Weddings held at Frank Lloyd Wright Estate rankle Orinda neighbors
ORINDA — When Vogue magazine reported in 2016 that the Frank Lloyd Wright Estate in Orinda was available for weddings with up to 400 guests, news quickly spread among couples searching for that one-of-a-kind venue for their nuptials.
“When you enter the Frank Lloyd Wright Estate, you immediately sense this place is special. And it is.” boasts the estate’s website, franklloydwrightestate.com, which goes on to describe the house at 6 Great Oak Circle as “sumptuous Mid-Century Modern” with “22k gold ceilings and a solid copper roof,” six buildings on four acres and a Japanese garden.
But the Vogue piece and similar media coverage of the estate — including that of the East Bay Times and Bay Area TV stations — overlooked a fact.
The weddings, with a couple of exceptions, have violated Orinda’s zoning ordinance, which bans commercial ventures in residential neighborhoods, according to Orinda Planning Director Drummond Buckley.
As a result, the city has issued citations of up to $1,000 each since Sept. 1, 2017, against homeowner Gerald Shmavonian for the seven weddings it knew about.
The city of Orinda says that’s all it can do while studying other ways to toughen enforcement. As a general law city bound by state laws, it’s limited to setting the maximum fines for ordinance violations in the range of $250 to $1,000, Buckley said.
Shmavonian, who doesn’t live on the property and lists a Fresno address, couldn’t be reached for comment via email and a phone call.
“Our neighbor Gerald Shmavonian continues to flout the rules and regulations of Orinda and has had yet another event at the Frank Lloyd Wright house,” neighbors Jane and Ken Johnson, Orinda residents since 1970, said in a May 9, 2017, email to the city. “We have spoken to many of the people in our neighborhood and all agree this is an extremely bad and disruptive situation.
“It is not an appropriate business even if he did live here,” wrote the Johnsons, Orinda residents since 1970. “This is a quiet residential neighborhood. It is not a business district.”
Other frustrated and angry neighbors have flooded the city with emails, affidavits, photos, videos and screenshots to support their complaints about amplified speeches from wedding parties, loud music lasting up to 10 p.m., catering trucks running back and forth, port-a-potties plopped on streets and guests parking in driveways and on lawns.
Shmavonian has paid a total of only $500 in fines, repeatedly stating in his appeals of the citations he has a right to hold events.
Police have responded to a dozen complaints about loud noise and music at the estate since last year, according to Orinda Police Chief Mark Nagel.
In his report about officers’ response to an Oct. 14, 2017 complaint about a loud party at the estate, Contra Costa County sheriff’s Deputy Devyn Hom said Shmavonian told him he was hosting a party for friends and would turn the music down at 10 p.m. “I asked Gerald if he was hosting a wedding like he has in the past, and he said, ‘No, it’s just a party with some friends. I know the rules.’ ” Shmavonian was cited.
“As a council member, to have somebody who doesn’t even live in our community impose this kind of misery on our residents and continue to get away with it is extremely frustrating,” Councilwoman Darlene Gee said at a July 10 meeting.
Molly Wolfsehr Boone, an event planner with Google, said in an interview that she has witnessed catering trucks and Uber drivers parking in her driveway and guests parking on a neighbor’s lawn.
“We hear the (wedding) speeches, the yelling, the music,” Wolfsehr Boone said.
“What we have here is a historic landmark site that he’s taken advantage of,” said Clint Johnson, a veteran firefighter who has lived in the neighborhood since 2004.
In 1948, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the house for inventor Maynard Buehler and his wife, Katherine Buehler of Orinda. In 2006, the estate was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. After the Buehlers died, the estate was put up for sale, and in 2013 Shmavonian bought it for $3.3 million.
Shmavonian opened the house for tours and fundraisers, which were allowed with a special permit if they generated money for nonprofits. Few of those events seemed to raise any issues or concerns among the neighbors.
The estate is also subject to an easement set up by the Buehlers and held by the nonprofit Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in Chicago. Under terms of the easement, the homeowner is required to open the estate to public events four to 10 days a year.
“The main thing to understand about that easement is that the city is not party to it,” Buckley said. “He may have some obligations to that easement, but he still has to comply with city regulations to the extent that he tries to meet the terms of that easement.”
Barbara Gordon, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, said in an email: “We require that easement grantors follow and recognize existing zoning regulations, or special uses approved in writing by local zoning authorities.”
Meanwhile, Shmavonian continues to hold weddings at the estate; one is scheduled for Sept. 2.
- City Staff presentation to Historic Preservation Commission - November 16, 2015
- City of Phoenix Staff Report: Z-24-12-6 - September 18, 2012
- City of Phoenix Staff Report: Z-53-15-6 - November 9, 2015
- Mr. Rawling’s Historic Preservation Zoning request, Part 1 - September 28, 2015
- Mr. Rawling’s Historic Preservation Zoning request, Part 2 - Narrative
- City of Phoenix Zoning Code – Landmark - Special Permit Uses
- Wright House Feasibility Study - Sarah Levi Wright Masters-Thesis, 2010
ACMNA Presentation on the David and Gladys Wright House
During the February 2016 Annual Meeting of The ACMNA, Dan Drake led a presentation on the ACMNA’s formal position on the David Wright Foundation’s Project. It outlined the formal position statement and the rationale for how the Board arrived at this position:
- We are in full support of HP (Historical Preservation) rezoning on the historically platted 2.4 acre David Wright House only.
- We are opposed to any rezoning, of any type, on the 2+ acres north, or the 1+ acres south, of the historically platted 2.4 acre Wright property.
- Furthermore, we are strongly opposed to any rezoning that includes "L" (Landmark) designation on any property, or portion of property that would potentially allow a Special Use Permit to conduct Commercial activities or operations within the Arcadia Neighborhood area.
Resolved by unanimous vote of the ACMNA Board of Directors, November 5, 2015
Some of the key issues surrounded the desired commercial uses of food, beverage sales, alcohol sales, charging admission and paid events such as concerts and weddings with up to 500 people at a time. Also of concern were the traffic and noise concerns involved with potential attendance rates north of 100,000 visitors annually. Service trucks and delivery access off neighborhood streets was also a concern. On the property, two massive builds were highlighted, including a subterranean visitors center, education, event facility and a massive outdoor 180 ft. wide Amphitheater / Pavilion which included a 30ft high shade structure.