Modern American architectural gems set for auction
It's quite a house. Five bedrooms. Swimming pool. Tennis court. All on a 2.5 acre lot with wonderful mountain and desert views in one of the plushest parts of Palm Springs. How much would you expect to pay for a house like this? Between $8 million and $10 million, or so say the local real estate agents. Why then does this one have a price tag of $15 million to $25 million?
The answer is simple. It's the Kaufmann House, designed in the mid-1940s by the modernist architect Richard Neutra. Not only is it among his finest work, but it's a 20th-century American architectural gem. The house is to be auctioned tomorrow, not by a Palm Springs realtor but alongside the trio of Francis Bacon self-portraits and a very rare Clyfford Still painting in a sale of postwar and contemporary art at Christie's in New York.
Five days later, another modern American architectural landmark will go on the block when the Margaret Esherick House, which was designed by Louis Kahn at the turn of the 1960s for a local bookstore owner in the Chestnut Hill area of Philadelphia comes up for sale at the Wright auction house in Chicago. The Esherick is smaller than the Kaufmann - with only one bedroom - and Philadelphia isn't as sunny as Palm Springs. All of that is reflected in the price, which Neutra (who disliked Kahn) would have been delighted to note is considerably lower at an estimate of up to $3 million.
Even so, that's a lot more than you'd expect to pay for a one-bedroom house in Chestnut Hill. Both the Esherick and Kaufmann are beneficiaries of the fashion for the new trophy homes, the modern architectural masterpieces that now command million-dollar premiums but were sold - or often failed to sell - as tear-downs less than two decades ago.
That was the fate of the Kaufmann when its current owners, the investment manager Brent Harris and his architectural historian wife, Beth Edwards Harris, discovered it in 1992. It had been on the market for three and a half years when the couple, who are now divorcing, bought it for $1.5 million after the realtor assured them that they could easily turn it into "something Spanish."
The original design had been bashed about by the previous owners, who'd included the singer Barry Manilow. But no expense was spared by its original owner, the Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann. He was an architecture nut who had already built the extraordinary Fallingwater, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, as his weekend home. Neutra was allowed to spend $300,000 on building the desert house, a fortune for the time.
Neutra, who was born in Vienna and had lived in the United States since 1923, was then at the peak of his career. He'd made his name by designing seductive glass and steel houses in the Hollywood Hills, notably the Lovell House, which had a starring role in the neo-noir thriller "L.A. Confidential." Neutra had a flair for designing homes that their owners loved, and for blending them into the surrounding landscape. To comply with postwar building legislation, he began the Kaufmann by building the pool, and supervised construction while splashing in the water.
The result was an architectural showstopper of glass, concrete and stone, which the Harrises lovingly restored. Their architects, Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner, hunted down the original suppliers of paint and fixtures, and re-opened the area of the Utah quarry where Neutra's builders had sourced the stone.
Gorgeous though the Kaufmann is, design purists would probably plump for the Esherick, size, location and everything else being equal. Neutra was a gifted designer, but Kahn was an architectural god, who designed very few houses. The tiny Esherick was one of the best. The son of poor Estonians, Kahn arrived in the United States at the age of 5, and died broke and so obscure that it took the police days to identify his corpse after he suffered a heart attack in the men's room of Pennsylvania Station in New York.
Today he is revered by fellow architects for his mastery of light and space, and for refining the rigor of early-20th-century Modernism into a subtler, more sensual style. The Esherick is a wonderful example of Kahn's skill at choreographing a building's structure to respond to the light as it changes through the day. It also boasts the craftsmanship of the owner's uncle, the sculptor and woodworker Wharton Esherick, who was a friend of Kahn's.
Even with a Wharton Esherick kitchen, buying an architectural landmark is a daunting proposition. Maintenance is complex and expensive, restoration even more so. Few of these houses meet contemporary standards of energy efficiency. There is also the obvious problem of geography. You can't move a landmarked house to wherever you wish, as you can a painting or sculpture.
Nonetheless, many art collectors and architectural buffs are now buying them. Most change hands privately, and many are too small - and inexpensive, even with an architectural premium - to justify a high profile sale at auction. But the beautiful Farnsworth House, designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1951 for a site near Chicago, sold for $7.5 million at Sotheby's five years ago. The Maison Tropicale, a prefabricated house designed by Jean Prouvé in 1951, then reached $4.97 million at Christie's last summer. As a prefab it can be built anywhere, which solves the geography problem, and it was bought by the U.S. hotelier André Balazs.
Another peripatetic prefab, the Artek Pavilion, designed last year by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban as a temporary gallery for the eponymous Finnish furniture company, is to be auctioned by Sotheby's next month, for $800,000 to $1.2 million. Sotheby's hopes that collectors will vie for the pavilion, which is made mostly from recycled materials as part of Ban's experiments in sustainability, as an architectural landmark of the future.