Next to the front door of photographer Julius Shulman’s house sits a plaque stating that the property is Los Angeles Cultural Historic Monument #325. It’s a well deserved designation. The legendary home in the Hollywood Hills was not only the stomping grounds of one of the most famous chroniclers of the modern movement, but its indoor-outdoor design, which frames the site, was created by one of the most famous mid-century modern architects, Raphael Soriano.
But since Shulman’s death two years ago, the 1950 house has slid into a sad state of decline. Its paint is chipping, its carpets are dank, its concrete is cracking, and its interiors have a worn look that begs for renewal. Furthermore, the home’s abundant landscaping, designed by Garret Eckbo, is starting to become an overgrown jungle that’s turning on the house itself.
LA-based Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects (LOHA) has been commissioned by the home’s owners, who wish to remain anonymous, to ride to the rescue. Firm principal Lorcan O’Herlihy has had some experience renovating modernist masterpieces: he also restored Richard Neutra’s Staller Residence in Bel Air and Neutra’s Goldhammer House in Palos Verdes. He has been working on the Shulman project since May and is set to complete the renovation by the fall. And despite the fact that the house is carefully designated, LA’s Office of Historic Resources is allowing the architect to add some of his contemporary “voice,” as he puts it.
“It’s going to have a new life,” said Lambert Giessinger, Historic Preservation Architect for LA’s Office of Historic Resources. “It’s not going to be a museum. We try to maintain a balance between preserving the historic fabric and responding to the needs of the owner.” Giessinger says this often comes as a surprise to owners and architects, but such flexibility is common within the bounds of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, which guided the project.
The house, with its floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors, open floorplan, and lush landscaping, showcases the California lifestyle that Shulman captured over his storied career. The scenery dominates most views, and Shulman’s office is located in a separate building altogether.
But one of the elements that Soriano didn’t like was Shulman’s addition of screens, which essentially created outdoor rooms but didn’t adhere to Soriano’s idea of strict formal boundaries between inside and out. Still, for Shulman, his family, and visitors the screened areas became the dominant location for meals and socializing and proved quite successful. O’Herlihy plans to riff off these screens, adding several of his own in a lighter color that will create a contemporary take on a modernist look.
While the exterior will remain essentially the same, changes inside will include re-cladding the house’s aging Douglas fir panels with lighter woods, adding some skylights to help light penetrate darker corridors, and creating completely new kitchens and bathrooms. “Adding richness where there’s tiredness,” as LOHA associate Donnie Schmidt put it. Shulman’s old office will become a guest suite, and the firm will add a series of small new ductless heating and cooling units, which should be virtually impossible to spot.
O’Herlihy describes the renovation as a “light touch,” and points to “control and improvisation” as his guiding themes. “Change is ok,” he added. “Tension between old and new can be valuable.” The firm is working with Soriano’s original drawings, found in the Cal Poly Pomona archives, and will likely collaborate with landcape architect Mia Lehrer in the near future to return the house’s terrain to its former glory.
In many ways LOHA is the perfect firm to undertake the job, since they’ve made a name creating splendid-looking modernist residences using inexpensive off-the-shelf materials. And they will need to use that expertise—at $240,000, the overall budget is tight. “That’s architecture,” said O’Herlihy. “You have parameters.”