Unearthing Stone

With almost 50 years of changes, egregious alterations on a residence by Edward Durell Stone have kept the long forgotten house off the architectural radar—until now. Stone’s only private residential project in California, the house was designed originally for Life magazine (September 22, 1958) and opened for public viewing as a model home that same year. Demonstrating modern living, the three-bedroom, two-bath, 1,440 sq. foot building occupied a suburban tract and it offered potential buyers the opportunity to consider something different, even progressive. But through the years the house lost its distinction and evolved into a non-descript home in a bland neighborhood.

Stone’s sons, Edward D. Stone Jr., a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, and Hicks Stone, an architect, were unaware of the house until I called to discuss the current conditions of the residence. Can the corrupted building return to some form of its original integrity? And what was that integrity about? “The utterly simple plan was surprisingly minimal for Dad’s later work,” Hicks told me. “It has the scale, the distinctive cement screens, and deep overhangs from his earlier residential work. It had to be one of the smallest projects he would have done at that time.”

Julius Shulman, who first photographed the house, recently commented that it was “a sincere attempt by Stone to show the American public what could be done beyond traditional architecture by enhancing the quality of modern architecture offered to the average person. It also showed that architecture is not static, it’s always moving forward.” The house was Stone’s interpretation of post-war modular design popular in Southern California; its plan consisted of a rectangle divided into three almost equal areas. In the center were the entry and living room. On the left, two bedrooms separated by a two-way bath. On the right, the master bedroom and kitchen were separated by the master bath. The plan also included sliding glass doors from each room to a private patio.

Representing a misunderstood and generally disliked style, the home suffered numerous and insensitive changes including the addition of a bedroom, an extension to the living room, and the removal of the carport. The sense of scale is lost due to the altered roofline and pitch and new solid cement walls on the side of the house are higher then the original brick screens which distorts the scale of the facade. Observing it, I am moved to ask, has the house too far gone to bring back? Leo Marmol of Marmol Radziner and Associates, who specializes in restoring modern buildings, points out that “the goal is not necessarily to make the house perfect again, but to clarify its historic fabric. To understand what was there and what wasn’t can be positive and, if disclosed when the house is sold in the future, a new owner can take a fuller approach to restoration.”

The question for any restoration-minded buyer is cost. And while Marmol suggests a partial or gradual restoration—even with the structure’s prestige factor—it may be difficult to sell after restoration if the neighborhood does not reflect the investment in the house. Another consideration is to move the house to a more sympthetic area. The current state of the former Life house raises the issue—now that modernism and preservation are recurring topics within an architectural-loving public, what else can be done to save this and other historic structures?

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