When John Eckley got the call to salvage cabinets and built-in desks from a 1950s-era home being remodeled in St. Louis Park, he was warned that the house was no ordinary midcentury modern.
In fact, the construction guy said, it was a virtually unaltered building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
"I was like, 'Yeah, sure it is,' " Eckley said. In his 35 years of reclaiming architectural antiques, he said, he's had several homeowners who mistakenly claimed they lived in a Wright house. And anyway, who would want to gut one?
A quick Google search confirmed what he was told. The three-bedroom, 2,600-square-foot house sold in April for $1.2 million after almost two years on the market. It was designed in 1958 by Wright, considered one of the greatest American architects, and completed in 1960, the year after he died.
The house is known as the Olfelt House after its original owners, Paul and Helen Olfelt, and remained in their possession for nearly six decades.
Since the Olfelts never pursued historical designation or conservation easements, there was nothing to stop new owners from altering the structure.
According to city records, a permit to build a $2 million addition to the home was issued in October. The new owners, John and Kathy Junek, plan to add a 1,500-square-foot addition and relocate the kitchen, according to Gita Nandan, principal architect with Thread Collective in New York, the firm behind the project.
"We cherish the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, but plan to live in the home and are modernizing it somewhat," Kathy Junek wrote in an e-mail.
When the house went on the market in 2016, Paul Olfelt told the Star Tribune that he hoped a buyer wouldn't make large-scale changes. "But I'm a realist," he said. "I know that when it's gone, it's gone." He died in 2017.
Wright's original plan for the house included a possible future addition directed toward the street. Nandan said the new design incorporates elements of Wright's proposal, though zoning codes required it to be built in a slightly different location. The new wing will include a master bedroom, a library and below-ground garage.
The new construction will include details true to Wright's style and won't block views of the meadow below or the home's iconic pitched roof, Nandan said. Much of the millwork will be restored and the original furniture will be returned.
"We understand that everyone has an opinion on this," Nandan said. "But we are trying to be as sensitive as we can, being that we are building for this century."
Kathy Junek said when the work is finished, the house should still look original from the cul-de-sac and from the main inside entrance.
"The Juneks have really done their research," Nandan said, adding that the couple had visited several Wright homes across the country. "They fell in love with the house and have decided where and how it will retain the Frank Lloyd Wright aesthetic."
'Like a Picasso'
After the house sold, staffers from the Chicago-based Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy reached out to the Juneks' architects with information about preservation and sensitive renovations. The conservancy tracks the sale and preservation of Wright's buildings.
"We all realize these homes have to live in the 21st century," said Barbara Gordon, the conservancy's executive director. "But the level of what's being done there is a concern."
The lesson for Wright fans, Gordon said, is that without landmark safeguards there's no way to prevent major alterations to a Wright structure. Of 380 Wright buildings across the country, fewer than half are legally protected, she said.
"People assume that if it's a Frank Lloyd Wright, this won't happen," Gordon said. "But here we are losing an intact, well-preserved Usonian with these radical changes."
Nine of the dozen Wright creations in Minnesota are single-family houses. The two in Minneapolis are both protected by a landmark law, said Tim Quigley, a Minneapolis architect who serves on the conservancy's board.
"Most Wright houses have changed hands over the years, and inevitably someone does something," Quigley said. "But people usually strive hard to be faithful to the original."
The Olfelt House was built into a hill that overlooks a meadow. Adding a wing to the house changes Wright's signature interplay between a building and its surrounding landscape, Quigley said.
"It's like buying a Picasso and then changing it," he said.
Nandan said she understands that concern, but that much of the land excavated for construction will be replaced so that the addition sits in a kind of berm. "The new addition does not intercept any of those existing view corridors," she said.
John Olfelt, son of the couple that commissioned the design, said he saw schematic remodel plans during the sale of the home but hadn't seen the latest renderings. But he said that because of Wright's original plan to add onto the home, he was confident that the architect wouldn't have opposed adding to the house or updating it for a family's needs.
Over three days, Eckley and a crew of five removed doors, desks, single-grain mahogany wood panels and the front faces of many cabinets. Because much of the built-in shelving was nailed directly into the brick, removal was difficult, he said.
"At least we had the chance to save some of it," he said.
Eckley, who owns City Salvage in Minneapolis, said he plans to sell most of what he took from the house but also wants to work with the conservancy to see what might be done with some of the pieces.
"The place isn't a museum, but this is stuff that should be saved," he said.
The Juneks agreed, Nandan said, and ordered the general contractor not to demolish anything without trying to save it.
"We did want to make sure that these pieces could be loved by other Frank Lloyd Wright fans," Nandan said.
City Salvage's post on Facebook showing some of the removed millwork has drawn hundreds of comments, most echoing the same sentiment: Why would someone purchase a Wright house if they were just going to change it?
"But hey," Eckley said. "It's a free country."