Thinking About The Kaufmann House

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Kaufmann House, Richard Neutra, 1946. /JULIUS SHULMAN

I’ve been thinking lately about the best way to preserve Modernist houses, some of which have been going to the auction block and some to the chopping block. As you may have heard, the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, Richard Neutra’s suave little exercise in High Modernism, is going to be auctioned Tuesday by Christie’s as part of its New York sale of postwar and contemporary art. The pre-sale estimate is $15 to $25 million. Then on Sunday, May 18, the Esherick House, a Philadelphia residence by Louis Kahn that was completed in 1961, goes up for bids in Chicago with an estimate of $2 to $3 million.

Esherick House, Louis Kahn, 1961/ CHRISTIAN SCHAULIN

By now, auctions of Modernist homes are nothing new. The first big one was Christie’s 2000 sale of Blanchette Rockefeller’s 1950 guesthouse in Manhattan, a Philip Johnson design, for $11.1 million. Then there was Sotheby’s sale five years ago of Mies van der Rohe’s 1951 Farnsworth House. It went for $7.5 million to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which now operates the house as a museum in conjunction with the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. And then there was Christie’s sale last year of Jean Prouve’s Maison Tropicale, one of three metal prefabs from 1949-51 that were prototypes for an abandoned scheme to house colonial officials in French Equatorial Africa. It was bought by the hotelier Andre Balazs for $5 million, rebuilt temporarily on the grounds of Tate Modern in London and will eventually be re-purposed as an outdoor bar for one of his hotels.

Whoever buys the Kaufmann House, which was commissioned by the same Edgar J. Kaufmann who got Frank Lloyd Wright to design Falling Water, it probably won’t be re-opened as a taco stand. But what will happen to it? The best way to think about these auctions, and the glamorama that surrounds them, is to ask what’s the public interest here — that would be your’s and mine — and what’s the best way to arrive at it?

Let’s define the public interest this way. First, we want to preserve architecturally significant houses. Second, we’d like them eventually to be open to the public.

The sellers of the Kaufmann House, Brent Harris, head of an investment firm, and Beth Edwards Harris, an architectural historian, are selling the house because they’ve split up. They’re widely credited with having scrupulously restored the place. In addition to sun and weather damage, the house had suffered numerous updates by previous owners, including Barry Manilow. Those “improvements” had enclosed a patio, sandblasted wood ceilings and dumped air conditioning compressors up top. With the L.A.-area architects Leo Marmol and Rod Radziner, the Harrises brought the house back to its good bones, the ones made famous by those great and shrewdly fetishizing Julius Shulman photos from the 50s.

All the same, the house has no historic designation or even a “preservation easement”, which provides a tax break to owners in exchange for a promise not to demolish the structure or even sometimes not to change particular features. What that means is whoever buys it tomorrow night — assuming there’s a buyer at all — won’t be under any obligation to treat the place in any particular way.

As a worst case scenario, keep in mind the 2002 sale of another Neutra in the Palm Springs area, the 1963 Maslon House in Rancho Mirage, which was torn down just weeks after it was purchased through Sotheby’s (in a brokered sale, not an auction) for $2.45 million. The city of Rancho Mirage required nothing more complicated than an asbestos review before granting the demolition permit. A couple of Paul Rudolph houses in Rhode Island and Conneticutt met the same fate last year.

So as a first question, when classic Modernist houses go back on the market, are auction sales the best way to protect them? Auctions are a market mechanism designed to maximize prices. That $15 to $25 million pre-sale estimate for the Kaufmann House puts it well out of the price range that a preservation group like the National Trust can afford. To get the Farnsworth House was a huge fund raising effort for the Trust. The other Modernist house that it owns and operates, the Philip Johnson Glass House in Connecticutt, was gifted to the Trust by Johnson before he died.

Then again, if that price is met or exceeded at Tuesday night’s sale, it’s much less likely — though not impossible — that the Kaufmann house will be treated by the buyer as a tear down. Christie’s has mounted a media campaign to make sure the pedigree of the house is widely understood. (And to hoist it into the stratosphere of deluxe consumer objects.) That should help to ensure — but not guarantee — that the buyer will understand that the house is a kind of cultural touchstone and should be handled with care.

All the same, it will be private property, unencumbered by any kind of legal guarantees. So is there more that could be done to preserve it for the future? I’ll get to that in a later post.