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Pacific Coast Sun Rises on Modernist House Restorations

Southern California architects present inventive solutions to conserve the homes of pioneering Modernists

By Mike Singer

Los Angeles’ early Modernist pioneers are no longer around to oversee the restoration of homes they designed more than a half-century ago, but their landmark projects are offering a new generation of designers historic case studies in Modernist preservation that grow more and more significant with each passing day. Vintage architectural renderings and drawings, photos, and notes are all ingredients these architects use to summon the spirits of Rudolph Schindler, John Lautner, and Charles and Ray Eames, to name a few, bringing their early works of California Modernism back to life.

Channeling Rudolf Schindler in Inglewood

“We channeled Rudolf Schindler, asking what he would have done today,” says Steve Ehrlich, FAIA, founding principal of Ehrlich Architects, about his approach to the adaptive reuse of a 1938 Schindler-designed house in Inglewood, Calif., about four miles from Los Angeles International Airport.

Empty for two years, the two-bedroom, 981-square-foot house was in poor shape when Ehrlich purchased the home in 2009 and restored it to be purchased by his daughter and her family the following year. “The building had no landmark protection status. It could have been knocked down in a second,” Ehrlich says.

A flat-roofed single-story box with large panels of glass, the home was retooled for today with a more open floor plan that connects the kitchen to the living area, modern energy-efficient lighting, new insulation, tempered glass, a new rooftop HVAC unit, a new kitchen, and a new bath. Metal caps that had been added over the years to exterior stucco walls to keep the rain out were replaced with invisible waterproofing membranes, recapturing Schindler’s crisp wall-to-roof lines.

At the same time, conservation measures included refinishing cabinetry to its original color, replacing heavily damaged flooring with exactly the same width of wood and species of oak as the original, preserving the wooden windows and door frames, and replicating the original baseboards. The meticulously restored original brick and plaster fireplace once again serves as the natural focal point of the living room.

“We could have restored it as how it was built in 1938, or we could adapt it to the needs of a family of today,” Ehrlich says. “We chose the latter.”

The single-story plaster-façade house has a matching Schindler-designed neighbor next door. While Ehrlich didn’t restore that Schindler-built house, he ripped out the non-sustainable front lawn in between the two houses and installed zeroscape landscaping.

“A communal meeting area in the front of the house harkens back to some of Schindler’s early ideas he developed about communal living in his Kings Road House in West Hollywood,” Ehrlich says. “I think Kings Road is the ‘big bang’ of Modern architecture. I’ve looked at the work of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra all around that period of 1920 to 1922, and if you look at the Kings Road House, I think you’ll see it was a watershed moment because it’s so original, so magnificent in every way. His connection to the outdoors, the tilt-up concrete panels, the wood windows and doors, [and] the sleeping porches were all way ahead of their time. Schindler was never properly recognized until after his death.”

Ehrlich pays homage to Kings Road in the backyard of the house, where he designed a galvanized steel trellis inspired by the sleeping porches of Schindler's 1922 Kings Road masterwork.

Bringing back the Chemosphere better than new

“Are you interested in restoring the Chemosphere?” German publisher Benedikt Taschen asked Frank Escher as they drove through the Hollywood Hills in 1988.

Swerving along Mulholland Drive atop the Santa Monica Mountains, they approached one of the world’s most recognizable works of mid-century architecture—a concrete, wood, and glass octagonal house perched atop a 29-foot-high column like a UFO on a stick.

Escher, founding principal of Escher GuneWardena Architecture, was driving with Taschen the day his nearly $1 million offer to purchase John Lautner’s iconic Chemosphere was accepted. Escher had worked with Lautner on the book John Lautner, Architect, published right before Lautner’s death in 1994. Escher also kept the Lautner archives before they were donated to the Getty Research Institute.

“When we arrived up to the house, I started to point to things,” Escher recalled. “The house had had several owners, and they all had done unspeakable things. It was in very sad shape. It looked a little bit like a rundown motel room. I have to give Benedikt Taschen a huge amount of credit to see past this layer of visual noise and see what the house actually was about. Mr. Taschen turned to me and said, ‘Mr. Escher, why don’t you do what you think is right?’”

For Escher, doing what’s right meant a return to Lautner’s drawings. “Wherever we could, we would go back to the original drawings and use that as a guide. We consulted with the project architect at the time. We consulted with Leonard Malin, the original client,” says Escher.

The house was designed in 1960 for Malin, a young aerospace engineer who was able to secure funding from sponsorships by companies such as Chem Seal, which provided experimental coatings and was rewarded with the building’s name.

But the renovation was never as simple as literally restoring the house’s earliest pristine condition. Various cost-cutting measures snuck into the building’s original construction, which diverged from Lautner’s specifications. “The house had a very small tiled floor, a dirty yellow tile. It sort of looked like a public men’s room, and Lautner never really liked that,” says Escher. “What Lautner had wanted to do was install a broken slate floor. So we installed a pattern of very thin cut slate to reference Lautner’s original idea and also give it a more contemporary manifestation. We installed wood paneling that connected the kitchen to the living room. On drawings, it was shown as a paneled wall, but it was constructed originally as only drywall. We used frameless glass everywhere, which Lautner did later in his career when he revisited his houses.”

Charles and Ray Eames House: A forensic restoration

Unlike the Chemosphere, which strayed from its architect’s original design vision as soon as it was complete, the Eames House and Studio was meticulously built to the architectural specifications of Charles and Ray Eames, two of the most celebrated designers of the 20th century. They lived there from 1949, when their house was built, until their respective deaths (Charles in 1978, Ray 10 years later).

Restoration began in 2011 after conservators from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art cataloged the living room's 1,864 items and transported them across town for installation in a full-scale replica of the 17-foot-high living room for the exhibit California Design 1930–1965: “Living In A Modern Way.” While the house was empty, the Eames Foundation hired Escher GuneWardena Architecture to manage restoration of flooring, wall surfaces, and other projects, with the mission of taking the house back to its condition in 1988, when Ray last lived there. At the same time, the Getty Conservation Institute began its Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative and made the Eames House its first conservation project. “We got to work with some really amazing people, people who normally deal with Egyptian tombs and painted caves in China,” says Escher.

Climate measurement data was gathered inside and outside the house for an entire year. Keepers of the house now follow a protocol for which windows, curtains, and doors to open and close at each time of the day. “Introducing a sealed climate system was not a good idea, as it is completely contrary to the Eames’ idea [of] having a house that is operable, where you could open things up and look out, move out to the garden, and then move back,” says Escher.

“The [idea of a] window as a transparency, but also the window as something that could be removed and have contact with the outside was part of the DNA of Modernism,” says Theodore Prudon, FAIA, president of DOCOMOMO US. “In early Modernist thinking, light and air is very critical. A lot of buildings and thinking went into creating free air, ultraviolet light, open windows. The Eames House is interesting for the role of the [eucalyptus] trees in the shading of the house, the role of the windows, the role of the two-story space with the windows on the top that are able to ventilate out the hot air. There was a lot of thinking that went into the design from an environmental point of view.”

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Ehrlich Architects’ restored Rudolf Schindler house in Inglewood, Calif. Image courtesy of Grant Mudford.

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Schindler’s original brick and plaster fireplace was meticulously restored, and once again serves as the natural focal point of the living room. Image courtesy of Grant Mudford.

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John Lautner’s 1960 Chemosphere in the Hollywood Hills, restored by Escher GuneWardena Architecture. Image courtesy of Joshua White.

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A new thin slate floor was installed in the Chemosphere, replacing the original tiled floor that was never part of Lautner’s intended design. Image courtesy of Joshua White.

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The Eames House. Photo by Eames Demetrios, courtesy of the Eames office.

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