Despite eleventh-hour negotiations, efforts to save the historic Frank Lloyd Wright building in downtown Whitefish reached an impasse Wednesday as demolition got underway shortly after 5 p.m., with crews readying excavators to raze the structure on Central Avenue.
Crew leaders said completing the demolition work would likely take days, but the fate of the building was final after negotiations between preservation groups and the property’s owner, developer Mick Ruis, caved hours earlier.
The efforts to save the building included an attempt Wednesday to negotiate a $1.7 million purchase by the Chicago-based Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, but Ruis ultimately rejected the finer points of the deal and made a counteroffer that was untenable, according to the group.
“The board of directors of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy agreed the owner’s proposals provided no realistic path to acquiring the building, short of an investor willing to put down $1.7 million cash without reasonable time to complete their own due diligence on the property,” Barbara Gordon, executive director of the Conservancy, said. “We certainly attempted to make that happen alongside many other options we explored in the incredibly brief window of time we were given to find a new solution … We in the preservation community are all incredibly disappointed by this outcome, to say the least.”
Ryan Purdy, an attorney representing Ruis and a partner in the law firm that most recently occupied the building, countered that the owner listed the building for sale more than a year ago — ample time for the nonprofit organization to find a purchaser, he said.
Last year, 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.
Without any viable offers on the table, however, Ruis decided to proceed with his project, Purdy said.
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.
Despite loud opposition from the community a year ago, only a few small crowds of people lined the icy sidewalks outside the fenced property. Former Whitefish City Council member Turner Askew drove by just as crews were preparing for demolition and expressed disappointment.
“I spent a lot of time trying to keep this from happening,” he said.