'It took my breath away': Fargo homeowner hopes to save Frank Lloyd Wright's legacy in Fargo
FARGO — John Stern could still remember the first time he entered the house overlooking the Red River in Belmont Park.
"It kind of took my breath away," he said. "It was like walking inside a work of art. And everyday I feel that way about the house."
The emphasis on horizontal lines in the brick wall and wooden panels made the house feel low to the ground but from the doorway, his eyes were suddenly drawn upwards to windows high above the elevated living room. Elizabeth Wright Ingraham built the house in 1958 and that visual contrast is a hallmark of her grandfather, the architecture giant Frank Lloyd Wright.
Today, Stern, former owner of Strauss Clothing, owns the house with his wife Sherri. But the city may soon take it away to build a $3.4 million dike in its place to protect the flood-prone neighborhood and the nearby water treatment plant. The Sterns hope the city will change its mind and build the dike around their home.
City staff told city commissioners this week building around the home would increase the cost to $5.6 million, but the Sterns believe more precise estimates would show the option to be no more expensive than buying out and demolishing their priceless house.
In the meantime, they've sought recognition from local and federal historic preservation groups to bolster their case. Architect Catherine Ingraham, Wright's great granddaughter, has lent her support also.
The pedigree of the house at 1458 South River Road is obvious even from the street, with flat cantilevered roofs emphasizing the horizontal and making the building appear like it had grown out of the riverbank. A lack of picture windows emphasizes privacy. There are only clerestory windows on the home's front and sides, meaning they're near the top of the walls.
Inside, the homeowner enjoys a view of the river through a series of big windows stretching along the back walls, blending the indoors with the outdoors.
For the Sterns, even the small details reflect Wright's style.
Red tiles at the front porch match the ones they saw at his Kentuck Knob house in southwestern Pennsylvania. Built-in closets and cabinets resemble the ones in numerous other Wright-designed homes.
Wright Ingraham would go on to develop her own style but, in 1958 when she was 36, she was still in her grandfather's shadow. She and her then-husband and business partner, Gordon Ingraham, met each other while studying at Taliesin, her grandfather's architecture school.
Stern said the Ingrahams got the commission from a referral given by Wright. "The owners of this house had contacted Frank Lloyd Wright in 1955 saying 'We'd like you to design us a house.' And Frank Lloyd Wright told them, 'I've got maybe 10 years of life left and I already have 20 years of contracted work that I have to do. I just don't have time, but I have a granddaughter in Colorado Springs.'"
Wright was still alive when the house was built, Stern said, so it makes sense that his granddaughter would've consulted with him, explaining the red tiles and all the other details.
The Ingrahams built two more houses in Moorhead, but they've been demolished to make way for flood control projects, Stern said.
The Sterns' house is built along a flood-prone river and, in the 30 years that they've owned it, they've fought five to six floods. The previous owners did, too.
The worst was the flood of 1997, John Stern said, when there was still a door into the basement and he didn't know what he was doing. After that frightening experience, he said, he closed up the basement and, with the city's help, built an earthen levee behind the house, which allowed it to be certified to be protected from a 100-year flood for flood insurance purposes.
In the next big flood in 2009, the Sterns, like many Fargo-Moorhead homeowners, found those levees were not high enough. They still have pictures of the hordes of volunteers who helped lay down a line of sandbags.
The federal government now believes a 100-year flood could be higher, even with the $2.2 billion flood diversion. City plans call for a higher earthen levee stretching the east side of River Road, and of the 21 lots in the levee's path, the city now owns all but four. The Sterns are one of the holdouts.
Compared to floodwalls, levees are cheaper but have many restrictions in where they can be built. Being piles of clay, their footprint and weight grows significantly as they get higher to the point that they could cause riverbanks to collapse. Floodwalls, being thinner and lighter can be built much closer to the river, such as behind the Sterns' house.
In May, John Stern said he had asked city staff to estimate the cost of such a floodwall and was told that, based on an average of $2,000 per foot, it'd cost around $250,000. The estimate the city recently gave would amount to $10,000 per foot, he said.
According to City Engineer April Walker, the increased costs came after consultants took a closer look at Stern's property. The new costs are based on specific site requirements, such as the elevation and demolition, as well as a 30 percent contingency in case of unforeseen difficulties. In addition, Walker said, Stern's calculations seem to be based on the length of a floodwall through his house rather than around it.
Stern has considered other options.
After the 2009 flood, he said he called a mover in Pennsylvania who had experience moving big brick buildings. His L-shaped house is so long and wide — it's 76 feet by 56 feet — that the mover suggested taking it down the river on a barge, he said. "I said well that might be technically possible but there's a dam a mile that way and another dam a mile that way and there's no place in between to take them out. It's just not possible."
Stern also ruled out rebuilding the house despite owning the original plans and specifications because it would be "frightfully expensive." It was already difficult to build in 1958, he said. "The first owner, Beth Anderson, told me that the first builder that they contracted to build the house went bankrupt midway through because he didn't realize all of the detailed work that was involved and didn't bid it correctly."
The house is assessed at $347,000 and the city has offered him $381,000, following a policy of paying 110 percent of assessed value for voluntary buyouts. Since he's refused, Walker said the city's next step is to get an appraiser for a more precise market value and begin negotiations from there. City officials have also indicated they're willing to seek a court ruling in an eminent domain proceeding to force Stern to sell, if needed.
Stern is also working to get his home listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is seeking support from the city's Historic Preservation Commission, which takes up the matter Jan. 17.