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11.04.2011
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Restorations underway at Eames and VDL houses.
The Eames House.
Courtesy Eames Office

If you were to ask Los Angeles architects to name two of the most influential Modernist residences in the city, their responses would invariably include Charles and Ray Eames’ own residence and Richard Neutra’s VDL House. These glass and steel homes located in Silver Lake and Pacific Palisades are renowned both for their innovations—prefabrication, modular construction and indoor-outdoor porosity—as well as for their sheer beauty within classic Southern California sites. But both homes, like many of their mid-century counterparts, have deteriorated over the years, suffering from the effects of nature and time, and need restorations to ensure their future survival.

Two of the region’s well-known preservation experts— Silver Lake firm Escher GuneWardena and Santa Monica firm Marmol Radziner—have been called upon to take up the sensitive work of the invisible restorations. Escher GuneWardena has already renovated John Lautner’s spaceship-like Chemosphere House in the Hollywood Hills. And Marmol Radziner has renovated more than 25 historic LA homes, including Lautner’s Garcia House, Albert Frey’s Loewy House and Neutra’s Kaufmann House. They are now working to renovate Minoru Yamasaki’s Century Plaza Hotel in Century City.

The Eames House’s entire collection of 1,800 living room objects is now on display as part of LACMA’s exhibition on California mid-century design, Living In A Modern Way, a clear indication of the home’s prominence. The temporary removal of those artifacts, officially green lighted by the museum in the beginning of the year, allowed the Eames Foundation to begin its long-planned renovation along with the restoration of the home’s great icons. The foundation has raised about $250,000 for the project, which they estimate will cost roughly $1 million and take about two and a half years. Additional money is being raised through a series of fundraisers at the house—the next one will take place on January 7. They hope to complete much of the job while the living room objects are still at LACMA.


The Eames House living room.
 
 

Because of the house’s importance, the restoration is more like a research assignment than a typical home makeover, pointed out Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena, who, like the Eames family, are obsessed with getting every detail precisely correct. The job, they say, is like that of cleaning a famous painting. The emphasis is on maintaining as much of the original structure as possible; historic integrity is all. “A replica is not the real thing. It’s important that the building show its history,” said Escher. “We decided to keep the house exactly as it was when Ray died—no editing.”

The obsession with authenticity means no replacements. Thus in order to keep some water-damaged walls near the home’s north slope, the team will conduct thermographic readings to find mold and cracks. Outside they will take core samples of the building’s paint to determine what it was painted with in 1988, the date when Ray passed away. And to ensure that the house can remain open to the elements but be better protected in the future, the Getty has been brought in to conduct an extensive climate monitoring project that will last about a year. Other adaptations will include restoring wood walls, cleaning and performing maintenance on the house’s existing climate control system, fixing (not replacing) windows, and general all-round clean up and repair work. Another partner on the project is Griswold Conservation Associates.

To further guarantee accuracy the Eames family has collected 200 hours of oral history from those who have known the house well, and performed extensive inventories on the house and its structure. They’re also consulting the original plans, located at the Library of Congress. “We wanted a thorough understanding,” said Ray and Charles’ grandson Eames Demetrios, who is compiling the oral histories. “Now is the time to learn all these things.”

One item will have to be replaced: the floor. The ceramic tiles contain asbestos. To make sure the replacements are as accurate as possible, the team is laying out several sets of tiles in their entirety to determine the best match. The team is also putting together a roadmap for future maintenance to “help the house remain intact for the next 250 years,” said Escher.

As for whether the home’s interior will open to the public after the renovation, Demetrios is skeptical: “I find it hard to imagine that could happen,” he said. But there will always be Member Appreciation Day in the summer when the home’s living spaces are open to Eames Foundation supporters.


The VDL House grows from the landscape.
David Hartwell
 
 

On the other side of the city, along the Silver Lake Reservoir, Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner along with students and faculty at Cal Poly Pomona are slowly—very slowly—restoring Neutra’s VDL, originally built in 1933 and rebuilt in 1964 after a fire. Funds for the project come from the university, which owns the house; tours; book, print, and DVD sales; and from individual donations. The university has spent about $55,000 so far and has raised about half of what it needs for the next phase.

The project, which started back in 2007, is proceeding from the top down as funding becomes available. That has primarily meant repairing water damage and sealing the house to keep water out. Once the exterior is stabilized, the team will then focus on the house’s worn interior.

The first phase —including new electrical systems, a new penthouse roof, repairs to the top floor trellis, metal parapet replacement, plumbing concealment, and drain replacement—was completed last year. The next phase, which began in December and is still ongoing, includes new flashing, new decking, re-painting, a new roofing system, and the repair of other deteriorated elements.

“In a perfect world we’d do it all next week, but in terms of what they can afford, the idea is to bite it off one phase at a time,” said Leo Marmol, principal at Marmol Radziner, who has also worked closely with Richard Neutra’s son Dion on the project. The firm’s devotion is demonstrable: not only is it working on the project pro bono, but Marmol Radziner is also helping with fundraising.

Sam Lubell