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The Journal Gazette

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette The John D. Haynes House, 3901 N. Washington Road, was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The owner, Richard Herber, has tried repeatedly to have its historic designation lifted to “cast a wider net” for potential buyers.

Sunday, August 07, 2016 10:28 pm

Hard sell? Wright fans not buying it

Rosa Salter Rodriguez | The Journal Gazette

When Fort Wayne Realtor Joe Leksich bought a side-by-side duplex in Fort Wayne’s historic West Central neighborhood, the two homes needed a lot of work. But he was willing to invest the time and money because he knew there would be a payoff.

The homes sold quickly for about $200,000 each. Buyers purchased the homes, Leksich said, because they wanted to live in a house with a history.

"I think it adds value to a house," Leksich said of homes having a historic designation. "In my opinion, I get a premium for the ­houses I’ve worked on because they’re historic."

So, when the owner of Fort Wayne’s only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home said he wanted the house’s local historic designation removed during recent appearances before the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, preservationists were puzzled.

Richard Herber, owner of the home at 3901 N. Washington Road, said he wanted the distinction pulled because he wanted to sell the house for the best price.

Getting the property off the historic list was the only way to "cast a wider net to the widest number of people," he said.

Paul Hayden, who attended the meeting, was among the befuddled.

A preservation specialist with Indiana Landmarks, Hayden last week said the key to selling any historic home – especially one designed by one of America’s best-known 20th-century architects – is marketing it to the right buyers.

Not everybody is a candidate for buying a home that’s historic, he said, but those who are know exactly what they’re doing.

"Given the unique qualities of his house, most people who would be interested wouldn’t be bothered by historic designations or protections on it. People are very interested in those properties, and want to do the right thing by them – more interested than Mr. Herber thinks," he said.

Indeed, there’s even a specialty website geared to those who want to buy or sell a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home.

The site, Savewright.org, is run by the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in Chicago. Last week, nine homes were listed for sale and nine others were listed as having sold since the beginning of 2015.

"Most people don’t buy a Wright house by accident – it’s an intention," said Janet Halstead, conservancy executive director. "They understand that this is something special and what they want to live in."

Halstead said homes in all styles and price ranges have sold at the site – from Wright’s early work in the first two decades of the 20th century to multimillion-dollar mansions.

More modest Usonian-style homes from late in Wright’s career – the local home is an example of one from the early 1950s – are also in demand, Halstead said. Only about 140 of them exist and interest is surging because of the trendiness of what’s known as Mid-Century Modern design, she said.

In his Usonian homes, Wright "was trying to make an affordable house that used good design to enrich people’s lives," Halstead said.

"It was using simpler materials, but using those materials in beautiful ways and bringing light and nature into the house so there wouldn’t be that barrier. … Often the street sides of the houses are very solid, but they open up in the back."

Usonians come at many price points, depending on how elaborate they are and home values in their neighborhood or city, Halstead said.

A four-bedroom river-facing home from 1957 on three acres in Plover, Wisconsin, is now listed for $345,000, while another Usonian with three bedrooms on nearly four acres in Minneapolis is listed for nearly $1.495 million. People pay $300 for a listing with pictures that can last up to a year, Halstead said.

The two Usonians now listed are at least twice as large as the local house, which dates from 1951 and has about 1,400 square feet and two bedrooms. Herber paid $174,500 for the property in 2004, according to Allen County property records.

Herber told the historic commission July 25 he had not listed his house because real estate agents "uniformly" told him it would be difficult to sell with its historic designation.

His request to remove it was denied by the commission, but that decision could be voted on this month by City Council, which has 45 days to act from receipt of that decision.

The denial was the second this year, and Herber said he would continue to refile until the commission voted differently.

Realtor Lynn Reecer of Reecer Properties, Fort Wayne, said selling historic homes does have challenges.

One is determining an historic home’s value, she said. Appraisers usually base the price of a house on recent sales of comparable homes, she said, but often that can’t be done.

She pointed to two homes her company recently sold – the McCray Mansion in Kendallville, built in 1928 by the founder of an early 20th-century refrigeration company, and the sprawling Vermilyea House, one of Allen County’s oldest residences, with portions dating to 1839.

"They’re one of a kind. There isn’t another house like them," she said.

Historic homes may take longer to sell, but sales have been greatly aided by the popularity of specialized websites, Reecer said. They allow for photos, videos and vivid descriptions and reach regional, national and international audiences.

Popular sites include www.historicproperties.com, www.oldhousedreams.com and historicrealestate.savingplaces.org of the National Trust of Historic Places. Indiana Landmarks also devotes a portion of its site at www.indianalandmarks.org, to marketing historic properties.

Potential buyers also appreciate having a list of features that might require special attention, contractors that owners have used successfully in the past and contacts with preservation groups and government officials.

Leksich, now restoring the long-neglected Fairfield-Nestel House on Creighton Avenue, another one-home local historic district, said the Frank Lloyd Wright house would likely have one of the most affordable price tags for homes of its kind.

"This is a house you could list on a national level," he said. "There’s a passionate group of Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiasts who would love to have that house."

rsalter@jg.net