In the mid 1950s, Paul and Helen Olfelt sent a note to the famed Prairie School architect Frank Lloyd Wright asking if he would be willing to design a house for their young family on a leafy lot on a secluded cul-de-sac in St. Louis Park.
Though Wright had been juggling commissions for the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and a house for Marilyn Monroe in Hawaii, he agreed, inviting the Olfelts to his studio in Spring Green, Wis., to discuss their needs. The Olfelts were in their 30s and had three kids; Wright was almost 89 and in the twilight of his career.
"I told him I came to him for beauty, good design and good function, and I wasn't going to tell him how to be an architect," said Paul Olfelt. "And he said, 'I've made this beautiful little nest for you.' "
Today, the Olfelts are in their 90s and are looking for a new owner for the "nest" where they raised four children and have lived for nearly 60 years. The house, one of nine surviving Wright houses in Minnesota, is now on the market for nearly $1.5 million.
While the house is a rarity in many ways, it's hitting the market at a time when finding buyers for such expensive, one-of-a-kind properties isn't always easy. During April, there were nearly 700 houses priced at more than $1 million for sale in the Twin Cities metro, according to the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors. At the current sales pace, that means there are enough listings to last nearly 17 months, compared with 1.8 months for houses priced from $190,000 to $250,000.
The family of the original owners of the R.W. Lindholm House — another Frank Lloyd Wright house that was designed and built in Cloquet in 1952 — tried unsuccessfully for several years to sell the house and 15.5 acres for $750,000, or for $250,000 not including the surrounding acreage.
The family partnered with the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy to help find a new use for the building, eventually deciding to donate it to the Usonian Preservation Inc., a nonprofit affiliated with Polymath Park in Acme, Pa.
So the house was recently disassembled and packed into containers, and it's now en route to Pennsylvania, where it will be reassembled over the next year to help preserve Wright's legacy. Copies of the original drawings will remain with the house, along with other archival material, and it will be protected by a preservation easement and monitored by the conservancy.
"The decision to relocate the house was a very difficult one for us," said owner Peter McKinney in a statement. "The house has been in our family for over 60 years and our son, David, grew up there. The three of us believe this solution is best for the long-term survival of the house."
In contrast, when Barry Berg, who is co-listing the Olfelt property with his business partner, Chad Larsen, listed another Wright-designed house in 2007, there was considerable interest in it. The sprawling stone house overlooking Cedar Lake on Burnham Boulevard in Minneapolis was designed by Wright in 1950. It sold quickly for $2.4 million, Berg said.
Like the Olfelt house, it had been in the same family since it was built and was in nearly pristine condition.
Vista 'immerses you'
The Olfelt house still has several original Wright-designed built-ins, including a desk and several cabinets. In Wright's trademark fashion, the house was designed to embrace the site in as many ways as possible.
"The living room includes a very dramatic glass prow that highlights the elegant integration of the house into a site that plunges downhill to a meadow," said Janet Halstead, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in Chicago, which sent a group of members to visit the Olfelt house in 2010. "The vista totally immerses you in nature from inside the house."
Halstead said only about 20 Wright houses are still in the hands of the original owner or family members, and in two of those cases, the original owners are still residing in the homes. She noted that the Olfelt house is particularly rare because it's one of the very few Wright houses with a basement.
'He was patient and kind'
Olfelt said that Wright wasn't thrilled about including that basement space, but the family needed room for their four children. Wright started designing the house in 1957, just two years before his death, so visits to such job sites were few. Wright did the drawings based on detailed surveys and photos of the site, and while he had a well-justified reputation for being difficult and opinionated, the Olfelts got what they wanted.
"He was patient and kind and we had a few things we needed to talk with him about as far as changes were concerned," Olfelt said. "He listened and gave his reasons for disagreeing with us, but he did make some changes."
Olfelt knows that what he and his wife helped create and preserve is clearly something unique, but they never wanted their children to feel like they were living in a monument. "It was home to our children," he said. "It was a very warm wonderful place to live."
To that end, the Olfelts never pursued historical designation or any conservation easements that would prevent a future owner from significantly altering it to fit the needs of their own families.
"I hope that they won't, but I'm a realist," he said. "But I know that when it's gone, it's gone."
Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376