The owner of a historic Frank Lloyd Wright building in Whitefish, Montana razed the structure last week, immediately after last-minute negotiations with preservationists attempting to buy it fell through. Designed in 1958 — one year before Wright’s death — as a medical clinic, the 5,000-square-foot building is the first Wright-designed one to be demolished in over 40 years. Its owner, the developer Mick Ruis, has plans to replace it with a three-story development for residences, retail space, and offices.
The demolition, which occurred overnight on January 10, came as a shock to members of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy (FLWBC), a Chicago-based nonprofit, and the Montana Preservation Society, who have been working together for over a year to save the building. Although unintended for private residence, the building is quintessentially Usonian, with a flat roof complete with overhang, clerestory windows, and a central hearth — a pretty uncommon feature for a clinic.
Ruis had purchased the property, known as the Lockridge Medical Clinic, in late 2016 without knowing of its architectural significance, as FLWBC explained. However, after his plans provoked public backlash, he agreed to not move forward with them if he could find a buyer willing to match the $1.6 million he had paid for it. Since then, the preservation groups had been working to explore multiple strategies to preserve the building in situ, including finding a preservation-minded buyer. That buyer had needed to first close another deal to have the required capital to make the purchase, but FLWBC had heard that they had until 2018 before Ruis would touch the building.
But the developer suddenly announced on January 4 that he would agree to sell the building to “anyone who puts $1.7 million in his hand” by January 10, as the Whitefish Pilot reported. FLWBC submitted an offer four days later, under 341 Central LLC, which it formed specifically for the sale. The offer provided for a substantial refundable deposit paid to Ruis, with an additional 60 days to close on his asking price. Ruis responded, asking for a 50% greater deposit that would be entirely nonrefundable and be paid the afternoon of January 9, and gave the preservationists only through January 22 to deliver the full $1.7 million. FLWBC appealed for one more day to submit a substantial portion of the requested deposit, as well as another week to launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise the remainder. But Ruis rejected the offer at 4:15 CT on January 10; it was only hours later that a demolition crew arrived at the building with an excavator and gutted it entirely. Video footage of the destruction was recorded and posted to Facebook by Montana Public Radio.
“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,” FLWBC’s executive director Barbara Gordon said in a statement. “None of us are aware of why the owner changed his mind and moved up his demolition plans.” She added that Ruis had also rejected a request to salvage architectural elements, either prior to or during the demolition process.
Ryan Purdy, an attorney representing Ruis, told The Daily Beast that his client had been talking with potential purchasers for over a year, and had delayed his development plans to allow for more buyers to come forward. Purdy also added then that he had “no clue” if Ruis had plans to raze the building.
Completed the year after Wright passed away, the building opened first as a clinic before it became a bank in 1964. It was then used as law offices when the bank moved 16 years later. In 2012, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, along with the only other surviving buildings by Wright in Montana: a cabin and a farmhouse, both on Alpine Meadows Ranch in Bitterroot Valley, which are available to rent as vacation homes.
“This devastating situation underscores the vulnerability of all Wright-designed buildings that don’t have some form of legal protection,” Gordon said. “A lot of people think a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as the Lockridge Medical Clinic was, or a private house that isn’t protected by a preservation easement or local landmark designation, can’t be demolished, but that is not the case.
“Most preservation work happens on the local level,” she added. “The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy encourages concerned citizens to advocate for strong local preservation protections in their respective communities.”