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Priced to preserve

Case Study homes, built for the middle class, now sell for millions.

December 06, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

Chicago — THE Wright auction house, which occupies a two-story warehouse building just west of the Loop, specializes in 20th century furniture and decorative arts. The items up for bid Sunday afternoon in Wright's salesroom included a travertine cocktail table by Philip Johnson, a Mies van der Rohe daybed and some early pieces by the British designer Ron Arad.

But squeezed in the middle of that collection was a bigger and decidedly more immovable object: Pierre Koenig's Case Study House No. 21, a spare, elegant piece of steel-and-glass modernism on Wonderland Park Avenue in the Hollywood Hills. Like all the Case Study houses, it was commissioned by the editors of Arts & Architecture magazine; completed in 1958, it was built for a childless couple, Walter and Mary Bailey.

By the time Richard Wright, who runs the auction house and often presides over its sales, began describing the particulars of No. 21 -- "a beautiful architectural object," he called it -- the crowd had grown to standing-room size. People put down the box lunches the auction house had provided. Photographs of the house by Julius Shulman -- who shot the house when it was new and was commissioned by Wright to do so again earlier this year -- flashed on a large screen at the front of the room.

Bidding for the house (which, just to clarify, will not be moved) started at $1.9 million. It moved rather methodically past $2 million and then began to accelerate, pushed by a pair of contenders, a woman in the audience and a bidder participating by telephone.

"I have $2,450,000 on the phone," Wright said, smoothing his orange tie. A few minutes later: "I have $2,830,000 in the room."

"Will you advance the bidding, Liz?" Wright said, turning to one of his staffers, who had a phone cradled to her ear. "Yes or no, Liz?"

Liz's lips moved furiously but produced no audible sound, at least in the audience. She shook her head.

"Then sold!" Wright said. "$2,830,000. Buyer No. 138."

Applause filled the room. With commissions, the buyer -- who has so far remained anonymous -- paid a total of $3,185,600, the auction house said.

What the buyer gets for the money is a single-story, two-bedroom house on a less than half an acre, without a view or a swimming pool, that covers fewer than 1,300 interior square feet and cost $20,000 to build. If there was still any connection, however thin, between the Case Study houses and middle-class life, Wright's gavel on Sunday afternoon effectively severed it for good.

I write that as if it's an entirely distressing thing. It's not. In fact, the astronomical prices now attached to the Case Study houses -- two dozen of which were built, from 1945 to 1964, as prototypes for affordable modern residential architecture -- may turn out to be an effective mechanism for preservation. A $600,000 teardown is one thing; a $3.18 million teardown is something else altogether.

The link in the public imagination between the houses and affordability, a natural one given the original goals of the program, has proved surprisingly sturdy over the years. In fact, one reason that the new generation of high-design prefab houses, touted in Dwell magazine and elsewhere, has been so popular is that it revives, with full-on romanticism, the Case Study fantasy that wealth is not a prerequisite for living in a crisp, perfectly proportioned piece of progressive architecture. It has been particularly hard to give up on that dream when some of the houses -- including nearby No. 22, another Koenig design -- are still occupied by at least one of their original owners.

Yet the Case Study program always operated on another, less populist track as well, even from its earliest days. You don't commission houses from Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Richard Neutra, Craig Ellwood and other young architectural luminaries and expect their value to stay flat.

At least not if they are never produced in huge quantities. That was always the Achilles' heel of the program: The beauty and sophistication of the houses outpaced the effort to turn them into assembly-line products by a dramatic margin, leaving the public to clamor predictably whenever one of the houses comes up for sale. You could say it's a simple matter of supply and demand, except that the demand in this case is driven by the complicated mixture of lust and envy always created, as a psychological byproduct, when a beautiful object is made and marketed well. Add to that the fact that many of the houses were built with cheap industrial materials, and the irony deepens.

This is not the first time that a landmark of modern architecture has been sold this way. Van Der Rohe's Farnsworth House in Illinois was auctioned by Sotheby's three years ago. (The National Trust bought it.) And as a test case for thinking of all the Case Study houses as artworks first and residences second, No. 21 was not a bad choice.

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