and its partners had the understanding that the developer would not move forward with any plans to redevelop the property until late 2018, by which time those investors would have secured the capital needed to buy the property.”
Joel Hoglund, communications director for the Conservancy, said the advocacy group had been operating under that understanding when it learned the building was slated for demolition.
“Once the developer realized the building was a significant building, he did very graciously agree to hold off on development plans and give us an opportunity to find another buyer,” Hoglund said. “But we had all been under the impression that we had until the end of 2018. Less than a week ago, we were able to make contact with the developer through his legal counsel, who agreed at that point to give us until Jan. 10, which caught us off guard.”
Purdy said no arrangement had ever been made to wait until the end of 2018, neither verbally nor in writing, and that more than a year passed with no offers tendered.
“The fact is this building was slated for development and razing over a year ago. There was this public outcry so Mick, the developer, heeding to that and appreciating it, delayed everything and waited an entire year,” Purdy said. “He put it on the market, marketed it for sale and gave every single person who expressed interest over a year to try and get something done. No one has come forward to do anything about the building. We heard the same uproar over a year ago and no one has made an offer.”
The building, which until recently was home to the Morrison & Frampton law offices, where Purdy works, is among the only Wright buildings in Montana and was one of the last he ever designed. Wright is one of America’s most famous architects, and he designed more than 1,000 buildings before he died in 1959.
In 1958, Wright designed the Lockridge Medical Center in Whitefish but passed away before it was completed. The Central Avenue building on the south end of the downtown corridor features Wright’s modern style. The building has a large fireplace that is a focal point of the interior. In later years, the structure was used as a bank and finally an office building. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.
Ruis said his original motivation behind the development was to create jobs for the local economy, similar to his other investments in Columbia Falls, where he is currently developing retail and housing projects in downtown.
“I get that it is a Frank Lloyd Wright building. But it is not functional. It leaks,” Purdy said. “We put a significant amount of investment into that building when we occupied it, and you can’t make cash flow. If you were to update it and rent it out, you won’t make enough rent. It’s not a big enough structure.”