Scottsdale wants to gain some leverage for ensuring the future of one its top tourist attractions and cultural beacons.
The Historic Preservation Commission is working to put the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation’s Taliesin West complex on the Scottsdale Historic Register.
That designation would give the city some legal standing to discourage whatever it might consider as inappropriate development of the property.
Wright and his apprentices began building the residential enclave and architecture studio in the McDowell Mountains foothills in the 1930s.
Today it is home to architects, teachers and other members of the Wright fellowship, houses the Wright school of architecture and the main repository of his archives. It also lures about 120,000 visitors a year for paid tours.
Owing to Wright’s stature as one of the the 20th century’s most famous architects, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and eight years later given the added distinction of being named a National Historic Landmark.
The federal designations, however, carry no weight to prevent the Wright Foundation or any other future owner of the property from, say, redeveloping it as a residential subdivision.
Putting it on the Scottsdale register enables the city through its zoning authority to exercise some control over the use of the land, said Debbie Abele, Scottsdale’s historic preservation officer.
Any proposed major change would be subject to city review. That would give officials and the community time to encourage the owner to consider options that would preserve the property’s historic significance, Abele said.
In a last resort, the city could impose a delay on any demolition, she said.
None of that appears necessary in the foreseeable future for Taliesin West.
"The foundation has no intention of divesting itself of any of its properties," said chief operating officer Beverly Hart. "The foundation wants this (Scottsdale historic designation) to happen."
Scottsdale architect Vern Swaback, chairman of the Wright Foundation’s board, said he views the designation as a pivotal part of an effort to "revamp" Taliesin West.
The foundation is attempting to recover from several years of declining fundraising and leadership squabbles that have threatened the accreditation of its school and left it unable to afford major renovations at Taliesin West and the original Taliesin in Wisconsin.
An agreement reached this summer by the Wright fellowship and foundation leaders set in motion a "big-picture vision" Swaback said has put things back on track.
A new dean has joined the school and a new chief executive should be chosen by early next year, as well as several new board members with the business experience and influence to boost fund-raising, Swaback said.
Long-term plans include building a new archive facility, expanding the visitors center and book store, an exhibition gallery, cafe and additional school facilities, he said.
The foundation agreed to cooperate with the city’s project to list Taliesin West on its historic registry as part of a deal struck in 2003 that gave the foundation a $517,000 tourism development grant.
The funds were used to restore Wright’s living quarters to be an added tour attraction, improve the bookstore and gift shop and open a temporary Taliesin West information and retail center in downtown Scottsdale.
The deal was worth it to Scottsdale if only to open the way for giving the city a stronger role in promoting and preserving the center, said Rachel Sacco, president of the Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Taliesin West "is one of the most valuable assets to our tourism industry," and one of the few local attractions with strong appeal internationally, Sacco said.
It could still be several weeks before the Historic Preservation Commission is prepared to send its recommendation for register designation to the City Council.
Wright Foundation leaders and a registry subcommittee still are negotiating over how much of the almost 500-acre Taliesin West property would be subject to historic preservation zoning regulation, said commissioner Nancy Dallett.