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The Modern House

From Prairie School to International Style, important 20th-century homes are being snapped up by collectors.

I really didn't need another one," says David Zander, recalling his recent decision to buy the Schaffer Residence, a redwood-and-glass house in Glendale, California, designed in 1949 by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé John Lautner. "I mean, it's not like I didn't already have enough going on with restoring the other ones."

Zander, president of MJZ, a company that produces TV commercials and music videos, already owned two important modern homes in nearby Pasadena. In 1996 he had purchased Wright's striking 1923 Millard House, also known as La Miniatura, the architect's first concrete textile-block structure. And earlier this year he added the 1906 Arts & Crafts-style Duncan-Irwin House, designed by Greene & Greene. But Crosby Doe—whose firm, Mossler & Doe, specializes in architecturally significant properties—told Zander he should see the Lautner. "Right away," Zander says, "I knew I had to have it."

An architecture enthusiast since college, Zander commissioned British minimalist John Pawson to design a house for him in the mid-nineties but scrapped those plans after seeing La Miniatura. Since then his interest has evolved into a life-changing passion. "These places demand respect," says Zander, who talks about architecture with a convert's zeal. "They just ruin you for anything else. Once you experience how intelligently designed they are, how much integrity they have, you can't live any other way."

From low-pitched Prairie houses to deceptively simple Midcentury Modern glass-and-concrete Case Study homes to experimental, organic seventies designs, modern residences are attracting growing numbers of serious buyers. In addition to the cachet of owning a piece of architectural history, there is the appeal of thoughtfully designed spaces with modern innovations such as steel-and-concrete structures, open floor plans, cantilevered roofs and terraces, and expanses of glass that break down barriers between interior and exterior.

Of course many great modern homes were constructed on prime real estate, in areas where land is scarce today. "When these places were built, people had access to sites that you could never get now, that won't be available again. They are irreplaceable," Doe notes. This has only enhanced the sense of rarity and helped shift the way modern houses are looked at. "People are thinking of them as art pieces," Doe says. Some buyers, like Zander, aren't stopping at one house—they're amassing collections.

The phenomenon isn't entirely new. Lord Palumbo, the British real estate developer, began perhaps the first significant collection of modern homes in the sixties, acquiring examples by Wright, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe. The nineties saw a mounting wave of interest from Hollywood, focusing on Southern California, which boasts perhaps the richest concentration of modern residences in the United States. Among the major buyers was producer Joel Silver, who bought and restored Wright's Storer House in Hollywood, as well as his Auldbrass plantation in Yamassee, South Carolina. Screenwriter Mitch Glazer and his wife, actress Kelly Lynch, purchased Lautner's 1950 Harvey Aluminum House in Los Angeles, along with a Neutra. Actress Courteney Cox started a collection with Lautner's 1979 Segel residence in Malibu.

What's different from even a decade ago, says Doe, who has brokered numerous West Coast architectural gems, is the sheer number of people collecting. Prices for a house by a brand-name architect such as Neutra, Schindler, or Wright can be two or three times higher than that for a new one of comparable square footage. Not to mention, renovating a historically important property can involve a level of financial and emotional commitment far beyond what a typical house requires. However there are more and more buyers with the means—and the desire—to pursue big-name architecture.

"When I have a good modern available," says Sarasota, Florida, real estate agent Martie Lieberman, "I can get hundreds of calls for it." Thanks in part to Paul Rudolph and a group of architects whose work came to be known as the Sarasota school, the region is dotted with first-rate modern houses. Lieberman's clients Andrew Weaving and Ian Thomasson purchased their first Sarasota school home—built in Winter Haven in 1957 by Gene Leedy—sight unseen. Weaving, who runs the design gallery Century in London's West End, was familiar with Leedy's own home. When the architect sent the two an e-mail saying that a place he had built nearby was available, that's all it took.

"I told him, 'If it's like yours, it's got to be gorgeous,' and I bought it over the phone," Weaving recalls. He and Thomasson now have four Florida homes, including one by another notable Sarasota school architect, Mark Hampton. In the United Kingdom they own a 1935 house by Oliver Hill in Frinton Park Estate, a Bauhaus-inspired utopian community planned for the Essex coast; it's one of the relatively few modern houses in Britain. "There were supposed to be a hundred," Weaving explains, "but they only built thirty."

Scott Fellows and Craig Bassam started their collection of modern houses in a more quotidian fashion: They saw a house and fell in love with it. Fellows, then a creative director at Ferragamo, and Bassam, an architect, were out for a drive in Connecticut when they found a 1955 residence in New Canaan. "It seemed like a perfect project for us," Fellows says. "The house required a lot of work, but it had great bones." Designed by Willis Mills, it features an elegantly severe, rectilinear structure and 14-foot-high windows with views out to wooded cliffs and a stone terrace. The location was right, too—down the street from Philip Johnson's Glass House.

A couple years later Bassam and Fellows got jobs in Switzerland, to reinvent the Bally brand. Eager to tackle another project, they bought a small villa on Lake Lugano built by a local architect. Although there's no big name attached to it, the house is a beautifully conceived series of interlocking concrete garden walls and terraces running down a hillside and ending at the lake's edge. Fellows and Bassam expanded the house and turned it into a luxe modernist showcase, putting in travertine floors, walnut cabinetry, and their own furniture designs.

Now back in the States and working on a line of furniture, shoes, and luggage, they are renovating a home in Rancho Mirage, California—two connected Mies-style glass-and-steel pavilions built in 1969-70 by architect Crombie Taylor. And already they're scouting for another home in Connecticut. "We're ready to take on something else," Fellows says.

For some, working on a house means returning it to the state envisioned by the architect. Wright and Lautner, for example, tried to control every detail—they designed their own furniture, lighting, and textiles and teamed up with designers to achieve the desired effect. Purists like Weaving and Thomasson believe that restoring these elements is vital. "We have to find the period fittings, the plumbing, the fixtures, everything," Weaving says. "We'd rather be uncomfortable than stick in something false."

For the house by Hill in Essex, they researched and re-created all the original colors—down to the pale green window trim—and furnished it with the kind of modern designs that inspired Hill's utopian dreams in the thirties. When people lose track of the architect's vision, a home "can simply lose its soul," Weaving says.

Fellows and Bassam take a more flexible approach. They believe in a certain amount of updating. "While these houses should stay true to their original intent, they shouldn't be museums," Fellows says. The couple's home in Lugano didn't suffer from the problems that can plague moderns—poor insulation, decaying concrete, and other issues resulting from experimental designs that stretched the limits of technology when they were built. In the Mills house, they installed commercial-grade appliances and opened up the floor plan to take advantage of a 40-foot-long stretch of windows.

Changes of this kind might be seen as sacrilege by some, but the goal, Fellows says, is to make the home as great as it was originally. "What we want," Fellows explains, "is to adapt the houses to contemporary lifestyles so they're worth more standing than when they're torn down by developers."

While moderns are still demolished to make way for new homes, the days when they were primarily thought of as problem-ridden, too small, and aesthetically cold are in the past. The current situation, according to Doe, is not unlike the moment when modern art began to gain acceptance in the country. "People are realizing that a home by a great architect is a unique, coherent object," Doe says. And they are, he adds, "beginning to wake up to their true value."


Lord of the Mies

How did British collector Peter Palumbo secure his most famous acquisition, Mies van der Rohe's iconic Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois? He was early for lunch.

"I was due to meet Mies in Chicago, in 1968," recalls the 70-year-old real estate developer, who became a life peer in the House of Lords in 1991. "I turned up early, and with nothing better to do, I picked up a copy of the Tribune." Flipping through the pages, he spotted a classified listing for the home he had admired since he was 17. "I immediately called the number," he says. "Then I phoned Mies, moved lunch to dinner, and went out to see it that day."

Palumbo offered to buy the house on the spot. But it took four years to complete the sale with Edith Farnsworth, who famously hated the architect and the house. When he finally got in, the home was in a state of disrepair.

The story was much the same with other important houses Palumbo purchased, including Wright's 1954 Kentuck Knob House near Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and two Le Corbusier homes in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-Sur-Seine. "It seemed the owners felt that simply commissioning the building was the alpha and the omega of the whole thing," he says.

After restoring the Farnsworth House, Palumbo opened it up to some 5,000 visitors each year. But in 2003, declining health, flood damage, and a string of burglaries prompted him to put it up for auction at Sotheby's, and The National Trust bought it for $7.5 million. Though he is no longer collecting, Palumbo's passion hasn't dimmed. "Each place had its own special resonance," he says. "With all the houses it was, quite simply, love at first sight."


On the Market

Want to own a piece of architectural history? Below are prime listings culled from five leading real estate firms that specialize in significant modern houses.

ARCHITECT Paul Rudolph
WHERE Sarasota, Florida
HOW MUCH $1,950,000
DETAILS This waterfront home with two bedrooms was built in 1955 for Sarasota mayor David Cohen. A music lover, Cohen had Rudolph create a living room with a conversation pit big enough for a small orchestra. The house is a masterpiece of the architect's signature style. AGENT Martie Lieberman; 941-724-1118; www.modernsarasota.com

ARCHITECT Frank Lloyd Wright
WHERE Lake Forest, Illinois
HOW MUCH $2,395,000
DETAILS Wright built this four-bedroom house for developer Charles Glore in 1954. The façade is pink brick, mahogany, and glass, while the back features a long wall of soaring windows overlooking a ravine. Four fireplaces help keep the midwestern winters at bay.
AGENT Stevie Clark; 847-735-7680; www.jetsetmodern.com

ARCHITECT Buff, Straub and Hensman
WHERE Hollywood Hills, California
HOW MUCH $1,495,000
DETAILS Buff, Straub and Hensman built the radical Case Study House No. 20 in 1958. A year later the firm applied the lessons learned on that project to this wood-sheathed, post-and-beam three-bedroom modern with dramatic hillside views. The lower level has a guest suite.
AGENT Mossler & Doe; 310-275-2222; www.architectureforsale.com

ARCHITECT Gilbert Booth
WHERE Bromley, England
HOW MUCH $2,360,000
DETAILS On the outskirts of London, Stillness, as this five-bedroom Art Deco gem is known, was built in 1934. It features a curving white concrete exterior, black-trimmed windows, and interior details such as a marble fireplace and oak floors all in period style.
AGENT The Modern House; 44-1420/520-805; www.themodernhouse.co.uk

ARCHITECT Claude Parent
WHERE Bois-le-Roy, France
HOW MUCH $2,100,000
DETAILS Built in 1963-65, the Maison Bordeaux Le Pecq is distinguished by its spectacular swooping copper-clad roof. The five-bedroom house, about 45 miles outside of Paris, was declared a world masterpiece in a 1983 book published by the Cartier Foundation.
AGENT Muriel Auclert; 33-1/39-16-10-10; www.maimmobilier.fr


In Print

For further reading on modern homes, some notable titles have just been released. FLORIDA MODERN: RESIDENTIAL ARCHITECTURE 1945-1970, by Jan Hochstim (Rizzoli), spotlights the experimental work in the Sunshine State by architects like Paul Rudolph and Gene Leedy, who coupled Bauhaus and International Style innovations with southern vernacular elements. ROMANTIC MODERNIST: THE LIFE AND WORK OF NORMAN JAFFE, ARCHITECT, by Alastair Gordon (Monacelli Press), surveys the career of the mystic, Kabuki fan, and sex symbol best known for his houses in the Hamptons, which evolved from elegant, clean-lined wooden structures to immense glass mansions. As a follow-up to his book on John Lautner, Alan Hess has written a study of all 289 homes designed by Lautner's mentor—FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT: THE HOUSES (Rizzoli). And Thomas S. Hines's authoritative RICHARD NEUTRA AND THE SEARCH FOR MODERN ARCHITECTURE, first published in 1982, is back in print in a revised edition (Rizzoli), featuring a selection of ravishing Julius Shulman photographs of the California modernist's gleaming masterworks.

WHEN HE'S FURNISHING A MODERN HOME, says Los Angeles interior designer BRAD DUNNING, "it's not challenging to just drop in the usual things. I like contemporary pieces alongside the expected classics" (such as MIES VAN DER ROHE's 1929 Barcelona Chair). He's fond of recent Italian pieces that "aren't slavishly fifties but look totally right" in a modern environment—including pieces by B&B Italia (800-872-1697; www.bebitalia.it), Cappellini (39-031/759-111; www.cappellini.it), and Cassina (800-770-3568; www.cassinausa.com).

DOING THE REDO Restoring Frank Lloyd Wright's La Miniatura has been a nine-year-and-counting project for David Zander, who like other obsessive owners of modern homes, insists on doing it right. When some of the concrete blocks Wright had cast for the house needed replacing, Zander hired CTL Group, in Skokie, Illinois, to perform a chemical analysis on the aggregate and finishes to ensure the reproduction blocks would match perfectly. The firm can do the same for masonry. When it comes to renovating moderns in California, Marmol Radziner and Associates in Malibu—the company behind Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House—is considered the gold standard. The firm does its own fabrication and contracting and will take care of it all, from floors to pool to kitchen fittings. In New York, Miguel Saco—who has worked on everything from Arts & Crafts furniture to gilding on the Palacio Linares in Madrid—is among the best for wood and furniture restoration. He also has a self-named gallery of 20th-century design. For further information: CTL Group, 847-965-7500; www.ctlgroup.com. Marmol Radziner and Associates, 310-826-6222; www.marmol-radziner.com. Miguel Saco Furniture, 212-254-2855; www.miguelsaco.com.