This month’s Palm Springs Life’s home feature, “The Road to Fame and Fortune,” by Greg Archer (www.palmspringslife.com) opens with one of the area’s most famous homes, the Kaufmann House, a 1946 glass, steel and stone landmark designed by architect Richard Neutra.
The home has twice been at the vanguard of new movements in architecture: First by helping to shape postwar Modernism and later, as a result of a painstaking and expensive restoration in the late 1990s, spurred a revival of interest in mid-20th century homes, according to a New York Times review by Edward Wyatt (www.nytimes.com/2007/10/31/arts/design).
This house continues to make news as an important landmark.
One of the best-known icons by Viennese émigré Neutra, who moved to the United States in the 1920s, this unusual pin-wheel plan house was designed for Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann. It was the last domestic project by the architect, and arguably his most famous.
The house became part of cultural history thanks to a 1947 photo by Julius Schulman that shows Mrs. Kaufmann reclining by the pool, the house glowing in the sunset. The photo also became one of the most reproduced architectural photographs ever (www.eichlernetwork.com/desert_chron7.html).
Its striking silhouette, mix of airy lightness and sandstone weight, combined with the delicacy and precision of its detail, the house is considered one of the most important examples of International Style architecture in the United States and is the only one still in private hands (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaufmann_Desert_House).
The work represents a special moment in the Neutra canon when the architect was able to blur the distinction between inside and outside to an unusual degree, according to architectural historian Barbara Lamprecht (www.palmspringslife.com/Palm-Springs-Life/May-2009)/revisiting-The-Kaufmann-House).
“It’s not so much a house with an indoors and outdoors. Rather it is a setting with transitions in which Neutra honed both nature and the functional aspects of living so that Eros, sensuality, the senses are subtly and/or overtly available to the whole arc of day and night and the whole spectrum of being,” she wrote in an essay commissioned by Crosby Doe, who was then marketing the home.
“The Kaufmann House … moved in the direction of the pavilion, which is Neutra’s last development in domestic architecture. Horizontal planes resting on horizontal planes hover over transparent walls. The material loses its importance — magnificent as the dry-joint stone wall are in themselves — the gist of the house is weightless space enclosed. The victory over the front door is almost complete; it is reached by slow stages, like the Mexican house whose entrance on the street leads through a garden to an unemphasized door,” writes Esther McCoy in her book on Richard Neutra, page 16-17 (www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Kaufmann_Desert_House, html.).
The five bedroom, five bathroom home emphasizes connection to the desert landscape. A combined living and dining space lies at the center of the house. On an east-west axis, four wings extend in each cardinal direction from the living room, like a pinwheel. Large sliding glass walls open the living spaces and master bedroom to adjacent patios. Larger rooms at the end of each wing defines adjacent outdoor rooms, circulating both indoors and out.
After Kaufmann died in 1955, the house stood vacant for several years, then had a series of owners including singer Barry Manilow and San Diego Chargers owner Eugene V. Klein. Several renovations seriously altered the house, enclosing some of the open areas, and damaging Neutra’s original blond cabinetry, wall surfaces, and the Douglas fir ceilings.
It had been on the market another few years in 1992 when a couple, Brent Harris, an investment manager, and his wife Beth, an architectural historian, bought it for $1.5 million with the intention to restore the house to its original design. At the time, the house was not a candidate for restoration — Neutra’s Modernism “wasn’t the prevailing style” — and was almost razed.
“No one wanted it. And so it was a gorgeous house, an important house, and it was crying out for restoration,” said Harris in the New York Times interview. (www.nytimes.com/2007/10/31/arts/deisgn)
The couple hired Los Angeles architects Lee Marmol and Ron Radziner and Associates. As Neutra’s original plans were lost, the team searched for clues through extensive Neutra archives at UCLA, Columbia University, and also with photographer Schulman who allowed them access to unpublished photos of the home’s interior and exterior.
They sought out original providers of paint and fixtures, and purchased a metal crimping machine to reproduce the sheet-metal fascia that lined the roof. The team even and had a long-closed section of a Utah quarry re-opened to mine matching stone to replace what had been removed or damaged.
The Harrises bought additional land around the 3,200 square foot home to help restore the desert landscape buffer Neutra had envisioned. They rebuilt the pool that serves as a viewing pavilion for the main house, and kept a tennis court that was built on one of the parcels added to the original Kaufmann property.
The house was subsequently sold in May, 2008 for $15 million at auction by Christie’s as a part of a high-profile sale of contemporary art. However the sale fell through, and was later listed at $13 million in October that same year. The restored house had a pre-sale estimate of $15 to $25 million.
The Harrises “were visionaries in their own way,” said Joshua Holdeman, a senior vice president at Christie’s. With the renovation, “they created a whole new public awareness of mid-century modern architecture.” (www.nytimes.com/2007/10/31/arts/design))
The Marmol Radziner + Associates restoration was critically acclaimed. The team’s sourcing of original products, fixtures, and building materials helped launch the revival of the Modernist movement, creating a new niche and demand for Mid-century homes, fixtures and furnishings.
Today, many critics place the Kaufmann House among the most important houses of the 20th century with the likes of Fallingwater, Robie House, Gropius House and the Gamble House (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaufmann_Desert_House).
Palm Springs Preservationists say the Kaufmann House inspired other owners of Mid-century modern houses to restore them, and credit this among several other important restorations for spurring renewed interest in Palm Springs’ Mid-Century Modern heritage. (www.eichlernetwork.com)