More Thinking About the Kaufmann House

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With Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House set to be auctioned tonight, lets get back to the subject of how to preserve great Modernist houses from the wrecking ball. (Or almost as bad, tacky renovations.)

As I said yesterday, to the extent that they publicize the value of Modernist houses as important works, auctions as a way to sell them could be a good thing. It could even be good that they tend to boost prices. Nothing alerts a buyer to the value of what they just bought like a high price tag. All the same, nothing about an auction sale obligates that buyer not to adulterate the house or even demolish it.

One partial solution is to persuade buyers to adopt preservation easements, which amount to an agreement to protect the historic character of their homes. (That doesn’t mean they can’t alter them at all; updates and even expansions can be permitted.) An incentive for buyers is that easements can come with a tax break. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has a lot of information about easements on its website.

Ultimately the best outcome is for the houses to pass into the possession of museums that will open them to the public. Three years ago the Dallas-area collectors Howard and Cindy Rachofsky agreed that they would leave the Dallas Art Museum not only their contemporary art collection but also the Richard Meier-designed house where part of it is always on view and open by appointment to small groups. And the Indianapolis Museum of Art is looking into ways it might acquire the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana, one of only two houses by Eero Saarinen.

And as I mentioned yesterday, Jean Prouve’s Maison Tropicale was sold at auction last year to the hotelier Andre Balazs. But a few years earlier another of them — there are three altogether — was bought by Robert Rubin, a retired commodities trader who refurbished it, toured it to a couple of museums and then donated it to the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Happy ending.

As it happens, I grabbed lunch in New York recently with Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and one of the things we talked about was the idea he floated last year that LACMA might some day acquire great Modernist houses in the L.A. area. While he didn’t envision his museum having the purchasing power to buy them, he’s also thinking ahead to a day when benefactors might buy the houses and donate them.

So — message to whoever buys the Kaufmann House. Whenever you get tired of it…you know who to call.

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