Modernist architecture enthusiasts are still reeling from the recent destruction of Richard Neutra’s Maslon House in Rancho Mirage, California. The demolition captures the central paradox of preserving modernist homes: even when designed by greats like William Lescaze, Albert Frey, or Pierre Koenig, they’re still, well, modern. Their relative lack of age, as well as their dissimilarity from the typical landmarked Colonials and Greek Revivals, seems to make them expendable.
But not to those who attended a panel discussion this May, “Preserving the Modern House” at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City.
Panelist Theo Prudon, DoCoMoMo’s U.S. president, urged that we treat these gems just like antiques, particularly because early- and mid-century modernist houses require just as much expert preservation as their predecessors; perhaps even more so, considering that the modernists experimented with new materials, many of them no longer in production.
Homeowners face the choice of whether to preserve these materials or just preserve their design intent. The discussion sketched out how participants wrestled with this issue, and narrated some of the nitty-gritty details of their restoration experiences.
For instance, Eric Brill, who with his wife, Nanette, purchased and renovated the Richard Mandel House, designed by Edward Durrell Stone in 1932, had the good fortune of finding the house in a “basically unaltered” state. But the bad news was the physical shell of the house was deteriorated.
While the Brills’ repair unearthed the original precast concrete on the roof parapets, they also had to replace exterior glass blocks with new ones an inch larger than the originals.
Beth and Brent Harris, the saviors of Neutra’s 1946 Kaufman House, had their work cut out for them. Prior to their purchase of the building in 1993, 2,200 square feet had been added to the original 3,500 (not the fault of singer Barry Manilow, who was one of the previous owners). With Albert Frey as a consultant, the Harrises reduced the house to its original footprint. In the process, they went to superhuman lengths to restore or search out original materials, such as the cork kitchen counters.
House preservation is like catching a bug. When you spend ridiculous amounts of time and money to find a matching roof tile or period bath fixture, it’s a sure sign that you have the bug. But the owners of these houses, especially the Modernist icons, might consider themselves guardians of architectural history, preserving these “gems” for generations to come.