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04.30.2008
Tinkering with History
When it comes to restoring midcentury masterpieces, it's sometimes hard to know what's best to leave alone: the house or the house owner.
Craig Elwood's 1953 Johnson House in Brentwood was restored by Du Architects, who stripped, polished, and replaced wood finishes and floors as necessary to maintain the original integrity of the house.
Joshua White

When George Mimnaugh set out to restore an original 1953 home designed by Case Study architect Rodney Walker that had been chopped up and turned into a triplex, his intention was to turn it back into the duplex it was originally intended to be and to respect the home’s historic integrity.

“That restoration happened and everyone in the preservation community was thrilled,” he said. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t sell it.” 

He proceeded to take the house off the market and turn it into a single-family dwelling, trying to retain as much of the original spirit, but clearly not keeping to the original duplex blueprint. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but in the end I was really pleased with the renovation and the house sold almost immediately,” he said. “Not everyone has the deep pockets that it takes to turn these homes into museum pieces, nor is it always practical,” he added.

For purists, turning the duplex into a single-family home is sacrilege. Others, who don’t take issue with some architectural license and consider it a duty to bring a home into this century, find it refreshing. In a time when midcentury houses are either fetching millions or facing the wrecking ball, the restorations, renovations, and re-builds of architecturally significant modernist houses have become the subject of both pride and controversy.

According to Brian Linder, AIA, of Deasy/Penner & Partners, a “design-centric” real estate firm that has sold many significant midcentury properties in Southern California, there is room for both renovation and restoration. “Some buyers want things in pristine original condition, like a museum piece. Others need the home to be brought up to date, with new kitchens and baths, closets and room sizes, etc., that are more in line with our current lifestyles,” he said.

But many in the architecture world are concerned that insensitive or poorly-executed renovations—whether they be for aesthetic or lifestyle reasons—will forever damage an architectural legacy. Alan Leib, chairman emeritus of the Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee, claims that the real issue comes with a lack of monitoring in the landmark process on both the local and state level. “Even if the house gets landmark status, it’s almost impossible to truly save anything in the interior because the system states that it has to be ‘exceptional’ to be landmarked,” he said. “Right out of the gate, that’s setting you up for failure. The system makes it impossible to really monitor what’s going on, and it makes it even more difficult to insure restorations are done thoughtfully.”

 

John Lautner’s curvaceous Garcia House on Mulholland Drive (top) was completed in 1962 and has now been renovated by its current owner John McIlwee. JULIS SHULMAN

The architect’s Chemosphere House (above), completed in 1960, belongs to publisher Benedikt Taschen, and was renovated by Silver Lake firm Escher GuneWardena who updated the windows and floors but otherwise tried to retain the original feel of the house. 
JOSHUA WHITE

One person doing his part to carry out sensitive renovations is Michael LaFetra, who has gained the reputation of being Angelenos’ own modern house collector. He currently lives in a home designed by Ray Kappe, and owns nine other architecturally-significant properties. “I simply wanted to buy significant modern homes, restore them with integrity by bringing them back to blueprint, get landmark status and enrollment in the Mills Act, and then sell them,” he said, referring to the state provision that allows owners to obtain tax reductions in exchange for maintaining or restoring their historic properties. To date, LaFetra has completed 13 meticulous restorations, including homes designed by Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler, and A. Quincy Jones, among others, and he continues to look around for more salvageable gems.

LaFetra tries to maintain the original form and update the original materials, and he pointed out that if he finds a house that he would like to change, he doesn’t buy it. (Not everyone is ready to make the sacrifices that living in a home built in the 1950s can require, but that doesn’t stop many from buying them.) For instance, he and his fiancée looked at the Singleton House, designed by Richard Neutra and completed in 1960. Located in Bel Air, the house was in good condition and had a great site, but when they saw that the master bedroom could only hold a full-sized bed, they decided the house wasn’t for them. “We’re big sleepers and we require a king-sized bed,” he said. “I didn’t want my hands bloodied during the restoration if we had to take down a wall. It’s better to move on and find a house that works for you.”

 

From the top:
The exterior of Craig Ellwood’s Johnson House, renovated by Du Architects JOSHUA WHITE;  SH_ARC added to the master bedroom of Neutra’s Troxell House PASEO MIRAMAR PHOTOS; The exterior of Neutra’s Kaufmann House renovated by Marmol Radziner JULIUS SHULMAN AND JÜRGEN NOGAI; The interior of the 1953 Rodney Walker home, a duplex that George Mimnaugh converted into a single family residence in order to sell TIM STREET PORTER; A decked interior space at the 1946 Kaufmann House to be auctioned by Christie’s in New York on May 13. The estimate is from $15 to 25 million. JULIUS SHULMAN AND JÜRGEN NOGAI

LaFetra also uses only one contractor, LA-based Jeff Fink and Associates, who is known for his work on Rudolf Schindler houses, to insure all details will be attended to properly. He maintains that even though each house is dramatically different, good resources are often used over and over again. “What I love most about Jeff is that he takes his ego out of it and really lets the original architecture give the cues.” 

Robert Thibodeau of Du Architects, who worked on a restoration of Craig Ellwood’s 1953 Johnson House notable for its emphatic use of standardization, agrees on the importance of maintaining as many original details as possible. “It was incredible as we stripped and polished and replaced, the house really started to feel alive again,” he said of the careful work. He points out that compromises that impair the integrity of a home often come when owners are trying to sell the house for maximum profit.

A good example of this unfortunate phenomenon is the fate of the above-mentioned Singleton house. In 2004, it was bought by Vidal Sassoon, the hair-care magnate, who decided to change the house and then put it back on the market for $20 million. The project included enlarging rooms, moving walls, and adding bathrooms and other amenities. The house is currently for sale and has been cause for major uproar in the preservation world. Many architects have openly admitted that they wouldn’t consider it a Neutra anymore. One architect who spoke off the record said, “it was a travesty, a complete bastardization of a beautiful piece of architecture.” The architect added that the saddest thing about the whole affair is that the home isn’t selling. “The house now will not appeal to a Neutra lover and because it’s not a McMansion, they’re losing out on a lot of the potential buyers looking for a home in Bel Air.”

Crosby Doe, a real estate broker who specializes in the sales of modern architecture, met with Sassoon when he purchased the Singleton house and took him to the Getty to view some 30 images of the home photographed by Julius Shulman. “It was incredibly disappointing,” he admitted. “We had a complete disagreement about the restoration. It’s really upsetting.” 

Leo Marmol of Santa Monica-based Marmol Radziner, which has carried out close to 20 midcentury modern renovations in the area, said that it is important to remember that homeowners almost always think they are doing the right thing. But he added that they should be able to do what they want. “With the attention that many of these homes get from the media and exhibitions comes a lot of social judgement,” he said. “I think it’s important to remember that there are a lot of factors that go into a restoration—time, budget, and a whole slew of other things. It can cause a lot of unnecessary anxiety for both the homeowner and the architect.”

Still, his firm’s recent renovation of Richard Neutra’s 1946 Kaufmann House is now seen as the gold standard for meticulous work and an example of the sustainable value of many modernist homes—and the inestimable value of good clients. The home is expected to fetch more than $20 million at auction next month. Its owners, Brent and Beth Edwards Harris, supported the firm’s efforts to reproduce the sheet-metal roof, match the stone to replace what had been damaged, and even find original paint and fixtures. For Doe, the Kaufmann House is emblematic of what can and will continue to happen in the future. It is essentially the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. “The restoration was done beautifully and the homeowners have maintained the property meticulously,” he said. He also pointed out that homeowners who are truly sensitive to the history of a home will be rewarded. “You don’t take a Picasso and make changes,” he said. “The value would go out the window.” He paused. “Can you imagine what the guy who bulldozed the Maslon House is thinking right about now?” he said, referring to the 1963 Neutra House in Ranch Mirage. “He literally threw millions of dollars away.” Still, changes to modernist houses are not always frowned upon. Sometimes they can help achieve the architect’s original intention, thanks to increased funds or better technology. When Frank Escher of Escher GuneWardena Architecture was hired to restore John Lautner’s 1960 Chemosphere House, he understood that the house was not completed the way Lautner envisioned it. Even though there were only four pages of original plans, little notes gave the team clues and a sense of direction during the process. “There were things that we were able to do in that house because we were given a cue from the plans,” he said. He was able to create more seamless expanses of glass, and the kitchen floor was designed to be the way Lautner intended it to be, not the way it was actually built. “I was asked at the time why I didn’t replicate the orange tile in the kitchen the way the original photographs showed it,” he said. “I knew he intended to do a jagged slate floor and that’s what we decided to do.” He also spoke about why it’s important to hire experts. “I’ve seen so many poor examples of restorations and renovations where the architecture is ruined,” he said. “These are not do-it-yourself projects. The best advice I can give people is to hire someone who knows what they’re doing.”

Exterior detail of Rodney Walker’s 1953 house. Former owner George Mimnaugh said, “Not everyone has the deep pockets that it takes to turn these homes into museum pieces, nor is it always practical.” TIM STREET PORTER

John McIlwee owns the Lautner-designed Garcia House, which was completed in 1962. When he and his partner purchased the home, they were given a notebook filled with snapshots and documentation of various changes made to the house over the years. “I really have to believe that every owner along the way had good intentions,” he said, “but in most cases it was abominable.” Though some of his changes strayed from the original blueprint—like turning four children’s bedrooms into three, and subtly adding a new master suite—they believe that Lautner himself, who was very open to change, would have applauded the decisions they made along the way. “We have no problem going head-to-head with anyone about our house,” he said. “We believe this house has been done correctly.”

According to John Umbanhower of Venice-based SH_ARC, the renovation of Neutra’s Troxell Residence, built in 1956, took cues from the original post and beam residence, but quite a few alterations were made. The footprint was changed and the house expanded to 3,000 square feet. A cantilevered addition to the master bedroom made the home more livable, and a pool (present in Neutra’s original plan, but never executed because Dr. Troxell maintained he had the best pool in town already—the Pacific Ocean) was finally installed.


Venice-based SH_Arc replaced the wood, stone, plaster, and glass of Richard Neutra’s 1956 Troxell House. PASEO MIRAMAR PHOTOS

While the issues of standards, ownership, and actually living in a home may collide in unfortunate ways, LaFetra said that as people become savvier, the horror stories related to renovation should diminish. “That being said, the only way you can truly save a house and restore it sensitively and properly is to own it.”

Real estate broker Doe believes it is still possible to live in a house built 60 years ago: “If people take the time to live in the house before they make drastic changes, they’ll begin to understand how every day, the house will give something back to them.”

Kimberly Stevens