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The Living Wasn't Easy but House Is Worth Saving

September 17, 1987|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

In 1921, a young architect came back from a camping trip in the mountains and designed a house on a quiet street in West Hollywood that left its mark on Southern California architecture.

Fitted with sliding canvas doors that opened onto a pair of private gardens, the low, concrete-walled house "transcended anything done by anybody . . . in that he (the architect) had achieved the interpenetration of indoor and outdoor space," said architectural historian Reyner Banham.

The house, once the scene of Bohemian revels, still stands today, hidden behind a stand of bamboo at 835 N. Kings Road. It is the subject of a restoration effort marking the 100th anniversary of architect R. M. Schindler's birth on Sept. 10.

The City of West Hollywood has already funded a $50,000 roofing job and another $30,000 has been granted by the state Office of Historical Preservation to shore up seven leaning fireplaces and restore the front garden.

More Funds Needed

However, sponsors say that another half a million dollars could come in handy.

"It's very creatively designed and very interesting," said City Council Member John Heilman. "I don't know if I'd want to live in it, but it needs to be preserved as part of the architectural history of the city."

Schindler's 3,410-square-foot house was not really intended to be lived in at all and certainly not by conventional souls, according to Kathryn Smith, chairman of the fund-raising effort and a one-time tenant of Schindler's widow.

"He had come back from a camping trip to Yosemite and he was deeply enthralled with the out of doors and with the wilderness," she said of the young Viennese architect and protege of Frank Lloyd Wright who made the house his first independent project.

"He compared the building to a camper's shelter, with a solid back, which were the concrete panels, and an open front like a tent flap, which were the sliding canvas doors.

"The real rooms of that house are out of doors," said Smith. "This is the hardest thing to communicate to anybody, including architecture students."

The sliding doors were the forerunner of the sliding glass doors that open the living rooms of many a home to patios and back yards today, she said.

While similar concepts were used in Japan and traditional Spanish houses, Schindler's house "was the first time that it was done in a modern building in a modern house in such a real and dramatic way," Smith said.

"For some reason, a sliding window is different than a hinged door," Banham said. "A lot of people were thinking in the same direction, but Schindler quite possibly was the first to do it on a modest domestic scale.

"It's actually a tiny house, four rooms and a kitchen. But it doesn't feel tiny when you're in it because of those big chunks of outdoors. Although it depends heavily on Frank Lloyd Wright and some German and Austrian theorists, I don't know of any house so early in the 20th Century that delivered so much of what modern architecture was supposed to be all about," he said.

The house also had one of the first flat roofs in the area, unusual open-air sleeping porches on the roof and the walls were made by a new process of using wooden frames to tilt newly poured concrete into place. Straight-line hedges continued the angular lines of the house into the front and back yards.

Other Innovations

The innovations of the Schindler house were not only architectural. It was designed to be shared by two families, with a single kitchen in the middle joining two separate L-shaped wings.

After completing the house on June 22, 1922, Schindler and his wife, Pauline, shared it for three years with her college roommate and the roommate's husband, who was the general contractor for the five-month house-building project. The house was built at a cost of $12,550, on a 100 by 200-foot lot that cost $2,750.

Free spirits in the Roaring '20s, the Schindlers liked to wear loose-fitting, natural-fiber clothes that closed with ties instead of buttons. They threw all-night parties in their isolated enclave, which was then one of three houses on the entire length of Kings Road between Melrose Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

"It was in the desert when it was built," said Banham. "You can see in the old pictures the chaparral scrub and nothing but a few utility poles in the distance."

Tenants included Galka Scheyer, the American agent for European painters known as the Blue Four: Paul Klee, Vassily Kandinsky, Alexei Jawlensky and Lyonel Feininger. Much of her collection is now in the Norton Simon Museum.

Scheyer complained of the absence of "normal human conditions which any human being would request in a normal house," including the lack of "circulation which does not necessitate climbing on the roof to open or close a window."

Celebrated Guests

Guests ranged from novelists Theodore Dreiser and Aldous Huxley to avant-garde composer John Cage and silent movie star Mary MacLaren, who revisited the house shortly before her death in 1985.

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