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On the Trail of a Lost Architectural Legacy

November 13, 1999|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — Architect Dion Neutra walks down a side street--a walled residential enclave on one side and a middle school on the other--looking for traces of lost architectural treasure.

He peers over a wall along Merridy Street, just east of Tampa Avenue, and sees several spacious homes that appear to be of 1970s vintage. There's nothing of much architectural note.

But in 1935, somewhere near here, stood a spectacular aluminum and glass house that his father--famed modernist architect Richard Neutra--designed for movie director Josef Von Sternberg, best known for "The Blue Angel" and other films starring Marlene Dietrich.

The two-story house--a combination of rectangular forms and graceful ellipses, all surrounded by a moat--was later occupied by author and evangelist for laissez-faire capitalism Ayn Rand, who wrote much of her novel "Atlas Shrugged" there.

But no matter who lived there, it was the house that was the star.

"Because of the geometry and the careful use of space, I thought of it as being like a Cubist painting," said Robert Winter, coauthor of "Los Angeles: An Architectural Guide."

"That house was probably the most architecturally significant building ever in the Valley," he said.

Demolished Without Protest

The Valley is now so protective of its cultural heritage that buildings do not have to be particularly significant, architecturally, to generate loud protests if they are threatened. In recent years, building conservationists have rallied to save the Bob's Big Boy in Toluca Lake and a carwash in Studio City.

But in 1971, the Von Sternberg house, as it is known to architectural historians, was quietly demolished with hardly a hint of protest.

"There was almost no warning," says Dion Neutra, who hopes to write a book, "Lost Neutra," about buildings designed by his late father that have been either demolished or remodeled beyond recognition.

"It was just gone," he says, walking down Merridy to try to get a better view of the homes behind the wall, "and there was nothing anyone could do about it."

"The destruction of that house," says UCLA architecture professor Thomas Hines, "was one of the events that led to the formation of groups like the Los Angeles Conservancy."

Hines is author of the 1982 book, "Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture." On the cover is a photograph of the Von Sternberg house in Northridge, looking a bit like a streamlined ship docked in the middle of what then appeared to be a prairie.

"That house represented the meeting of one of the great modernist architects with one of the great modernists in film," Hines said. "There was nothing else like it."

Neutra, 73, remembers visiting the house as a child, when it was still under construction. "We would be going past all these fields on the way out here," he says. "Then, in the middle of nowhere, you would suddenly come across this incredible house."

The house had a nautical feel to it, says Hines. The raised front patio--so large that it could seat 200 people--suggested a ship's bow. Atop the house was a searchlight, bought from a ship supply store.

Neither Hines nor Neutra know whether the moat was the architect's or client's idea. "My dad used to joke that the moat was electrified," said Neutra, "and that some mornings the servants would have to fish bodies out of it."

The second floor was dominated by a bedroom and mirrored bathroom. Downstairs was a 1,000-square-foot living room with a high ceiling, plus servants' quarters, a kitchen, a studio and a garage large enough to fit Von Sternberg's Rolls Royce.

The floors in the house were all terrazzo, and the roof was a shallow, copper-lined pool that was kept filled with water during summer to help cool the structure.

"It worked very well," says author Ruth Beebe Hill, who lived in the house in the 1950s and '60s. "Richard [Neutra] thought of everything."

Von Sternberg, who kept an apartment in Hollywood for when he was working on a film, moved into the house in 1935. He sold it in 1943, at least in part because of the onset of World War II.

"He could not get gas for the Rolls," says Meri Von Sternberg, the director's widow, now living in Westwood. Meri Von Sternberg, who married the director in 1948, says he told her there were other problems, as well--his Japanese servants had been placed in internment camps, and pilots training locally for the Royal Canadian Air Force used the isolated house as a mock target.

"He was getting divebombed every night," she says. "It was driving him crazy."

'Atlas Shrugged' Written There

The house was briefly occupied by a jeweler named Lou Bach, who sold it to Rand and her husband, actor Frank O'Connor.

Rand's novel "The Fountainhead," about an idealistic architect, had just been published. The main character was presumed to be modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright, but after she moved in, Neutra joked that he must have been the architect she really had in mind.

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