The New Preservationists

Renovating historic modernist houses

Southern California, home of the ephemeral, has famously neglected some of its greatest works of popular culture, allowing classic films to disintegrate, movie back lots to rot, even the iconographic hollywood sign (since repaired) to decay. Until recently, houses by the pioneers of modern design—mostly European immigrant architects like R.M. Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Albert Frey, who practiced in California from the '20s through the '70s—seemed headed for the same fate. These cool, linear structures, scattered from Beverly Hills to Palm Springs, had all too often been "remuddled" beyond recognition or simply razed. But thanks to design historians, preservationists, and retro-zealous homebuyers, the works of Schindler, Neutra, Frey, and other modernists have joined those of Greene & Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright in the firmament of architecturally desirable West Coast residences. Architects Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner, principals in the Santa Monica firm Marmol Radziner + Associates, are at the center of this revival. Though they've received most acclaim for their sensitive restoration of Neutra's 1946 Edgar J. Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, they have restored, renovated, or added to many other historic modernist houses in Southern California and beyond. In fact, they are probably the most sought-after specialists in the field today.

"Working with the buildings of modern masters has given us the opportunity to learn how and why they did things," says Marmol. What those "masters" did was go native. California modernists broke with the chilly formalism of the Bauhaus, perhaps as an inevitable consequence of living in one of the world's most agreeable climates thousands of miles from the movement's doctrinaire foundations. "In California, European modernism was transformed in a soft, friendly way," says Marmol. "In that sense, California modernism is a kinder, gentler interpretation."

The gentlest and least predictable modernist of them all was R.M. Schindler, an Austrian émigré like Neutra, his one-time partner. Two years ago, Marmol Radziner restored Schindler's Elliot House, a multilevel set of cubic forms built in 1930. Set into a steep hillside in the Silverlake section of Los Angeles, the house spills gracefully down to the street. Such site-sensitive design and naturalism were a Schindler hallmark. The intent of modernism was to move toward a rigid expression of materials and perfect level of craftsmanship," says Marmol. "With Schindler, that's not the case." For example, it became clear to Marmol during the restoration that Schindler had made "many design decisions on the site. The framing techniques were unique at best. In fact, you wouldn't call them construction techniques—they're more like experimental methods." As a result, the Elliot house has a slightly improvised feel, which the restoration respects.

Marmol Radziner took a more aggressive approach with Neutra's Lew House, constructed in 1958 in the Hollywood Hills. The architects restored portions of the structure but remodeled others in Neutra's style. Original windows covered in previous remodelings were reinstated, including a floor-to-ceiling dining-room window with a view into the attached carport. "We always tell the story that after the project was completed, the owner had to buy a new car," Marmol laughs.

The partners performed an even more extensive reinterpretation of the Rose House in Trousdale Estates, a Beverly Hills subdivision teeming with modernist houses. The residence was designed in 1963 by Conrad Buff, Calvin Straub, and Don Hensman, participants in the influential Case Study House experiment, a two-decades-long exploration of modernist theories and practices initiated in the mid-forties. Marmol Radziner simplified the structure's internal layout, introduced sleek materials like terrazzo and stainless steel, and strengthened the interior's relationship to courtyard and pool.

"We're proud of the fact that you can't tell there was a design intervention—you can't tell we were there," Marmol says. "To do that, you've got to get into the original architects' mindset."

The same concept was brought to bear in their reconstruction of the Ship of the Desert House in Palm Springs, designed in '37 by Earle Webster and Adrian Wilson. The house was being refurbished by its owners when it was damaged by fire. Working largely from photos, Marmol Radziner brought the house back in all its goofy ocean-liner-in-the-desert glory, down to the last porthole. "We saved as much as we could," Marmol says, "but because a lot of what we were doing fell into the category of new construction, the ordinances were much more stringent. We had to integrate structural steel into the house, and it was a challenge to make that steel disappear into the skin."

The Marmol Radziner philosophy is rooted in maintaining the integrity of each master's vision while acknowledging the realities of contemporary living. "We are architects, not historians, and these houses are not museums," says Marmol. "They're working, breathing, living homes and should be treated as such. It's not an academic exercise for us. We're working with real people with real dollars, trying to come up with solutions that are often compromises. But we never want to make compromises that degrade the original architecture."


Repro Modern

Marmol Radziner's preservationist activities extend to furnishings designed by California modernists. The Marmol Radziner Furniture line debuted last spring with the Kings Road Group, a collection of five reproduction pieces originally designed by R.M. Schindler in 1921-22 for his own house in West Hollywood. It includes ottoman, sling chair, stool, sofa, and child's chair. www.marmolradzinerfurniture.com.

Marmol Radziner + Associates, 2902 Nebraska Avenue, Santa Monica, California; 310-264-1814; www.marmolradziner.com.