The interior of Silvertop was a Buck Rogers fantasy. There were faucet-less… (© J. Paul Getty Trust.…)
Kenneth Reiner made a fortune in Los Angeles in the 1940s and '50s designing and manufacturing two ingenious products: self-locking aircraft nuts and spring-loaded ladies' hair clips.
He brought the same inventiveness to a personal project he launched in 1956: building his dream home in bohemian Silver Lake with an architect who shared his faith in the future.
The industrialist labored for more than a decade to build Silvertop, a modernist landmark considered one of architect John Lautner's masterpieces. Sadly, Reiner never got to live in it.
Reiner, 95, who died Sept. 12 in Long Beach after a long illness, lost the house after a business partner sued him and his first marriage ended in divorce. It was completed by new owners in 1974.
But the distinctive residence on a ridge above the Silver Lake Reservoir remains part of Reiner's legacy as Lautner's inspired collaborator in an enduring symbol of postwar optimism.
The house, called Silvertop for its graceful concrete dome, defied conventional wisdom and the city's antiquated building codes. Its dominant line is a curve, from the arc of the roof to the cantilevered driveway that winds around a circular guest house. A Norman Rockwell-era issue of the Saturday Evening Post described the residence as seemingly poised to "zoom off to Mars."
The interior was a Buck Rogers fantasy as well. There were faucet-less sinks that automatically filled with water; a dining table with a hydraulic pedestal that was lowered for cocktails and elevated for meals; a system for heating and cooling that could not be seen or heard; and controls for lights and appliances that were discreetly set into walls and doors jambs.
If Lautner needed a part that didn't exist, Reiner invented and built it in a special workshop at his factory.
"They really clicked," architectural historian Alan Hess said of Lautner and his wealthy client. "They were both far-out thinkers" who believed in technology and invention to improve the world.
Reiner's progressive outlook was nurtured in childhood. Born in New York on April 2, 1916, he was educated at the Brooklyn Ethical Culture School, founded in the 1920s to promote social reforms and intellectual freedom. After graduating from Boys High School in 1933, he earned a degree in electrical engineering at Purdue University in 1937.
After college, he moved to Los Angeles and worked at Lockheed Aircraft until 1943, when he started Kaynar Corp. with another Purdue graduate to manufacture bolt retainers for the aeronautics industry.
When the end of World War II dampened demand for their product, Reiner invented Lady Ellen Klippies, an innovative double-pronged clip made from spring steel left over from the nut-and-bolt business. Time magazine reported that by 1959 the Klippies had captured 90% of the market.
Later Reiner came up with another soaring success: the self-locking Kaylock aircraft nut that was so light it cut a B-52 bomber's weight by 600 pounds.
Reiner poured some of his fortune into building a private elementary school in the Los Feliz area for his children and their friends. Designed by Lautner, it was called the Midtown School and opened in 1960, featuring a series of octagonal buildings with large expanses of glass and few walls dividing the interior. It incorporated some of the innovations Lautner and Reiner were developing at Silvertop.
Like Lautner, Reiner "was such a curious person," said Guy Zebert, the original project architect for Silvertop. "He wanted to investigate everything." With funds that seemed as boundless as his imagination and desire for perfection, he was, according to Zebert, "the perfect client."
One of Silvertop's unique features was a ventilation and heating system that circulated air under the floor slab and released it at low velocity at the room's perimeter. Reiner invented it because he "didn't like to feel air movement inside the house when the heating or cooling was going. He just wanted to feel the temperature changes," Zebert recalled.
Reiner also developed base boards with touch plates that hid electrical outlets from his three young children, pivoting lights that disappeared into ceilings and electrically controlled skylights. "There's not a single stock thing in the whole job," Lautner said in a 1982 oral history at UCLA.
Perhaps the biggest feat was the winding, cantilevered driveway, so novel that the Los Angeles building department refused to grant a permit. Reiner mounted a stress test that proved the driveway could support the weight of a car and beat the bureaucrats in court.
In the end, however, the extravagance of Silvertop was Reiner's undoing.
Initially planning to spend no more than $75,000 on construction, he wound up sinking close to $1 million into the project. At one point, he and his business partner, Frank Klaus, formed a corporation to support Lautner's office so that Lautner could concentrate on Silvertop.