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Rebuilt (W)right

August 5, 2023
picture of Frank Lloyd Wright

New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Al Ravenna

Though you can find his best-known work in Pennsylvania and New York, you can also find Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs all over the United States, as well as in Canada, Japan, Egypt, and Ireland. The American Southwest is home to several great Wright structures, particularly in California and Arizona, while others are in Texas and New Mexico. Recently, one of them may be rebuilt five years after being destroyed.

The Arch Oboler Complex, also called Eaglefeather, was a series of buildings in Malibu, California. Wright designed several structures in Los Angeles, mainly Mayan Revival-style houses like the Storer House in Hollywood and the Millard House in Pasadena. However, Eaglefeather is the only structure Wright designed in Malibu or along the southern California coast. It combines wood siding, red concrete floors, and walls made from desert stones set into concrete. The complex was originally designed and built for the screenwriter and radio producer Arch Oboler, his wife Eleanor, and their four sons. Because the terrain proved difficult, the main house Wright designed was never completed. Instead, the family used the gatehouse as the primary residence. The complex’s designs included several smaller structures, like stables, a paddock, and a film studio. Apart from the gatehouse, the only other completed structure was a small cabin built atop a rocky hill. Unfortunately, in November 2018, southern California was devastated by an enormous wildfire later known as the Woolsey Fire, named after Woolsey Canyon, where it originated. The fire burned nearly 97,000 acres of land, killing three people and causing $6 billion in damage. Most of the Eaglefeather complex was destroyed; the only surviving structures being the well and the solar farm. The owners were devastated, as they had just finished restoration on the buildings the year before. Authorities dictated that the structure’s remains had to be demolished for safety reasons despite the masonry and the red concrete floors still being intact. However, efforts by the Frank Lloyd Wright Revival Initiative succeeded in having an exception made.

Some now believe that the buildings may be completely rebuilt. The Eaglefeather property, a more than 100-acre plot of land in Malibu, is now back on the market for $7.45 million. Several groups, including the Frank Lloyd Wright Revival Initiative, are closely monitoring the sale. The Agency is overseeing the sale and has leaned into the potential for any buyer to help rebuild the complex as well as add new structures from Wright’s original plans that were never realized. The disappointment is that, when fully rebuilt, Eaglefeather may not be recognized as a Wright-designed building anymore. At least, not officially. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation has a policy where structures built according to Wright’s designs after his death cannot be considered “designed by Wright” but “inspired by Wright”. Their reason is that any building erected after his death would require a degree of interpretation regarding choices made during construction. However, of the several hundred houses, structures, and other works Wright designed, fifty-nine have been partially or fully destroyed. Most of these are relatively early designs completed before 1910. Only some of Wright’s designs in full accordance with organic architecture have been rebuilt after their destruction or demolition. It is still being determined whether the Wright Foundation will make an exception in this case.