As the gap between the rich and the middle class widens, the challenge to save midcentury modern buildings becomes even more vexing.
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The oft-photographed house (this shot was taken by the legendary Julius Shulman) is one of ten Case Study Houses just added to the National Register of Historic Places after a decade-long effort by the Los Angeles Conservancy. The house is open for tours.
Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust/Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10)
“It’s the old adage: location, location, location,” says Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. Dishman isn’t talking real estate, but historic preservation. In California, a midcentury house on a modest lot may ﬁnd a buyer willing to maintain it. But the same modernist house on a large lot in Brentwood or Paciﬁc Palisades, is practically wearing a “tear me down” sign. (How does a 1,200-square-foot house stand a chance in a neighborhood where 12,000 is the new normal?) “Small houses on large lots are the greatest concern,” says Dishman.
The Conservancy won a victory this year when ten of the surviving Case Study Houses—including the celebrated Stahl House by Pierre Koenig—were added to the National Register of Historic Places. But listing doesn’t stop the houses from being demolished—it simply triggers additional reviews before bad things can happen to good buildings, the kind of red tape that doesn’t always deter the super-rich. Money, especially big money, can be the enemy of preservation.
In fact, it’s no coincidence that mid-century modern architecture burgeoned in an era when the middle class was growing. The architectural imperative of the 1950s and ’60s (of which the Case Study Houses and hundreds of other dwellings were a part) was to create buildings for ordinary people—including the schools, public libraries, and medical facilities that served them. An egalitarian society brought modernism to the masses.
With the shrinking of the middle class, however, the architecture that gave it its fullest expression has become easily endangered. Indeed, as wealth disparities grow, any building that doesn’t meet the needs of “the one percent” is a potential goner. Take the case of the Feldman House (1953) in Beverly Hills, by the important midcentury architect Gregory Ain: 2,600 square feet on the market for $4.7 million. According to the listing agent, the people who want to restore it can’t afford it, and the people who can afford it want to replace it with something else. (At press time, the agent was hopeful that she had found a buyer to preserve it.) The media isn’t helping when it gloriﬁes houses of grotesque proportions. Architectural Digest recently featured the home of quarterback Tom Brady and model Gisele Bündchen, a 14,000-square-foot acid-washed limestone chateau complete with moat. Digest referred to the house as “eco-conscious.”
Every year, the Conservancy hosts a party in a mid-century house to show how livable modernism can be. (“There’s a myth,” says Dishman, “that you can’t have a comfortable couch.”) This year, the beneﬁt was in the Brody House, an A. Quincy Jones masterpiece that was recently renovated to perfection; the Los Angeles Times once called it “the love child of Bauhaus rigor and Beverly Hills élan.” “There are happy endings for these houses,” Dishman says. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that the Brody house is huge—11,500 square feet—and that the current owner bought it for $15 million. Its size, an anomaly in the mid-twentieth century, is what saved it in the early twenty-first.