Mid-century Modern Hudson Valley Blog

Richard Neutra’s Architectural Vanishing Act

Richard Neutra’s Architectural Vanishing Act The Austrian-born designer perfected a signature Los Angeles look: houses that erase the boundary between inside and outside. By Alex Ross On December 15, 1929, Dr. Philip M. Lovell, the imperiously eccentric health columnist for the Los Angeles Times, invited readers to tour his ultramodern new home, at 4616 Dundee Drive, in the hills of Los Feliz. On a page crowded with ads promoting quack cures for “chronic constipation” and “sagging flabby chins,” Lovell announced three days of open houses, adding that “Mr. Richard T. Neutra, architect who designed and supervised the construction . . . will conduct the audience from room to room.” Neutra’s middle initial was actually J., but this recent Austrian immigrant, thirty-seven years old and underemployed, had little reason to complain: he was being launched as a pioneer of American modernist architecture. Thousands of people took the tour; striking photographs were published. Three years later, Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, the codifiers of the International Style, hailed Neutra’s work as “stylistically the most advanced house built in America since the War.” The Lovell Health House, as the behemoth on Dundee Drive came to be known, remains a dumbfounding sight. It occupies a steep slope at the edge of Griffith Park, plunging three stories from street level. The main structural elements are a skeleton of light steel, a thin skin of sprayed-on concrete, and ribbons of casement windows, which run across the south-facing side. It is a monumental yet unreal creation—a silver-white vessel that seems to have docked at the top of a canyon. Inside, you have the sense of hovering in space as you look down the thick-grown hillside toward a hazy horizon and a possible sea. Neutra wrote of the design in characteristically convoluted fashion: “Through continuity of fenestration, linkage with the landscape, we should draw again on what the vitally dynamic natural scene had been for a hundred thousand years, and make it once more a human habitat.” Can an aggressively modern house become indivisible from its surroundings? Neutra contemplated that challenge throughout his career, which extended from novice efforts in Germany, in the early nineteen-twenties, until his death, in 1970. The Health House, majestically at odds with its environment, doesn’t quite hit the mark. But if you venture a few miles to the southeast, into Silver Lake, you can see Neutra in a stealthier, suppler mode. In the early twentieth century, the neighborhood was settled by avant-garde artists, radical activists, and bohemians. Neutra joined the throng in 1932, building himself a studio-residence, the Neutra VDL House, by the Silver Lake Reservoir. Between 1948 and 1962, he built nine more houses a block to the south, in an area now called the Neutra Colony. Huddled under lofty pines and eucalyptus trees, these dwellings embody the architect’s seductive later manner: low, wide façades; plate-glass windows under overhanging roofs; darker, woodsier trim. Reticent, almost inconspicuous, they gaze out at joggers and dog walkers with a guarded serenity. The architecture within calls as little attention to itself as possible, so that your eyes are drawn to the reservoir shimmering through the foliage. “Thanks, I knew I could count on you to turn my problem into something way worse that happened to you.” Although Neutra enjoyed fame from the thirties onward—in 1949, he appeared on the cover of Time—clients of relatively modest means could still afford to hire him. (Several of the Neutra Colony houses were first owned by Japanese American families whose members had been in internment camps during the Second World War.) Those economics are long gone. Amid a prolonged vogue for mid-century modernism, Neutras go for extravagant prices. The Kaufmann House, a Palm Springs idyll that Neutra built for the department-store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann—who also commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater—is on the market for $16.95 million. Latter-day Neutra owners include hedge funders, shipping magnates, Saudi royals, and Hollywood superagents, although artists and academics remain in the mix. Those with more limited resources can settle for house numbers executed in Neutraface, a sans-serif font based on the architect’s favored lettering. Sometimes called the “gentrification font,” it adorns countless neo-mid-century developments. Neutra’s association with luxury may be one reason that he has failed to secure a central place in the twentieth-century architectural canon, alongside the likes of Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Louis Kahn. Some critics would rank him below Rudolph Schindler, the other great Austrian modernist in Los Angeles, who helped bring Neutra to the city and later fell out with him. Neutra left behind no signature landmark on the order of the Guggenheim Museum or the Salk Institute. One project in which he invested particularly high hopes—a public-housing complex called Elysian Park Heights—stirred reactionary ire in the fifties, and was never built. Yet the fact that Neutra did his best work in domestic spaces should not detract from his significance. His mode of ground-hugging modernism—with clean, cool lines that play off against the year-round California green—helped to define the local architectural vernacular. Above all, Neutra has inspired lasting devotion in the people who have made his homes their own. Earlier this year, I began driving around L.A. with a copy of Thomas S. Hines’s authoritative 1982 book, “Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture,” seeking out more than a hundred local structures. I spoke to several original owners, ranging in age from eighty-four to a hundred and two. The houses may not be as dreamily immaculate as they are in the famous images by the architectural photographer Julius Shulman, but their stories say something deeper about Neutra’s achievement, which has less to do with stylish surfaces than with underlying rhythms—the search for a shelter that is also open to the world. “Well, I don’t know about favorite,” Susie Akai Fukuhara said with a smile, when I asked about her favorite memories of Neutra. She has lived in the Neutra Colony since 1962, when the architect built a roomy home for her and her first husband, John Akai. The interior designer David Netto, who lives in the Neutra next door, introduced me to her.


USModernist For passionate architecture fans, which are many, Modernist houses evoke a true love. These houses connect people to nature and the land through carefully designed spaces that are relaxing, compelling, and utterly addictive. For many, Modernist houses are livable sculptures, and many of these mid-century sculptures are endangered. Their locations, often on prime real estate, can be worth much more than the houses, making demolition and development an attractive option. By connecting detailed information, histories, and maps, we help Modernist houses in danger be purchased or otherwise preserved. We raise awareness about Modernist preservation and preserve the legacy of exceptional design for future generations. We have been recognized with 16 awards for local, state, and national leadership in historic preservation, giving thousands of people access to the most exciting residential architecture, past and present. We connect people with their past or their future dream homes and preserve histories for future generations. We started as Triangle Modernist Houses in 2007 and became a nonprofit 501C3 in 2009. By 2013, having documented 2,400 Modernist houses and 300 architects in North Carolina, the name changed to NCModernist®. In 2015, we launched the national site USModernist®. NCModernist continually hosts wildly popular local house tours, design networking events, and architecture movies. USModernist hosts national and international tours; the largest online digital archive of well-known mid-century Modernist houses and architects in America; a 3.1M+ page architecture library, and the USModernist Radio podcast.  NCModernist has helped hundreds of Modernist houses change hands and was directly involved in saving The Taylor House, Chapel Hill, by John Latimer and George Matsumoto; The Crumpler House, Durham, by John Latimer; The Kornberg House, Durham, by Jon Condoret; The Lasater House, Charlotte, by AG Odell; The Carr House, Durham, by Kenneth Scott; The Howard Residence, Greensboro, by Thomas Hayes; The Mattocks House, Chapel Hill, by Sumner Winn; The Raleigh Frye Lake House, Hickory, by Jim Sherrill. We’ve lost too many to the bulldozer, such as the Catalano House, Raleigh, by Eduardo Catalano, destroyed 2001; Paschal House, Raleigh, by James Fitzgibbon, destroyed 2013; Ashford House, Raleigh, by Sam Ashford, destroyed 2014; Kistler-Hollstein House, Fayetteville, by Dan MacMillan, destroyed 2005; Goist House, Raleigh, designed by Terry Waugh, destroyed 2015. Original source can be read from: USModernist

MoMA Built a House. Then It Disappeared. Now It’s Found.

MoMA Built a House. Then It Disappeared. Now It’s Found. In 1950, the museum exhibited Gregory Ain’s modernist creation. It’s now nestled in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. CROTON-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — In 1950, a glass-walled house, now nestled amid flowering trees here, spent a few months in Manhattan. Skyscrapers loomed over its flat roof while it was on exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art’s garden. The installation, designed by the architect Gregory Ain and co-sponsored with Woman’s Home Companion magazine, was meant to inspire creativity on a budget for residential subdivisions. A few months ago, however, George Smart, a historian who founded and runs USModernist, a nonprofit in Durham, N.C., which focuses on mid-20th-century modernist homes, pored through MoMA’s archives. He discovered that the building had survived and identified the owners, sharing this information with The New York Times. “I could not believe that the most famous house in New York in 1950 would simply vanish,” he said. This spring, when The Times contacted the owners, they were surprised to learn that scholars had been pursuing their home. Mary Kelly, a retired New York City Transit Authority executive, bought the property in 1979 with her husband, Ralph (who died in 2013), and she lives there now with three adult sons. Soon after the family had moved in, neighbors told them the building had been born at MoMA. Mary Kelly then alerted the museum, but apparently no records of her calls were kept. “I knew that it was a famous house,” she said. “This house was not lost. It’s been here all this time.” Amanda Hicks, a spokeswoman for MoMA, said that the museum is delighted by the Croton-on-Hudson finding and noted that its archival files are becoming more searchable. Research, she added, is “an iterative and revelatory process.” Ain, who died in 1988, collaborated on the house with his colleagues Alfred Day and Joseph Johnson and with museum staff members, including Philip Johnson and Natalie Hoyt. (The team’s original 51.5-inch model of the house, which surfaced a few years ago, has returned to MoMA.) The furnishings were practical, mass-produced pieces, by prominent figures like Charles and Ray Eames. Hanging on the walnut walls were paintings and prints by Georges Braque, René Magritte and Edward Hopper. Light bulbs were tucked into ceiling coves. Woman’s Home Companion described the interior as an ideal setting “for the odds and ends of family living that are bound to turn up in any happy home.” Cornelia Cotton, a nonagenarian in Croton-on-Hudson who is a writer and gallery owner, remembers touring the Ain house at MoMA (entry tickets were 50 cents). “It was very plain, it was very simple and affordable and appealing,” she said. For Ain, the commission did not amount to much of a professional springboard. His daughter, Emily Ain, said he was “extremely modest” and not a self-promoter. Based in Los Angeles, he did gain recognition during his career for designing unpretentious, sunny dwellings with changeable floor plans. “He wanted to solve problems for ordinary working people,” said Anthony Denzer, a professor at the University of Wyoming. Progressive activism, including support for desegregation, and an interest in Soviet architecture helped land Ain on the F.B.I.’s Communist Security Index of “‘dangerous,’ subversive individuals,” Denzer writes in an essay in the forthcoming book “Gregory Ain and the Construction of a Social Landscape.” Smart found correspondence showing that MoMA had auctioned off the house’s components to Isidore Skol, a periodontic technician, and his wife, Marcella Skol, a schoolteacher. Marcella’s father, Hyman Fleischman, a building restorer, disassembled the house in the museum garden and then stored the parts for a while in an airplane hangar until reassembly began on the Croton property. The Skols’ daughter, Sondra Skol Bell, said her family “felt just so fortunate” to own what was known as “the museum house.” With Smart uncovering her family’s role in the house’s journey, she said, “I’m glad the mystery is solved.” (A previous MoMA garden building, designed by Marcel Breuer, had been shipped to Tarrytown, N.Y., where it has been preserved. The Ain house’s successor, in Japanese style, was turned into a museum in Philadelphia.) In 1969, the Skols sold the house to owners who neglected the gardens, did not clean up after their two dozen cats and had a taste for purple woodwork and green carpet. A decade later, when the Kellys went house hunting, they recognized the property’s potential. “As soon as I saw the house, I said, ‘This is it.’ I said, ‘Go no further,’” Mary Kelly said. Since her childhood in Yonkers, Kelly added, she had dreamed of living in the kind of glamorous, transparent modernist homes she had seen in movies. In a mostly glass house, she said, “You don’t feel closed in to anything.” A local historian, Jane Northshield, would occasionally stop by to take photographs. But somehow word never reached MoMA’s circles that the Ain house was safe. The Kellys have preserved the interior walnut planes, cove lighting and most of the room configurations. They added reinforced window glass, skylights, pink carpet, crystal chandeliers and stained-glass lamps. Walls are covered in paintings and prints, whether reproductions of Impressionist masterpieces or folk art portraits, alongside family photos. “I just like art, I’ve got all kinds of art, I don’t care what it is,” Kelly said. Knickknacks on the shelves include creamy ceramic vessels that her sons made as children and souvenirs of vacations nationwide — the very kind of “odds and ends of family living” that Woman’s Home Companion had envisioned. A coating of sparkly green stucco on MoMA’s wooden exterior “makes it maintenance-free,” Shaun Kelly, the eldest son, said. He and his brother Scott are retired from the Postal Service and the New York City Transit Authority, respectively; a third brother, Parrish, works as a dietary aide at a nearby nursing home. (A fourth brother, Kryss, died in 2013.) The property’s 2.7 acres are lush with unusual trees, such as Japanese snowbell and weeping huckleberry. “If it doesn’t give me a flower, it can’t come here,” Mary Kelly said. Neoclassical stone statues, vintage

Mid-Century Modern Revival: To Many Millennials, Frank Lloyd Wright was Right

Mid-Century Modern Revival: To Many Millennials, Frank Lloyd Wright was Right When architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Rudolph first threw off the shackles of tradition and began building homes with flat roofs, large expanses of glass, and open floor plans, it was a revolution and a revelation for some, an outrage to others who felt that too many rules were being broken. “For a while people were just tearing them down, but people are seeking them out now — they’re the anti-McMansion,” says Ellen Hilburg, co-founder of the real estate resource Mid Century Modern Hudson Valley. “For some people, it’s a nostalgia factor. But Millennials are discovering them, too. It’s an aesthetic that appeals to people who are aware and environmentally conscious.” Hilburg grew up in such a house, then studied art and architecture in San Francisco and then at the Art Institute of Chicago. That background, honed by decades of Hudson Valley real estate experience and a longstanding love of the mid-century modern aesthetic, makes her uniquely well positioned to help you find the perfect mid-century beauty for yourself. But, for a brief shining moment before tract housing and McMansions began to dominate the landscape, they were the thinking person’s alternative: houses that were carefully sited for intuitive passive solar, full of light and space to bring the outside in. “I track interesting mid-century modern homes, from Scarsdale up to Hudson, and help the people who love these homes to find them,” she says. “We work with contractors who are experts at retrofitting and renovating them without destroying the original vision. They’re inherently livable—light and bright, often on one floor. You can update the original large expanses of glass, redo the radiant heating in the floor, and add whatever cutting-edge amenities you love—the bones of the house, the basic design, will work with you and not against you.” Original source can be read from: Chronogram