Monday, August 19, 2013

Tearing Down Modernist Gems In Order to Build McMansions

Hello Everyone:

We have a full week ahead of us.  I've a full range of very fascinating topics on architecture, historic preservation, urban planning and design that I'm eager to share with you.  Once again, the universe has thrown a wrench into my schedule.  I had an exterminator come to my apartment this morning to deal with an invasion force of cockroaches, only to be told that he has to do the job in two parts.  Second, I still have to get that very necessary smog check in order to drive (cough) in the state of California.  Despite all this, I shall make every effort to block out time to share my views on some very interesting stories.  First up, is the story of some hidden modernist gems that currently on the Los Angeles real estate market.  The lovely homes are endanger of being torn down in order to make room for very garish McMansions.  In his article for The Daily Beast, "Trading Modernist For McMansion," reporter Andrew Romano introduces the reader to a few of these jewels and the fate that awaits them.

The Clinton Backus House

Our first house is the Clinton Backus House in Bel Air, California.  in 1949, Clinton Backus and his wife commissioned Swedish émigré designer Greta Magusson Grossman (1906-99) to build a home for them in the hill of this affluent community.  Greta Magusson Grossman studied at the renown Stockholm arts institute, Högen Konstindustriella Skolan, where she excelled in technical drawings and focused her work on textiles, furniture, and ceramics.  Ms. Grossman immigrated to the United States in 1940, settling in Los Angeles with her husband, jazz bandleader Billy Grossman.  In Los Angeles, she opened a shop dedicated to her design work, calling it "Swedish modern furniture, rugs, lamps, and
Greta Magusson Grossman
other home furnishings."  Her most enduring work in Los Angeles was her architectural commissions.  Between 1949 and 1959, Ms. Grossman designed fourteen homes in Los Angeles, one in San Francisco, and one in Sweden.  One of those Los Angeles Commissions was the Backus House, an 1,800 square foot, three bedroom, three bath residence.  The house is about five hundred square smaller than today's average home, so you would think it would fit right in, yes?  No.

While the Backus House still stands in the place where it was originally built, sprawling and ghastly-looking mega-mansions have begun spring up around this little treasure because of Los Angeles' overheated real estate market.  This lovely home is one of the few surviving examples of residential architecture by a woman, who is now considered one of the best designers of her time. (GRRRL POWER).  Sad to report that it may not survive to much longer.  The irony of the situation is, beginning in the twenties, the potent combination of climate, terrain, and a group of young progressive (European) architects and clients triggered a growth of modern residential architecture that culminated in the groundbreaking Case Study House Program sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine.  This program feature some amazing single-family homes designed by the era's top architects.  As Andrew Romano boldly points out, while the modern conception of the single family home may have been born in Europe, it matured in Southern California.

Thanks to Dwell magazine (, modernist architecture and design have never been more popular.  I can certainly attest to this fact from my own observations of the plethora of modernist-ish furniture stores in my neighborhood.  Dwell is a monthly ode to the styles and architecture of such bold-faced twentieth century names as Richard Neutra, Rudolph M. Schindler, and John Lautner.  Homes designed by these architects and their contemporaries do fetch a hefty price on the open market.   Thus, it might be natural to conclude that the property owners would want to everything in their power to maintain their unique homes.  Not exactly

While the bold-faced houses such as The Stahler House (Case Study House #22) by Pierre Koenig are not in immediate danger, it's the lesser known houses, located on prime lots in expensive neighborhoods such as Bel Air and Brentwood, that are in real danger in Los Angeles' current real estate market.  In the last year, the Los Angeles real estate market posted an average gain in the average sale prices-207 percent.  Andrew Romano quotes Regina O'Brian the chairperson of the Los Angeles Conservancy's Modern Committee (, "An economic downturn is always a good thing for preservation...fewer developers are making a lot less money, and therefore they have less motivation to pursue these profit oriented flips.  But the problem is that the opposite is true when the market picks back up."  Coupled with this is aging owners now realize that their equally aging homes can bring in top dollar in the market and the preservation-inclined buyers are outbid by buyers who want to tear these homes down and build Mediterranean-esque eyesores.  The modernist homes are quite modest by the contemporary standards of the communities they're located in.  Most potential home owners want more house than necessary and anything less is cause for the bulldozers.

Davidson-Kingsley House

Such is the case for the Davidson-Kingsley House (1947).  The house was designed by German-born architect J.R. Davidson, who also designed the first two Case Study Houses in 1945.  The Davidson-Kingsley Residence was/is sited on an ocean-facing lot in the Pacific Palisades and from the street,  appeared to be an unremarkable builder's ranch-style house.  The interior was the real star of the show: a "house without halls."  A feature requested by the client consisting of free-flowing spaces with airy rooms, custom lighting and furniture, and large sliding doors that opened onto elevated terraces.  When it was put for sale in February, it was bought for $4.2 million dollars.  The Davidson-Kingsley
Davidson-Kingsley House, interior
House was the last of the unaltered houses by the German architect in Los Angeles.  In the final contract, dated April 2, it sold for $360,000 over the asking price.  Mr. Romano's recent visit confirmed the sad but true fact that this priceless house was headed for a date with the bulldozer.  The garage is filled with broken boards and crushed plaster; appliances are scattered in the yard.  The new owner thinks that bigger is better.

Schairer  House
Sometimes, at-risk houses don't always meet with such a tragic end.  One such house is the Schairer House (1949) designed by mid-century modern architect and former USC School of Architecture professor Gregory Ain.  The house was designed for a RAND Corporation aerospace engineer and went up for sale in April.  It was bought for a mere $3.199 million.  At the time of the sale, there was a great deal of moaning and hand wringing over the fact that this house would meet its doom.  However, I'm happy to report that the new owners have seen the light and hired an architect to over see the complete restoration.  Hurray.  Whatever your opinion on the subject,  not everyone loves modernist architecture.  For some people, modernism is the best thing that ever happened to architecture and for others, it just leaves them cold.  Yours truly loves the modern architecture and design from the twenties through the fifties.  Even the most dedicated modernist doesn't believe in demonizing home buyers for wanting to personalize their space.  However, even in Los Angeles, the character and the history of the city are mirrored in the architecture.

Feldman House

Gregory Ain Spec House at MOMA

Currently, there is another Gregory Ain House up for sale: the Feldman House (1953) in Beverly Hills.  The house was commissioned by psychiatrist Fred Feldman and his wife Elaine after the saw an Ain designed three bedroom spec house on exhibit in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the fifties.  The Feldman House is one of the last houses designed by Gregory Ain and the least known.  This U-shaped gem features honey-colored wood paneling, vast living spaces, and a long glass wall that overlooks an acre of private sloping forest.  However, in an ideal world, the Feldman House would live another sixty years.  This gem and other modernist jewels deserve the right kind of buyer who will appreciate its design and rehabilitate them.

It's tragic when a piece, even a small piece, of a city's architectural history is felled by a bulldozer to make for an ostentatious display of ego.  Just because you want to personalize your space doesn't mean you should.  By the same token,  these homes were never meant to be museum pieces.  People lived in them.  Instead of treating them like exhibits under glass, it's best to clean them up, make all the necessary repairs. and live.  Regardless of what you think, houses, like the ones profiled in this post should be appreciated for their quality and timelessness of design.

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