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A Modern dream come true

Michael LaFetra is passionate about restoring 20th century classics, but his latest project is something new: building Pierre Koenig's last design.

August 04, 2005|Eryn Brown | Special to The Times

Michael LaFetra remembers the first time he heard from architect Pierre Koenig. It was late 1999, and LaFetra was just moving into Case Study House #21, a glass and steel Modernist classic perched high in the Hollywood Hills. He had hardly unpacked a box, much less sent out change-of-address cards for friends or family. But Koenig, somehow, found him.

"Within the first week of owning the house, I had a message on my machine: 'Hello, this is Pierre, your architect, and I want to talk,' " LaFetra recalls. "I thought, whoa -- my parents don't even have my number yet!"

Koenig introduced himself and told LaFetra that "I ought not have to change anything in the house, but that if I needed to, I should get in touch with him," LaFetra says.

It was a call that Koenig made to anyone who bought one of the close to 50 houses he designed. A leading proponent of midcentury Modernism in Los Angeles, Koenig was best known for designing two houses for the legendary Case Study Program, which between 1945 and 1966 commissioned prominent Modern architects to build beautiful -- and affordable -- model homes, most in and around Los Angeles. Koenig's Case Study House #22, photographed by Julius Shulman, is widely considered the iconic postwar L.A. home, with its sweeping city views and openness to the outdoors.

Koenig reached out to the people who bought his homes because he was anxious to preserve the integrity of his clean, spare designs. He didn't want people tinkering with his work. But with his call to LaFetra that day, Koenig, who died of leukemia in 2004 at 78, was helping ensure the survival of his houses -- and his reputation for Modern architecture -- in ways he couldn't have imagined.

Not only did LaFetra, a 38-year-old actor and movie producer, not muck up Case Study House #21, he wound up endorsing successful efforts to get the house registered as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument along with the more famous Case Study House #22. He went on to commission what would be the last house Koenig designed: a 4,000-square-foot glass box set on a breathtaking Malibu beach. LaFetra is also putting together a documentary about Koenig's life and buildings, complete with filmed interviews with the master. He's supporting other architects' work too. Thanks in part to Koenig's influence, as well as some savvy stock market and real estate investing, LaFetra has become an enthusiastic collector and restorer of architectural homes in the Los Angeles area, a "passionate" homeowner who's known for doing "top-quality, well-researched work," says Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy.

LaFetra has restored two Rudolf Schindler homes, including a 1938 house in Sherman Oaks where he currently houses his production company. He hired custom metalworkers to recreate vintage doorknobs, and spent months searching for the right linoleums to cover countertops and the right plywood to panel walls. He's just begun fixing up a Brentwood house designed by Thornton Abell, another Modernist. He lives in a Brentwood Ray Kappe-designed home and has hired Kappe to build a new house, also in Brentwood.

LaFetra bought the site in Malibu before he had learned much about midcentury homes. But from the start, he says, he seemed to instinctively want a Koenig house on the beachfront property. A real estate agent he was working with had handed him a stack of Architectural Digests, one of which featured photographs of Case Study #21. LaFetra was instantly smitten. "I dropped the magazine where it was, and I said, 'I want that house, on the beach,' " LaFetra says. "My agent just laughed."

Instead, there was a contemporary spec house that once belonged to actress Pia Zadora on the Malibu property. But six days after he closed escrow, Case Study #21 went on the market. LaFetra's agent told him he should buy it. "I said, 'Dude, I can't!' " LaFetra says today. "But he said, 'It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.' So I took out a second killer mortgage and bought it." He decided to split his time between the Malibu and Hollywood Hills houses.

The fateful phone call from Koenig took place just weeks after he bought Case Study #21. Over time, LaFetra grew closer to Koenig and his wife, Gloria, who introduced him to the folks at the Los Angeles Conservancy, with whom he began working to get his houses registered as historic landmarks. He and his girlfriend, Alison Letson, also began socializing with the older couple, who offered a connection to a glorious past: the age of the great Los Angeles Modernists. Koenig, who designed his first house in 1950 when he was still a student at USC, was one of the younger members of this pantheon, which included Richard Neutra, Schindler, and Charles and Ray Eames.

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