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Preservation’s punch line

This undated image provided by the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy shows the home that Wright, the famous architect, built for his son in Phoenix, Ariz.. The city council is considering granting the house landmark designation to temporarily protect it from being torn down by the developer who currently owns it. (AP Photo/Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, Scott Jarson, azarchitecture.com)

Two guys from Idaho walk into Phoenix.

They lay down $1.8 million for a 60-year-old house. But they want the property, not the house.

An old house, they figure, is nowhere near as profitable as two new ones.

But this is no ordinary house. This one was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for his son and daughter-in-law.

And, faster than a preservationist can yell, “Historical designation,” these two guys are portrayed nationally as villains threatening to destroy an American treasure.

That’s the lazy viewpoint.

The fact is, these guys did everything they were allowed to do under the law. They bought the house in good faith, they were upfront about their plans, and the city even granted them a demolition permit.

But now their best hope is to unload the house, preferably before Wednesday, when the City Council is scheduled to vote on applying that historical designation to prevent the demolition. The designation won’t make it any easier for them to recoup their investment.

At some point in the past six months, those two guys must have stopped to wonder whether this is just some cruel joke. If it is, it has been delivered practically anywhere there’s a building of any historical significance.

It has happened in Milwaukee.

The business owners in the Cass and Wells streets historic district didn’t want the designation, but city aldermen approved the label anyway, said Carlen Hatala, senior historic preservation planner for the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission.

It almost happened to the David Barnett Gallery on State Street in Milwaukee. But Barnett stepped in, assuring the city he is a good steward of his building and that he had no plans to do anything but preserve it.

It’s hard to argue against preserving historic buildings. They represent moments of genius or places of such significance that demolishing them is the equivalent of forgetting where we came from.

But when there’s a reflexive rush toward preservation every time someone wants to do something to an old building, the balance shifts in the wrong direction. Blindly preserving is no more defensible than blindly demolishing.

When an owner requests a building be designated as historic, no one gets hurt. But at any other time, the historic designation is going to injure someone.

It could be the longtime owner of an old house who wants to expand, or a new owner of a building who already has worked up plans to tear it down.

Or, it could be two guys in Phoenix who were expecting to be rich, but ended up a poor punch line.

Chris Thompson — who usually prefers knock, knock jokes — is editor of The Daily Reporter. He can be contacted at chris.thompson@dailyreporter.com.

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