The redefinition of architecture as art is continuing in the marketplace. Over the past few years, Pierre Koenig’s 1958 Case Study House # 21 sold at Wright Auctions for $3.2 million; Mies Van Der Rohe’s 1951 Farnsworth House went for $7.5 million through Sotheby’s. Can Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs fetch $15 to $25 million? Christie’s bets that the fully restored gem of modernism can compete with the record-breaking prices being paid for modern and contemporary art. Like a $25-million David Smith sculpture, it’s from a similar period, and also made of metal. And you can live in the house.
Edgar J. Kaufmann exemplified the cliché of a good client making a better architect. The department store millionaire commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design one of his greatest homes, Fallingwater. His son, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., influenced the father’s decision to use Neutra for a glass and steel pavilion in the desert. The Austrian émigré lived in nearby Los Angeles, where his International Style was popular with the cultural elite, even though many of those artists and intellectuals had modest budgets.
With Kaufmann’s largesse, Neutra spread his wings, literally, in a pin-wheel arrangement affording diverse and panoramic views of boulders and cacti, blue skies and lavender mountains. Built in 1946 when a house could be erected for about $8 a square foot, Kaufmann spent $350 a square foot to create a residence of such modernity that it appeared to float like a UFO on its rocky and isolated desert site. The floors, including the outdoor cement patios around the pool, featured radiant heat. Every detail was designed by the architect, from the fixtures that diffuse the overhead light to the vertical louvers that control sun, shade and wind. Evading the zoning that prohibited two-story buildings, Neutra erected a rooftop gloriette with a hearth and built-in benches and spectacular views.
Kaufmann and his family may have been delighted but, sadly, even masterpieces are sold to subsequent owners who have their own opinions and, by the time it became the property of Barry Manilow, it had been through multiple renovations.
Enter the heroes, Brent and Beth Harris, who rescued the property in 1993 and hired the up-and-coming firm of Marmol/Radziner to help. Thanks to deep pockets and dedication, they completed a “forensic restoration,” tracking down the original vein of colored stone in a Utah mine for walls, matching panels of birch veneer for the built-in cabinets, even buying the machine that was originally used to create the crimped aluminum facias that accentuate the ability of the house to disapparate in the sun. The carpet designed by Raymond Lowey was recreated and, by the way, the closest neighboring house was designed for Lowey by Albert Frey.
The built-in light fixtures are equipped with the original cathode ray tubes that cast a flattering pink light. Counters and floors in bathrooms and kitchens are back to their original cork. The pool is original and Marmol/Radziner added a pool house that pays homage to Neutra without offering competition. During the years that they owned the property, the Harrises bought several adjacent lots, including a citrus orchard that once belonged to Jack Benny.
The Harrises are now going their separate ways and the house is being offered in Christie’s sale of modern and contemporary art on May 13, 2008. A portion of the sale proceeds goes to a number of nonprofit organizations for architectural preservation and other related goals. The 3,200-square-foot house, with five bedrooms and five baths, sits on 2.1 acres. (The orchard can be had for an additional sum.) There are no comparable prices, but there is no comparable house.
Even the many photographs taken by Julius Shulman, both when it was built and after the restoration, cannot convey the extraordinary presence of the house itself. Architectural historian Esther McCoy called it “weightless space enclosed.” Much is made of artists who create environments to enhance our perception. Well, here is an environment for living that does that at every turn.
HUNTER DROHOJOWSA-PHILP is author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, published by W.W. Norton.