A house linked to the most celebrated name in architecture is facing the wrecking ball.
Birdwing, a large modernist house built in 1965 in Minnetonka, is targeted for teardown; its parklike 12-acre estate, Birdsong, will be carved into lots for 13 single-family luxury homes.
The distinctive house was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. Not the Frank Lloyd Wright of Prairie School fame, but his son, also an architect.
The younger Wright, known as Lloyd Wright, was a well regarded architect in his own right, particularly in California, according to Bobak Ha’Eri, member of Docomomo MN, a modernist preservation nonprofit.
“Lloyd Wright is considered a modern master,” said Ha’Eri. The architect designed the Wayfarers Chapel and a band shell at the Hollywood Bowl, as well as numerous houses in Los Angeles and three houses in the Twin Cities — two in Edina (one of which is still standing), in addition to Birdwing.
But Lloyd Wright’s work and reputation were eclipsed by his world-renowned father. And Birdwing is not considered a significant example of his work.
For starters, the 6,500-square-foot house was originally designed for another site, in Edina, several years before it was finally built in Minnetonka, where more land and better views were available.
“By the time it was moved, he [Wright] was disassociated from it,” said Ha’Eri. “There is no indication he approved the new location or approved any tweaks.”
Birdwing merited a mention in “Minnesota Modern,” architectural historian Larry Millett’s 2015 book about midcentury modern architecture, which noted: “The name derives from the winglike triangular canopies that shoot out from the main body of the house and seem ready to send it airborne at any moment.”
And while the style of the house is characteristic of Lloyd Wright’s bold aesthetic, some elements are believed to have been altered from his original design.
“The setting is lovely,” said Ha’Eri. “But the house is so-so at best.”
Architect Tim Quigley, Quigley Architects , agreed that the site is “spectacular,” with gently rolling terrain that includes ponds and mature trees of many species.
As for Birdwing itself, “It’s an OK modern house,” he said. “It’s been on the market for years.”
The Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy, of which Quigley is a board member, hasn’t gotten involved in trying to preserve Birdwing, primarily because it was designed by the son, not the father. “Our mandate is Frank Lloyd Wright buildings,” he said.
Birdwing was originally built for Charles and Marjorie Pihl; Marjorie was a daughter of Arthur Erickson, who cofounded the company that evolved into the Holiday gas station chain. Most recently Birdwing was owned by WCCO media executive Jim Rupp, who died in December. Earlier this year, the whole 12-acre estate was sold for $3.875 million to Zehnder Homes of Plymouth.
“The land is beautiful, and it will be a great addition to the neighborhood,” said owner Eric Zehnder. The 13 custom homes will be “higher end,” starting at $1.4 million with others $2 million and up, set on generous lots from ½ acre up to 2 acres, he said. The development is called Bird Song — “a nice little tribute to the estate.”
The Minnetonka Planning Commission recently approved the development plan for Bird Song, which is expected to go before the full council within the next few weeks. One parcel has already been sold, pending final city approval, Zehnder said.
Although Birdwing is “so-so,” by Lloyd Wright standards, some Docomomo members believe it’s still worth preserving.
“Even a so-so Lloyd Wright house is far beyond what you usually see [built] today,” Ha’Eri said. “The bones could be restored and developed into a good Wright-style house.”
Zehnder said his firm explored more than one concept plan to keep Birdwing and build new homes around it. “But it didn’t work,” he said. “The road shape was weird, and it wouldn’t fit the character of the new neighborhood.”
And the economics of the plan required 13 lots, he said.
“Unfortunately, the writing is already on the wall — development is pretty far along,” said architect Todd Grover, MacDonald & Mack Architects, and another Docomomo board member who also serves as advocacy chairman for the national organization.
The local chapter of Docomomo is trying to build a registry of significant modernist buildings in the Twin Cities and outstate Minnesota, in hopes of saving them from the wrecking ball.
“There are a lot of sites out there that we don’t know about,” said Grover. “It would be great to know these sites before they’re threatened.”
Midcentury homes are easier targets for teardown than homes from earlier eras because many people don’t view them as historic, noted Ha’Eri. Minnetonka, in particular, is home to some exceptional examples of modern architecture from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
“This one’s doomed,” he said of Birdwing. “But perhaps we can get the city thinking about preservation of midcentury modern houses.”