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A well-rounded genius

When he wasn't building millionaires' mansions, Wallace Neff dreamed up low-cost architectural wonders. The domed Shell House, his last personal residence, still stands.

March 18, 2004|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

While thumbing through the weekend real estate ads six years ago, Steve Roden spotted a curious listing: Architect Wallace Neff's last personal residence, the Shell House, was on the market in Pasadena. For $289,000, the buyer could own a 1,000-square-foot domed structure built out of gunite, rebar and concrete.

The World War II-era house -- designed by Neff as an experiment in affordable housing -- came with interesting amenities: a large cone-shaped fireplace and thick exterior walls to deflect cold, heat, termites, bombs and shrapnel.

Roden, an artist who had been searching for a modern house with his wife, Sari, for more than a year, had never heard of Neff, renowned for building Spanish Colonial Revival style houses for wealthy and famous California clients. Even so, Roden was intrigued.

"I kept thinking, 'the Shell House? What is that?' " he said. "I figured, well, it's under $300,000 so I'll drive by it." From the outside, the place didn't look like much. Hidden behind a thick stand of mature trees in a neighborhood of wood-sided bungalows, it resembled a giant mud cake. "The outside was different, but nondescript. I went home and told Sari, 'We have to go see this house because I can't imagine what it looks like on the inside.' "

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 19, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Wallace Neff -- A historic photo of architect Wallace Neff in front of a domed "honeymoon cottage" was uncredited in the Home section Thursday. The image was provided by the Huntington Library.

The couple set up an appointment with Crosby Doe, the real estate agent who was handling the listing. "We opened the front door," Roden said, "and it was like we were stepping into the New York World Fair's House of Tomorrow." The home's curved interior walls were 7 feet high while the domed ceiling stretched to 12 feet, giving the tiny house a feeling of space and openness. "It's a little like being inside of an upside-down swimming pool." Roden and his wife promptly abandoned their search for a square, modernist house, bought the property for $260,000 and moved in, inheriting a cache of vintage furnishings that once belonged to the architect. They even found a large pottery bowl, made by Neff, in the garden.

Since moving into the house in 1998, the 39-year-old artist has become an expert on the architect's quest to address the global housing crisis by building domed structures -- often referred to as shell, balloon or bubble houses. Although Neff built similar houses all over the world, few are still standing. The Pasadena Shell House -- which will be featured on a tour of six Neff homes on March 28 -- is the last remaining structure of its kind in the United States.

"It's a little like being the caretaker of someone's project," said Roden, who is hoping to get a historic designation for the property. "The truth is, this house doesn't really fit into the rest of Neff's work. People who love his work don't really appreciate it. And people who would appreciate it don't because Neff wasn't a hipster, or they don't know about it."

Neff began building the concrete structures, which he would call "airform construction," in 1941. The airform construction technique is relatively simple. It requires inflating a giant, rubber coated balloon and then spraying it with gunite. Once the gunite is set, the balloon is deflated and removed though a door or window. The house is then insulated, reinforced with rebar and covered with another layer of concrete.

The architect's first bubble house was built in Falls Church, Va., where it was used as housing for defense workers and other people displaced by the war. The following year, it was used as company housing for the Goodyear Rubber Co. -- which manufactured the giant balloon used in the construction process -- in Litchfield, Ariz. Neff also built similar houses in Mexico, Africa, South America and the Middle East.

The Pasadena house, designed for his brother, Andrew, is the largest and most sophisticated of all of the architect's airform structures. Stories about the house abound.

"We heard that Elvis was in this house, I assume meeting with Neff about building him a mansion," Roden said. "We heard that Gandhi was in this house. I don't know how or when that would have been possible. There's so many stories. This place is such a novelty."

According to the book "Wallace Neff 1895-1982," printed by Hennessey + Ingalls in 1998, Neff was seeking not only to make a major modernist statement but also to "resolve the dilemma of being an architect close to affluent clients and a designer for a mass of anonymous clients with low budgets." It came as no surprise that Neff had taken a keen interest in dealing with world housing issues. As the grandson of Andrew McNally, the cartographer who founded Rand McNally and developed La Mirada and Altadena, he came from a family of forward thinkers

"There are a lot of architects with unique ideas on how to deal with the housing crisis," said Doe, who has sold numerous Neff houses to celebrities in Southern California over the years. "This was Neff's answer. It really is Wallace Neff at his most creative."

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