Back to Neutral on Neutra

Back to Neutral on Neutra

Last week, the owners of Richard Neutra’s Kronish House agreed to give the property a reprieve until October 10. Designed in 1955 the Beverly Hills house was previously on track for demolition. The suspension has given the city a chance to take stock of its architectural and historical treasures. Unlike several nearby municipalities, Beverly Hills, while it does have a Design Review Commission for new construction, it does not have preservation ordinance in place. The City Council hopes to map out a plan for an ordinance as well as a preservation commission at a meeting tomorrow evening. The Friars Club by Sidney Eisenshtat and the Shusett House by John Lautner were both lost in the past year alone. 

The dilemma has sparked a debate in a community where architecture can be upstaged by star power. But even the home where Ira Gershwin, and later Rosemary Clooney, lived was destroyed. 

“The home that Gershwin and Rosemary Clooney lived in was in deplorable condition,” said Beverly Hills Mayor Barry Brucker. “Similarly the Friars Club was not an inspiring building; what was inspiring was the people who went there. The history inside was phenomenal, but was that really worthy of saving architecturally?” 

The mayor argued that neither a building’s age nor star power should be criteria for preservation. “It could be a relatively new house, like a Gehry,” he said, adding, “but do you then save Ozzy Osborne’s house, David Beckham’s, Diane Keaton’s or Tom Cruise’s?”

There are plenty of mid-century architectural historians who would argue that Eisenshtat’s Friars Club was a real contender on both the historic and architectural fronts. And despite his unrestrained opinion, the mayor doesn’t claim to have a historian’s credentials. To that end, he’s already pulling together names of people who do for a historic commission. In an ironic twist, Eisenshtat’s daughter Carol Oken is on the list. The mayor has also tapped lawyer Richard Waldow, who was involved in helping establish Culver City’s preservation program. 

For their part, the new owners of the Kronish House want the property, not the house. It’s just such desires that are fueling house preservation conversations nationwide. Usually, once the demolition permit is granted, as is case here, the owners move in with the wrecking ball. But the current owners have allowed for documentary photography and offered $50,000 toward moving the 6,800 square foot house, though Neutra’s giant concrete slabs make the move highly unlikely. 

“Usually owners plow ahead, and boom—it’s gone,” said Christine French, director of the Modernism + Recent Past Program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Sixty days is a fortune in time, and it’s a huge gift. It gives Beverly Hills time to figure out their own [preservation] process.” 

French said that the problem of preserving mid-century homes has grown exponentially as original owners begin to die off. She noted that the house-as-museum model has much to be desired. “Property is always going to be an asset, and the most important houses need to remain valuable as living spaces,” said French. “Preserving them in amber is not effective as you may think.”

While 6,800 square feet may sound like a lot, with two acres to build on Brucker said the average customer would want to build a big square box on the property. Not that Beverly Hills Design Review Commission would let them. Plus, the mayor added, when the Kornish House controversy broke the city council was already in the process of implementing the Mills Act, a statewide tax abatement program for historic properties. Between the Design Review Commission and the Mills Act, the city may have a blueprint for future preservation. But how well Kornish House will fare remains uncertain.  

“A lot of people who hold the house in a level of high regard are outraged. The building represents an ideal of a master architect,” said Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy at the LA Conservancy. “But what it still boils down for a lot of people is that it is private property on prime real estate.”