So Long, Frank

We enjoyed having you in the neighborhood

By Dave Skinner

Like many, I was a little shocked to learn the Frank Lloyd Wright building in Whitefish was demolished less than a day after preservation negotiations failed. I’ll miss it, same as I miss the old Cadillac Hotel, where Great Northern Brewing Co. now prospers.

Having a building in boondocks wild Whitefish designed by a big-deal architect like Frank Lloyd Wright was our very own little brush with fame, neat in a hick sort of way. The building was duly “bragged” to me as a kid, making me curious enough to study Mr. Wright’s work a little.

Yep, the fascia has (or had) a repeating theme, which Wright was famous for doing. I can even wiggle my pinky a little and declaim the structure reflects (um, reflected) the “Usonian style” inasmuch as it had a flat roof, an open floor plan and was built on a slab.

Nonetheless, I thought it strange to see a flat roof in snowy Whitefish, especially with that weird but oh-so-arty, oh-so-Wright clerestory windows setup. It was odd enough that once, just once, I walked in, asked if I could just take a peek, and remember seeing a nifty, yet honestly nonfunctional, curved fireplace. Cool, but form over function.

But the question remains if the lamented Frank Lloyd Wright building comprised much of any real legacy, a critical or significant structure in the larger scheme.

To begin with, at the time the building was designed, Mr. Wright was around 90 years old. Did he hunker over the drafting table, worrying how his Prairie style might translate to mountainous Montana?

More probably, Mr. Wright might have done a conceptual sketch, arcing out the fascia, the curves for the fireplace, and of course bold horizontals – but it’s almost a given that Wright did little more than scan and sign the blueprints created by a talented employee or two.

Let’s remember that much better representations of Wright’s work exist elsewhere. Topping my list is the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which has a “Montana connection” inasmuch as family patriarch Meyer Guggenheim owned ASARCO early in the 20th century and therefore accumulated part of his fortune from ASARCO’s East Helena smelter. The Guggenheims still control about $250 billion, according to Wikipedia.

But I’ve been to the Guggenheim. Wright spent 16 years on that project, clearly intending to present as much a spectacle as the art. In fact, the Guggenheim itself left a bigger impression on me than the collections.

Then there’s Wright’s home place in Wisconsin, the Taliesin (means “shining snow”) estate, built around 1910 or so, plus Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. West was Wright’s winter home and is now a school of architecture, and it seems that Wright’s presence there, over time, helped attract to Scottsdale people who have the resources to commission, and then live in, works of art. Maybe someday I’ll have the chance to take the $75 three-hour tour, but it’s not really on my bucket list.

Finally, there’s a place called Fallingwater, built in 1937 on rocks over a 30-foot waterfall in Pennsylvania. It’s awesome, just an epic structure, but the only reason it still stands is because the original builders cheated, making Fallingwater stronger than Wright designed it to be. Further, and this matters, in about 2001, the structure was reconstructed to stabilize it.

Nobody can deny that Whitefish’s Frank Lloyd Wright building was suffering weathering, as well as marked signs of settling, not a surprise at all given the lousy, goopy, clay-y soils in Whitefish conspiring with 59 years of gravity. Could it have been saved? Sure, at the cost of an arm and a leg to bring it up to modern standards and materials, especially insulation and weatherproofing.

Would it have been worth doing? Sorry, but reports that “due diligence” had hung things up signals even the Wright aficionados were reluctant about placing earnest cash on the line … and Mick Ruis can’t be made the fall guy for his part.

If blueprints still exist, and I hope they do, an opportunity to adapt Wright’s design to modern standards and materials remains. For now? So long, Frank. We enjoyed having you in the neighborhood.

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