Why Was This Frank Lloyd Wright Home So Hard to Sell?

Wright’s McArthur house in Kenwood just sold—finally—for $925,000. Here’s what’s behind the $555,000 price drop.

The 1892 Warren McArthur House is a South Kenwood landmark and one of a handful of Frank Lloyd Wright "bootleg" homes.   Photo: Courtesy of Coldwell Banker

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Warren McArthur house in Kenwood has sold for $925,000, the first of Wright’s side-by-side “bootlegs”—the other being the George Blossom house—to find a buyer after co-listing with Coldwell Banker’s Louisa McPharlin in October 2012 at an initial price of $1.48 million.

Wright built the McArthur house at age 24, while moonlighting for some extra cash to support his new family. It was Wright’s first use of cantilever construction and its hybrid Victorian-Prairie style makes it very livable—arguably more so than a lot of Wright’s ego-driven work to come. McPharlin spent the latter part of her childhood in the house, and stepped in to help her 101-year-old mother Ruth Michael with the sale. “I remember my mother entertaining young architects and tourists who’d stop by for a look,” says McPharlin. The home has been Michael’s since 1954 and the Blossom house has been with one owner since 1957. Both properties are set to change hands for just the third time in 122 years.

As a teen in 1957, McPharlin met Wright while doing makeup for the architect, Carl Sandburg, and Alistair Cooke in advance of a WTTW program. Mentioning she lived in one of his homes, “he fondly recalled the dining room’s yellowish sideboard, which looks the same today.”

The McArthur house is large and delightful, with six bedrooms and about 5,000 square feet of living space, all of it shaped by art glass, elegant lighting, deep window ledges, a grand fireplace, and heavy-duty built-ins. The home is in near-original condition—that’s good and bad, as many useful updates and restorations have been deferred for decades.

That looming renovation was one major hurdle to the sale. McPharlin estimates that if the buyers pursue a total restoration, they could eventually spend a million bucks on it. One million dollars. Handling a Wright home is meticulous business.

A deal was looking more promising for the McArthur and Blossom houses back in 2013, when both went under contract with Col. Jennifer Pritzker and Tawani Enterprises for $1.175 and $1.15 million. But, after a five-month debacle involving vocal opposition to Pritzker’s bed-and-breakfast plans, the transaction became unworkable. The homes would’ve gotten the Emil Bach House treatment with no-expense-spared restoration and the ability to spend a few nights in a work of art blocks from the Obama home. “We were strongly in favor of a B&B or guesthouse idea, and so were the immediate neighbors. It’s hard to understand why some people opposed it.”

For McPharlin and her family, in the end, $925,000 was an acceptable price. “We really wanted to sell the house by responding to the market, rather than sticking to a high price like the nearby [Isadore] Heller house and taking forever to sell.” The palatial Heller house is on the market in Hyde Park for $2.425 million, down from $2.5 million in January 2012. Rather than sit tight, McPharlin wasn’t timid in lopping off $100,000 whenever her leads ran dry. And after the Pritzker deal fell through at the end of 2013, she took the asking price all the way from $1.175 million to $980,000.

“There’s quite a bit of interest in the Blossom House, too,” says McPharlin. It’s listed even lower than the McArthur House was prior to selling—$850,000—and has one offer to entertain.

Click here for McArthur house interior shots.

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