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Our Life With Schindler

First Person

Residing in the DeKeyser Duplex, atop 80 stairs, demands much, but it's full of rewards.

March 04, 2001|MARGARET CRAWFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Great Modern architects are notorious for making houses that are difficult to live in. So now that the exhibition "The Architecture of R.M. Schindler," which opened last weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art, finally places the Austrian-born architect among the great designers of the last century, it's worth asking: What's it like to make a home in a Schindler house?

My husband, Marco Cenzatti, an architect and urban planner, and I casually began our involvement with the work of Schindler in 1983. As an architectural historian, I was vaguely familiar with Schindler, who made his career in Los Angeles from late 1920 until his death in 1953, through Esther McCoy's classic 1960 book "Five California Architects." I had even, years earlier, visited his best known building--the Lovell beach house in Newport Beach.

One day, wandering through the Hollywood Hills, architectural guidebook in hand, I followed a set of steps up a steep hill to the "DeKeyser Duplex," built in 1935. By chance, I encountered the owner, Sharon DeKeyser, a beautiful woman who I later discovered was then in her 80s, and asked for a tour. When she mentioned that the lower half of the house would soon be for rent, I jumped at the chance, attracted as much by a notably low rent as by the opportunity to experience Schindler's work first hand. The DeKeysers, Dutch immigrants who sold classical sheet music from a tiny store on Hollywood Boulevard, were typical Schindler clients--bohemian, involved with Modern art and radical politics, but far from wealthy.

Sharon, widowed when we met, explained that she and her husband had hired the architect on the recommendation of Harriet Freeman, who lived at the top of the same hill in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The DeKeysers, who lived in the spacious two-bedroom upstairs portion of the Schindler duplex, had always had tenants living in their small, downstairs three-room apartment, and I just happened to come by at the right time.

Like all of Schindler's houses, the duplex was designed for a unique site, this one so steep as to be almost unbuildable. The house is accessible only by climbing 80 stairs from the street below, or descending a steep, precarious path from behind the Freeman house above. First, we lived downstairs, then, when Sharon moved to New Mexico to be close to her daughter and the man she later married, she left the house in our care because she believed that we both loved and understood it. We moved to the upstairs unit, leaving some of her possessions downstairs, and gradually came to occupy the whole house. Finally, in 1990, we bought it. But that's jumping ahead.

Occasionally, we thought of abandoning the house because of its many quirks, for a more normal way of life. Living in a work of art is both exhilarating and a burden. Living there was about more than just real estate; it involved accepting a sacred trust. We stayed until last August, when teaching opportunities at Harvard made it impossible not to go. But like Sharon, who left only with reluctance, we are for the moment too attached to the house to sell it.

When Sharon decided she could finally let go of the house, nothing about the transaction followed the usual rules of L.A. real estate. Not wanting to take advantage of her friendship and good will, we offered to pay more than her asking price. Understanding her attachment, we extended an invitation to her to stay at the house whenever she wanted. At some point I understood that we hadn't chosen the house, the house had chosen us.

From the day we moved in, we started to restore the house to its original condition. A little information gathering quickly turned into full-scale research trips to the Schindler archive at UC Santa Barbara. As we understood and appreciated more about Schindler and the house, the task of restoring it became more and more daunting. Normal maintenance turned into a full-blown obsession. Any apparently innocuous repair could easily become a thorny problem of architectural restoration. We pored over Schindler's blueprints (two very sketchy sheets), trying to understand his intentions. Since many of our friends were architects, historians or preservationists, this usually turned into a collective exercise focused on the question: What would Schindler have done?

When our lower balcony disintegrated, it took us three years to arrive at an acceptable replacement strategy and then another year to build it. After finally acknowledging that Schindler's original design was flawed--both in his choice of materials and in the construction of the deck--we replaced it with a visibly different contemporary metal structure that could not be confused with the original.

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