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Is It a Teardown or a Treasure?

Bid to preserve Neutra house echoes debate over whether all of noted architects' work is worth saving.

October 05, 2003|Julie Tamaki | Times Staff Writer

Jeffrey and Karen Brandlin searched for two and a half years to find the perfect spot to build their dream home. They finally found it in a double lot in Brentwood where a small home already stood.

But the house they purchased was no ordinary home: It was a Neutra. And preservationists were not going to let them replace the work of Richard Neutra, considered a master of Modernist architecture, without a fight.

The Brandlins found themselves embroiled in a debate that stems from a question: Should every structure designed by a prominent architect be saved? As the demand for new and bigger homes and schools threatens a variety of pedigreed buildings, the question is being asked more often.

"How much of the past do we have to preserve?" wondered Maureen F. Gorsen, an attorney representing the Brandlins. To preservationists, "every one is like the Alamo."

The controversy surrounding the Brandlins comes in the wake of demolitions in recent years of several homes by noted architects, including Rudolph Schindler's Wolfe House on Catalina Island and his Packard House in San Marino. But it was the leveling last year of the Neutra-designed Maslon House in Rancho Mirage by a Minnesota couple that set preservations and others howling.

After preservationists learned the Brandlins had obtained a demolition permit, the Los Angeles Conservancy nominated their home, known as the Maxwell House, for listing as a city historic-cultural monument. The designation could allow the City Council to delay demolition by up to a year and trigger an environmental review.

Some cities in Southern California, however, lack a legal framework to preserve homes and "many of the most significant examples of residential architecture have no protections," said Ken Bernstein, the conservancy's director of preservation issues.

At the same time, Bernstein added, numerous designs by pioneering modernist architects are only now turning 50, making them easier to list. Properties less than 50 years old must demonstrate "exceptional significance" to be added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Getty Conservation Institute is trying to lay groundwork for a comprehensive citywide survey of historic resources that could identify significant structures. For now, determining the importance of unlisted buildings is not an exact science, since one person's architectural treasure is another's teardown.

Take the Morris Landau Residence in Holmby Hills. The Harvard-Westlake School has proposed expanding its middle school campus by leveling the home designed by Paul R. Williams, who became the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects in 1923.

In an era when he was not welcomed in many of the buildings he conceived, Williams taught himself to sketch upside down so he could sit across from white clients to convey his ideas without threatening them. He designed about 3,000 structures, including the First AME Church in South Los Angeles and homes for Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball.

Marcia Selz, president of the Holmby Hills Homeowners Assn., described the Landau Residence as "almost melodic." The approximately 10,000-square-foot, two-story home features a partial brick exterior and an elegant interior with a curving staircase, rich moldings and plenty of windows.

"We believe the school is degrading the neighborhood by destroying this absolutely glorious residence by Paul Williams," said Selz, whose group recently nominated the home for monument status. "The homeowners in our association revere his work."

John Amato, assistant headmaster of Harvard-Westlake, said the school would like to replace the residence with a new administration building, library, technology center, science classrooms and, to reduce traffic backups on North Faring Road, more than double the driveway.

"We don't think the way to have this discussion is to disagree with cultural significance," said William F. Delvac, an attorney representing the school. "That's not our concern. Our concern is educating kids."

An environmental impact report, which is being prepared by the city, will consider the project's effect on the Landau Residence and a school administration building -- the last original structure from the former Westlake School for girls -- which Selz's group also nominated for monument status.

While some preservationists might argue that every structure by a prominent architect is worth saving, Karen Hudson, Williams' granddaughter, suggested such decisions should be weighed individually. Other threatened work by Williams includes the landmark Ambassador Hotel, where he redesigned the hotel coffee shop and the Embassy Ballroom.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is studying the property as a potential site for new schools, but has not yet made a decision.

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