Home is where the art is? Frank Lloyd Wright houses difficult to sell

(CBS News) CHICAGO - At a recent Sunday open house in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Juan Montenegro sat in his favorite spot of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house he and his wife, Claire, have called home for 20 years, talking to prospective buyers.

Montenegro is most comfortable in the outdoor veranda that juts out from the living room and is surrounded by trees. It captures cool breezes from Lake Michigan, which is about a one block walk from their cul-de-sac with access to a sandy beach.

"There's a lot of people out there that are not interested in just living in a McMansion or new construction," Montenegro said the next day, considering who might buy his century-old, 3,000-square foot, four-bedroom home. "There are a lot of people out there that want to live in a house that's 75, 100 years old."

Watch: Frank Lloyd Wright home saved from destruction

In their third summer trying to sell the home where they raised their college-age boys, the Montenegros are looking for the special steward who cares about historic architecture. Claire said, "It has to be a person that is into Frank Lloyd Wright. It has to be a person who wants to live inside this kind of art."

Wide open spaces and plenty of light are signature traits of a Frank Lloyd Wright home.
Wide open spaces and plenty of light are signature traits of a Frank Lloyd Wright home.
CBS News

Frank Lloyd Wright remains one of America's most celebrated architects. His structures draw visitors at more than 50 public sites around the country from the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan to his homestead in Taliesen, Wis.

There are Wright office buildings like Price Tower in Bartlesville, Okla., hotels like the Biltmore, in Phoenix, and houses of worship like the Greek Orthodox Church in Milwaukee.

The American Institute of Architects has rated Wright the greatest American architect of all time, while a dozen of his buildings appear on Architectural Record's list of the 100 most important buildings of the 20th century, according to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

Private residences built by Wright in a dozen states are now museum houses, the most famous being Fallingwater, built over a waterfall in Bear Creek, Pa.

Wright homes are typically named for their original owners, such as the prairie style Robie House in downtown Chicago, now a museum.

The Montenegros' House in Highland Park, Ill., is called George Madison Millard House after the original owners who bought it in 1906 and lived there for only six years.

"It is a house to be lived in. It is not a museum," Claire said. "The house may or may not appeal to everybody, but there is a certain segment of people that love these homes."

Their adjusted asking price now is just over $1 million.

"I think that Frank Lloyd Wright owners make the mistake of pricing them too high at the beginning, and we were guilty of that," Juan said.

Theirs is one of 280 Wright homes currently occupied in the United States, and around 20 of them are for sale, according to Save Wright, a conservancy dedicated to his work. Half the Wright homes available are in the Chicago area.

With its cantilevered front facade, the Montenegros' home has Wright's characteristic open floor plan, natural colors, and natural light streaming in from sculpted windows. Much of the original hard wood flooring remains. No one can stop an owner from altering a Wright house, though preservationists frown upon changing the side facing the street.

"I think it's beautiful the way it is, and I wouldn't change a thing," Claire Montenegro said.

Another Wright home for sale is the palatial Heller House, the architect's first in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, built in 1897. It is designated a national historical landmark, and lies two blocks from President Obama's Chicago home.

The Heller House.
The Heller House.
CBS News/savewright.org

The three-floor, 6,100 square foot Heller House has seven bedrooms, four bathrooms, four fireplaces, a huge living room, and a formal dining room. The asking price is $2.4 million.

"I've owned the house for nine years, and I still simply stare, trying to understand why it works so well," Emily Novick wrote in an e-mail. "It can provide a sense of calm in the storm, as well as the bounce of stimulation and wonder amid the ordinary."

Another Wright home for sale, also on Chicago's south side, is the McArthur house, a Wright fixer-upper built in 1892. Louisa McPharlin lived there as a teenager after her parents paid $26,000 for the house in 1954.

"I would come home from school, and my mother would be entertaining young architects who would either write her or just knock on the door," McPharlin said in an interview inside the dining room decorated with intricate wood carvings.

The McArthur House
The McArthur House
CBS News/savewright.org

She's now the real estate agent looking for a buyer willing to shell out $1.1 million and then some for the six-bedroom, three-bath, 5,000-square-foot Dutch Colonial built of Roman brick. McPharlin installed a new roof, but she estimates the house still needs $300,000 to a $1 million in renovations.

"There's been a lot of deferred maintenance," McPhalrin said. "It needs a special person who will have the energy, the resources."

McPharlin believes Wright's reputation is a selling point, but finding the Wright premium is tricky.

"If it was in perfect shape, I would say it would be easier to sell," she said.

The Montengros forested home in the suburbs is move-in ready, but it was built in 1906, so there's no air conditioning, except for a wall unit in the kitchen. No worries, Juan said, as it's really hot only five to ten nights a year. They straightened the slanted foundation but dispute the notion that upkeep on a Wright home carries any special burden.

"There are a lot of myths," Juan said, "Our house had leaks, but we've gone ahead and fixed it. What 100-year-old house has not leaked?"

  • Dean Reynolds

    Dean Reynolds is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Chicago.