Growing up at 36th and Camelback Road in Phoenix and raised by a mother who studied and loved architecture, Zach Rawling was already a bit of a Wright expert by the time he finished grade school. He'd often tour buildings with her by bicycle, riding up to the majestic Biltmore Hotel, or checking out other significant structures in town. But one site, a private home hidden behind tall bushes and hedges, always stood out in his mind. The David and Gladys Wright Home, a later-period residential masterpiece by Frank Lloyd Wright, was shrouded in mystery, its cantilevered, spiral walk up and kitchen tower peeking above the foliage. Rawling looked at hundreds of Wright buildings but knew this one was unique. He even kept a photo of it in his college dorm room in Virginia.
As an adult, you could say Rawling has fully engaged his curiosity. He's currently leading a campaign to preserve this Wright gem, which was relatively unknown until it was threatened with demolition. After purchasing the property for $2.4M and saving it from the wrecking ball, Rawling is seeking to transform the residence into a museum and cultural center over the next few years via a newly formed non-profit, despite objections from local residents in the Arcadia neighborhood worried about overcrowding and noise.
According to Rawling, a lawyer who also runs a construction company, when he purchased the home a few years ago, it was relatively undiscovered due to the private nature of its occupants. Built in 1952 at the tail-end of Frank Lloyd Wright's career for his son David and wife Gladys—they called it their Taj Mahal—it was a private residence, not a place for architects to tour and visit. Once the architect passed away in 1959, the Wrights shut down access to the site. There was a separation between the David and Gladys Wright and Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West estate in Scottsdale, so it wasn't really known to the world again until the demolition threat brought renewed interest (Rawling says the Taliesin community is now fully behind the preservation plans).
Rawling feels the home's significance stems from showcasing Wright's work with organic forms. Only two of his other projects, the Guggenheim and V.C. Morris Gift Shop, utilize a spiral design, which the then 84-year-old used masterfully on this Phoenix project to enhance and connect to the surrounding desert. The roof deck provides a framed view of the sun setting on Camelback Mountain and a perfect study to watch storms roll in across the landscape.
"It was a family home, and he had a son pushing him to design something unique and special," says Rawling. "It was Wright elevating his game and delivering one of his most creative designs."
Rawling says the plan to preserve the home and build a museum and cultural center will be "invisible and inaudible to every neighbor," recreating the private nature of the original site to enhance its connection to the landscape. The bulk of the new construction will be an underground museum designed by former Wright student Wallace Cunningham—accessed by a spiral ramp, an inverse of the home's shape—as well as a series of walls on two residential streets. With an agreement to use the parking lot of an adjacent church, the site would be separated from the neighborhood. If the organization receives the restoration and special-use permits they're applying for in the coming months, the non-profit will seek to recreate the original 1952 citrus grove setting as much as possible.
Opponents of his preservation plans have argued that a flood of visitors in a residential neighborhood is untenable, but Rawling believes "relocating the house would destroy the integrity of the site." For him, it comes back to the definition of good architecture. Rawling's mother gave him a camera in second or third grade, and they would compare images. He says that process of looking at and comparing photos slowly trained his eye, studying commonalities and learning what creates impact, and this home meets that standard.
"The great buildings impact every sense and create an emotional reaction," he says. "Wright's original plans for the David Wright House are labeled 'How to Live in the Southwest.' After two years of being on the property, I appreciate living in the desert more than I ever have growing up. The care with which he sited the house to relate to the surrounding environment is incredible. Wright was a genius at thinking spatially. There is a continuous dance of light and shadows on the house. It's a natural extension of the environment. "