Frank Lloyd Wright: Big in Japan

Aug 30, 2010

As our regular readers are no doubt already aware, Frank Lloyd Wright’s La Miniatura (aka the Millard house), up in Prospect Park, is for sale. As you can see in that post, it’s a beautiful, beautiful house, the first of Wright’s experiments with so-called “Mayan-block construction.” Even after the asking price fell over $2.7 million (from $7.73 to $4.95), the realtors haven’t exactly been flooded with offers. We’re not in a position to know precisely why, but there are a few obvious factors: it’s big, cold, expensive, and the roof leaks like a colicky baby (our esteemed editor, Colleen, lives around the corner from La Miniatura, and estimates that of the nearly twenty years she’s lived there, the roof has been covered with blue tarp for 16 or 17 of them). One of the raps against Frank is that despite his values—natural, open, organic spaces—his houses often feel more like temples to his own brilliant artistry than like homes. On the subject of the leaky roof, Wright is alleged to have said, “It’s art. Get a bucket.”

It makes a certain sense, then, as Larry Wilson of the Pasadena Star-News reports, that the most serious offer is coming from a group of art collectors—Japanese art collectors who are represented by an international art dealer. The rumor is that they want to move the whole structure, block by block, to Japan, not unlike the Lake Havasu Bridge, nee London.

Mr. Wilson, for one, is adamantly opposed to the idea, editorializing: “You don’t take the Pieta outta St. Peter’s.” You do, however, take the Parthenon Marbles out of the Parthenon—if your name is Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. And while the possibility of La Miniatura moving to Japan will never be as fraught with issues of imperialism and nationalism as the case of Elgin’s missing marbles, it’s still a pretty sticky wicket.

For example: One of the stronger arguments against absconding with the Millard House is that it is context-specific; in Mr. Wilson’s words, “a piece of architecture so inextricably built precisely for its site… that its wild genius would make no sense anywhere else.” But what does “site-specific” really mean? Certainly not what it did when the house was built in 1923. La Miniatura may be an aesthetic match for its location, but it is not a cultural, material or ecological one—or the roof wouldn’t leak so much.

And while Japan may seem like an arbitrary, even absurd destination for a masterpiece of American (not Californian) architecture, Wright was a major dealer of Japanese art, which his houses were often filled with. America has a notoriously uneven record when it comes to cultural exchange: in with the good, out with the bad.

All of which is to say that La Miniatura’s departure would not be the worst thing in the world. A loss for Pasadena, yes, but possibly a valuable gain for some deserving cultural institution in Japan, where its “wild genius” would be much more accessible than it is now. Then again, that’s the same argument the Brits have used to justify holding on to the Elgin—er, Parthenon Marbles for nearly 200 years. A sticky wicket indeed.

And you, dear readers, what do you make of this architectural hubbub? Should La Miniatura be allowed to go, if that is what its buyers wish? Or will you join Larry Wilson and company in staring down the bulldozers? Let us know in the comments, below.

7 Responses for “Frank Lloyd Wright: Big in Japan”

  1. Bill Smith says:

    On the plus side, they’d probably fix the leaks when they reassembled it.
    And then of course there’s, noooooooooo.

  2. Joe Dunn says:

    I don’t know this house but went through it’s sister in the Los Feliz area (also on the market I see) 65 years ago with my father, a Realtor of the era. It too leaked like a sieve, had been vacant for years at the time and was and is wierd. Note, I live in a Cape Cod. I say let the Japanese have it–partial reparation for the Bomb.

  3. Ann Erdman says:

    Bottom line: a structure cannot be dismantled unless there is a demolition permit. For historic landmark properties in Pasadena, such a permit requires approval from the Historic Preservation Commission. You do the math!

  4. Colleen Dunn Bates says:

    Thanks, Ann, for the official input. I can’t imagine the preservation commission would allow such a dismantling. But it’s still an interesting question: Should it be allowed or not? Personally, as a neighbor, I want it to stay, but I see the property-rights issue involved as well.

  5. I want it to stay, but if there’s no other buyer, am I being selfish to want it to stay here and deteriorate? It’s an important piece of work. What’s best for the building’s future?

  6. D.S. Kotora says:

    Firstly, thank you Mr. Goldstein for the expose. As a proud native of Pasadena, amateur historian of arts and crafts and 20th century modern architecture, and resident of Japan, Frank L. Wright’s La Miniatura speaks multitudes about the history of American architecture (even pre F.L.W.) and the worldly nuances which permeate the structures we stand in today. Imagine, telling your grandchildren, ” …the house that once stood here was disassembled and shipped on a large container ship to Japan where it was restored and rebuilt for people to admire and learn from.” Maybe they will fix the roof?

  7. Thanks for the comments, all. Ann, do you think there are any possible circumstances under which the Historic Preservation Commission would okay the dismantling? Or would it be like prying the Rock from Gibraltar?



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