The Price of Modernism

By Michael Aushenker

After World War II, the Mid-Century architectural movement known as Modernism thrived in Southern California, where famous practitioners of the school designed houses that interplayed with surrounding nature and defied the cookie-cutter format of suburbia. Many of the most iconic Modernist houses still cling to the hills overlooking the San Fernando Valley.

And there’s an economic value to Modernism.

“If the property is designated, we use that as a selling point,” said Mike Deasy of deasy penner podley in Beverly Hills, which specializes in the Modernist architecture market and represents such homes as the William Rudolph house at 1625 Kinneloa Mesa Road in Pasadena. “It’s not something to be disregarded.”

Well-known architects of the school include Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Richard Dorman, Ray Kappe, Pierre Koenig and William Krisel.

“They’re canonized,” said Los Angeles Conservancy Director of Advocacy Adrian Scott Fine. “ We do know there’s a finite (number) designed by these star architects. There’s not that many – a number have been lost.”

These homes – once overlooked and marginalized – have made a comeback in the last two decades, popularized by coffee-table books and the work of architectural photographer Julius Shulman. A market has coalesced around the style, resulting in rising prices and attendant historical preservation battles and illegal demolitions.

Valley treasures

Perfectly suited for architectural experimentation with irregular lots, expansive space and hilly terrain, the San Fernando Valley – Studio City in particular – is a hotbed for Modernism.

Modernism reflected an architectural philosophy espousing that form should follow function. This minimalist movement rejected the ornamental and the opulent for a structure’s surrounding environs, often incorporating nature into its design. The style also capitalized on innovative technologies that had arrived in the construction industry, aesthetically applying such materials as steel, reinforced concrete and glass to maximum, often stylistically exaggerated effect.

As if to underscore the movement’s idiosyncratic nature, in the 1950s, eccentric musician Liberace owned a Sherman Oaks estate at 15405 Valley Vista Blvd. which had a piano-shaped swimming pool.

Many Modernist structures still exist. Neutra designed the Taylor House in Glendale and the Serulnic House in La Crescenta. There’s the Schindler-designed Laurelwood apartments at 11805 Laurelwood Dr,. in Studio City. Schindler also created the 1,348-square-foot Goodwin House in Studio City at 3807 Reklaw Drive and his 1940-erected Van Dekker House at 19950 Collier St. in Woodland Hills.

In La Cañada-Flintridge sits a “rustic modern” home designed by architects Theodore Criley Jr. and Garrett Eckbo for animator Frank Thomas, one of Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men” – the Walt Disney Co. animators who worked on the studio’s first five feature-length animated films. Completed in 1949, the single-story 3,500-square-fooot house fetched an asking price of $3.2 million in 2017. The late Thomas’ home, located at 758 Flintridge Ave., is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Elsewhere in the Valley, on the Northridge-Granda Hills border, sits a 1,568-square-foot house – last sold for just $18,500 in 1976 and recently listed for $627,000 – that’s one of 54 Valley houses dubbed the Living-Conditioned Homes designed by William Krisel and Dan Palmer in the late 1950s. There’s also the Kappe-designed Strimling House in Encino, which in 2017 was listed for $3.2 million.

Even Ventura Country contains Modernist treasure. A home called Case Study House #28 stands at 91 Inverness Road in Thousand Oaks.

The wacky, asymmetrical shapes of Modernism function well in retail settings.

Schindler indulged in commercial-strip design with the 1942 Lingenbrink Shops, where a Ralphs now sits on Ventura Boulevard near Coldwater Canyon. With its sloping roof and glass walls, it may represent one of the greater Los Angeles’s most expressive supermarkets. Meanwhile, Welton Becket’s firm created such wild architectural outposts as the Capital Records headquarters in Hollywood and the “UFO mothership,” the former centerpiece restaurant at Los Angeles International Airport. The firm Armet and Davis, which specialized in the Modernist offshoot called Googie architecture, brought playful elements to businesses and restaurants, as exemplified by Norms Restaurants.

Art or commerce?

At deasy’s 300-agent brokerage firm, Modernism “is a specialty that we love,” he said. Deasy, who sits on the board at L.A. Conservancy, said that “there’s a buying public for them,” with a caveat.

“In selling them, we have found the sellers are reluctant to open the door to a preservationist approach,” he explained. “They think it would bring less money.”

Sometimes, Deasy said, prospective sellers have been wary of listing the home as Modernist for fear that it might trigger an ordinance to preserve it.

During the decades since Modernism’s heyday, many of these homes have fallen into disrepair, so a new owner may value the land over the house. Deasy said that, in some cases, when “the land value so far exceeds the restoration of the house, the solution could be to move it to a different location,” which happened with Neautra’s Maxwell House in Brentwood, which was relocated to Angeleno Heights.

An owner’s nightmare of historical preservation came to life late last year in San Francisco. The planning commission, in a unanimous 5-0 vote, ruled against property owner Ross Johnston, who had acquired a two-story Neutra original called Largent House and razed it. Johnston maintained that the house had been so reworked over the years, it no longer sustained its historic value.

However, the judge ruled that Johnston must rebuild a replica of the original house and install a historic marker on the sidewalk telling its origin story. Even if Johnston sells the property, the new owner would have to follow through on this action.

“The idea that a replica serves the place of the original, I don’t actually buy that,” said Mike Resnick, a real estate investor who recently sold the Valley’s Neutra-crafted Poster apartments at 6847 Radford Ave. in North Hollywood.

Fine at Los Angeles Conservancy said that Johnston’s penalty, while obviously not as satisfying as saving the original home, was proper because the owner had gone rogue. Even if the historic home no longer retains its integrity, it needs to be discussed, not unilaterally decided upon, he believes.

“(Johnston) exceeded the scope of what the permit was. If that was the argument – that it had been too altered – they should’ve had that conversation because it’s a protected resource.” Fine said.

However, Neutra’s direct descendant, artist Max Neutra, told the Business Journal that if it wasn’t for his personal connection to these homes, he’s not so sure if he would be so passionate about saving them.

Before relocating to Santa Fe, N.M. four years ago, Max – great-grandson of the Modernist architect and grandson of Dion Neutra, 92, who worked as an architect with his legendary father – resided in Van Nuys.

Dion Neutra has been passionate about trying to preserve his father’s homes, at one point attempting to create a Neautra certification of authenticity system. Naturally, that met with some resistance.

“He’s frustrated about it,” Max said. “Yes, there’s a protective feeling about them because that’s what he did. But I don’t necessarily fall on one side or the other. I can see how it could be frustrating if you’re an investor.

“I’m proud o fmy family’s legacy and it’s cool that efforts are being made to save these homes,” he continued. “But I can also understand (an owner wanting to redevelop the property). I feel like most people are buying stuff either to live in or invest in to turn around and make a profit. Most people would not want to preserve it.”

Breakeven preservation

Pasadena-based preservation consultant Barbara Lamprecht has been involved with a few Neutra houses firsthand.

Nuances, Lamprecht argues, are what make a Neutra home special, and every fixture, down to a breadboard concealed near a kitchen a counter, was not put there by accident.

“Many Neutra homes define luxury in a lot of the ways people don’t understand,” Lamprecht said. “It’s not about the detailing. It’s about liberating one’s self spatially.”

Lamprecht said new owners should not rush to make changes to a Modernist acquisition but “listen to what the house is saying.” There was a reason, she said, why Neutra might lay down a Formica surface over granite or marble.

“The Formica has a longevity and embodies a post-war optimism,” she said. “To destroy it is to ignore that intrinsic sense of optimism.”

Ditto with a cork floor. “You don’t replace it with (upscale hardness such as) Terrazzo tiles,” Lamprecht contrinued. “Acoustics are important. It’s sensorially alive and alert, not dead. If you take the life out of it, it’s no longer organic. Listen to the house and understand how he’s designing luxury.”

Deasy said that in the early 1970s, Moderinst fare had been largely disregarded. It’s really only been since the mid-1990s and early 2000s that a younger generation has latched on to local architecture designed by star architects.

Yet for many years, these homes, such as Resnick’s eight-unit Poster complex in NoHo – Neutra’s only multifamily project – stood largely unnoticed.

“Because it was in North Hollywood, there was nobody stepping up to save it,” Resnick said. “The property was derelict. Had I not stepped in, it would’ve been demolished.”

However, as part of the acquisition deal, he had to purchase five parcels, in addition to the roughly $700,000 apartment building, for a total $2.2 million. Resnick also spent upwards of $250,000 in renovations on the apartment building, including redoing the sewer.

“I basically rescued this thing,” he said. “I don’t want this to be a problem for another 30 years – I’d like it to last for a while.”

However, over the summer, Resnick sold the property at breakeven – once costs for the extra parcels, renovations, low rental income and property upkeep were factored in. And while he’s proud of his restoration job, which won the National Housing and Rehabilitation Award and other accolades, he wrestles with whether all the grief was ultimately worth it.

“Just because it’s a Schindler or a Neutra, I don’t think that makes it good,” Resnick said. “At the end of the day, I just don’t know how much a premium (name value is) worth. What justifies (the expense) is the quality of the building.”

In other words, not all Schindlers and Neautras were created equal, just as famous movie directors have made sub-par films.

“Studio City has (a lot) of Lautners and Schindlers,” Resnick said. “Schindler, in particular, doesn’t hold up well (over time).”

Media-driven fame

Fine cites the creator of the long-running television series “Mad Men” as a contributing influence on the resurgence of Modernism’s popularity.

“The writer for ‘Mad Man’ wrote his pilot at the Norms at La Cienega (Boulevard),” Fine said. “These buildings have inspired people to continue to tell the story of Modernism.”

In 2004, Benedikt Taschen, the owner of Taschen Books, which published many of those coffee-table tomes displaying Modernist architecture, purchased Lautner’s 1960-built Chemosphere at 7776 Torreyson Drive in Studio City. The house was in deep disrepair.

“There was no market for that house,” Julie Jones, the realtor involved in the transaction, told the Los Angeles Times at that time. “Everybody loved Spanish, and then shabby chic came in. (Mid-Century houses) would sit and sit and sit – you couldn’t give ’em away. People would want to see the view, that was about it.”

Yet today, Lautner’s 2,200-square-foot, octagonal creation – a flying saucer perched on in the Hollywood Hills facing Studio City – is among those coveted homes thanks to appearances in such films as the 1984 thriller “Body Double.”

Max Neutra said that was just as with a great painting, a person must experience a Neutra house in person to truly appreciate it.

“Once you’re in the house, you go, ‘Ok, now I understand,'” he said. “It’s more than just this structure. It’s an environment.”

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