18-Oct, 02:26

09:53, June 07 140 0

2017-06-07 09:53:03
A ‘Lost’ John Lautner House Is Found and Restored

LOS ANGELES — Three years ago, Trina Turk, a fashion and housewares designer who channels the sunny optimism of California, logged onto the real estate website Curbed.com and felt her blood pressure spike. On that day, the site ran an item about a house designed by the late midcentury architect John Lautner that had mysteriously slipped off the radar for 65 years.

The story was brief and the details sketchy: The house was built in 1948, it was in the Echo Park neighborhood and it had been owned by one family for decades. Curbed quoted a listing agent and told readers that the “long-lost” Lautner would hit the market within days.

Along with her husband, Jonathan Skow, Ms. Turk is passionate about architecture and design. The couple own two historic homes: a Streamline Moderne built in Palm Springs in 1936 and nicknamed Ship of the Desert for its yachtlike scale and swooping lines, and a 1940s post-and-beam in Silver Lake designed by J. R. Davidson that serves as the couple’s main residence.

Each house was painstakingly and expensively restored by the couple, and each got the full-color shelter-mag treatment. For one visiting journalist, Mr. Skow — a phographer and the designer of the couple’s men’s wear line, called Mr. Turk — mixed up lime sours while Ms. Turk, dressed in a bright print caftan of her own design, showed off the desert view from the “ship” windows.

“It’s almost a stewardship for them — they really love taking care of these gems,” Barbara Bestor, an architect who designed the couple’s Los Angeles showroom, said. “Trina said to me once, ‘Well, we didn’t have children, so we like taking care of these houses.’”

For house collectors in Southern California, there is no better score — no child more golden — than a Lautner dwelling. The architect’s bold, experimental, sui generis houses are marked by floating concrete roofs and forests of redwood paneling, and suggest a master of the universe in residence. Perhaps that’s why Lautner houses are a favorite of Hollywood directors, who have cast the Garcia House as the lair of an international drug dealer in “Lethal Weapon 2,” and the Sheats-Goldstein Residence as the bachelor pad of the pornographer Jackie Treehorn in “The Big Lebowski.”

In reality, the Sheats-Goldstein Residence is owned by an eccentric developer and fashion peacock named James Goldstein, who announced last year that he was donating it to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It seemed to confirm that a Lautner house was less an assemblage of brick, wood and insulation than a habitable sculpture.

The club of Lautner owners is peopled with the rich and famous, among them the designer Jeremy Scott; the actress Kelly Lynch and her husband, the screenwriter Mitch Glazer; the art-book publisher Benedikt Taschen, who restored the architect’s most famous design, Chemosphere, a disc-shaped U.F.O. floating above a canyon; and the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who in 2014 paid $14 million for what Curbed described as a “lesser Lautner” in Malibu.

Crosby Doe, a Southern California real estate agent who specializes in architecturally significant properties, said Lautner rivaled Richard Neutra as the region’s most sought-after dead architect. “There’s quite a bit of competition for them when they come up for sale,” said Mr. Doe, who three years ago oversaw the sale of Lautner’s famed Silvertop house for $8.55 million to Luke Wood, the president of Beats by Dre.

News of the “long-lost” Lautner echoed around Los Angeles and the world. The architecture community marveled at how a home designed by a modernist genius could go unnoticed for decades. And the under-a-million listing price ($999,000) gave aspiring masters of the universe — junior agents at William Morris and design-minded directors with a few IMDB credits — the hope that they, too, could bed down under a floating Lautner roof.

Ms. Turk tried to get a sneak peak, but the property was fenced off, so she and Mr. Skow settled for attending the broker’s open. “They were very smart and scheduled a sunset open house with wine and cheese,” she said.

The dusky light and vino helped to obscure the home’s modest size and beat-up condition. The carport had been enclosed at some point to make a clunky bedroom addition, and decades of exposure to the elements and lack of maintenance had taken a toll.

Every architecture buff in town was there, and as they got a look at the three tiny rooms and the faded redwood on the sides of the house, the general reaction was the same, Mr. Skow said, “The whole tone was, ‘You would have to be insane to buy this.’”

But Mr. Skow and Ms. Turk felt otherwise. The 1,100-square-foot house sat perched, like a glass-walled jewel box, on a hillside lot an acre in size, facing west toward the Pacific.

“The funny thing is we were blown away and said, ‘This is amazing!’” Mr. Skow said. “And everybody was walking around going, ‘Oh my God, this is a nightmare.’”

Ms. Turk added: “We’ve been on enough architecture tours to see what potential a house could be. It sounded like a fun project.”

The official name for the “lost” Lautner is the Jules Salkin Residence, after the developer who commissioned it. It’s part of a group of houses the architect built early in his career with prefabricated roof structures, said Frank Escher, an architect in the Los Angeles firm Escher GuneWardena and an author of a definitive book on Lautner, “Between Earth and Heaven.”

By 1948, Lautner was a decade or so removed from studying under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz. He had moved to Los Angeles to assist Wright on residential projects and establish his own practice, where he promoted his mentor’s style of organic modernism, blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor spaces. When Lautner submitted the building plans for the Salkin Residence to the city, he didn’t yet have his architect’s license — that came in 1952 — and another man had to sign for him, said Louis Wiehle, an architect who worked with Lautner in those days.

Somehow, the Salkin Residence, which was completed around the same time as more acclaimed Lautner projects like the Desert Hot Springs Motel, was left out of the architect’s list of works when it was assembled by his devotees years later. It didn’t appear among the buildings compiled on the John Lautner Foundation website. Mr. Escher saw only a model for the house among Lautner’s own disorderly records, leading him to refer to it in his book as “the unbuilt Salkin House.”

“I was completely stunned,” Mr. Escher said of his reaction to hearing of its existence. “It was an incredible stroke of luck that the house was discovered.”

Part of the reason the house went unnoticed for decades is that the owners never celebrated it. There were no Dwell magazine shoots or tours sponsored by the MAK Center for Art and Architecture — the sorts of promotion that savvy owners of architecturally significant houses employ to raise market values and gain personal publicity.

Melinda Maxwell-Smith grew up in the Salkin Residence. For her, it wasn’t so much lost as always there, taken for granted. She said her parents bought the house from the original owner for $12,000 in 1949, when she was 10 months old.

Her parents were 1950s bohemians. “My mother ran something called Bobby’s Burger Bar,” Ms. Maxwell-Smith said. “My father had been taken on as a photographer at The L.A. Times. He liked to hobnob with artistic people and forward thinkers. He was friends with Edward Weston. They hosted Democratic club meetings in the home and jazz sessions.”

Growing up in the house, Ms. Maxwell-Smith didn’t always have a happy childhood. She shared the larger of the two tiny bedrooms with her older brother, Melton, using the folding privacy screen Lautner designed to divide the room. But she could often hear her alcoholic father arguing with her mother through the thin walls. She would run outside and escape up the hill into Elysian Park.

Moreover, Lautner’s progressive architecture stuck out uncomfortably from the neighbors’ clapboard and stucco piles (“Everyone thought we were rich,” Ms. Maxwell-Smith said), and the place was rife with quirks. Built on a flat pad level with the earth, the house practically invited bugs to crawl in. The glass walls were poorly sealed, so when it rained, she said, “we had two inches of warm water in the house.”

“You knew not to touch the fridge or stereo or you’d get a shock,” she continued.

But Lautner’s genius was nevertheless evident at that early stage of his career, when he was working with perhaps a $15,000 budget, modest even in 1940s dollars. Mr. Wiehle singled out the roof, so unusual in its construction that it was called “odd” in the city building plans. Instead of using wood-frame or post-and-beam construction, Lautner created wing-shape structural bents at eight-foot intervals across the length of the house. At the center, two rows of columns support the structure, meaning the roof can float free from the glass walls like a parasol.

“The roof is what individualizes the house,” Mr. Wiehle said. “It’s a very striking design. It establishes the importance he felt for a sheltering roof that allows for free play beneath it.”

Ms. Maxwell-Smith’s parents divorced when she was 10, and her mother, Barbara, remarried and stayed in the house until 1994. By then a widow, Barbara moved in with her boyfriend in Glendale and rented the place to an Australian filmmaker and his family, who stayed 17 years.

Ms. Maxwell-Smith’s younger half brother, Steven Gutierrez-Kovner, who also grew up in the house, became a real estate agent, and he knew the potential value of a Lautner, even a modest early-career one in rough shape. After their mother died, in 2012, the three siblings agreed to sell it.

The process has caused Ms. Maxwell-Smith to reflect on her years in the house and appreciate, in retrospect, Lautner’s forward-thinking design genius.

“Now there’s all this stuff about grounding, the importance of being in touch with the earth,” Ms. Maxwell-Smith said. “Lautner’s intent was to keep people close to nature. You’re walking on the earth; you’re not rising above it. I didn’t recognize living there as the privilege that I do now.”

One September day, in 2015, a little more than a year after the lost Lautner was put up for sale, Mr. Skow stood in the living room, flanked by a contractor, Marshall Knoll, and Ms. Bestor, whom the couple hired to undertake the Salkin House restoration. The house was a construction zone. The interior had been stripped down to the distinctive red concrete floor. The glass walls had been removed and a breeze was blowing in. It was the start of a major undertaking.

Mr. Skow and Ms. Turk paid $1.2 million for the house, beating out 14 others, including the bassist Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Even a “nightmare” Lautner had started a bidding war. The couple also wrote a letter to Ms. Maxwell-Smith’s family explaining their intentions. Wisely, the words “tear down” did not appear.

“They wanted to renovate this house, bring it back to its original intent,” Ms. Maxwell-Smith said. “It touched our hearts.”

Tall and bald, with chunky black eyeglasses worn as a trademark accessory, Mr. Skow gives off the air of a thrift store-shopping artist who has happened into a windfall but remains unchanged. The success of the fashion line, which has 13 stores, has made bigger art projects possible.

“We could afford it and it was something exciting to buy,” Mr. Skow said of the Salkin House. “More exciting than going to Barneys or something like that.”

He added: “We knew the project would be interesting and that it always costs a lot of money. The real question was, after it’s done, is it going to make our life more enjoyable or less enjoyable by having another house?”

The couple’s relaxed attitude, combined with their desire to preserve rather than remake or gut a home, makes Mr. Skow and Ms. Turk easy and fun to work with, Ms. Bestor said.

“As an architect, you don’t have that pressure of someone saying, ‘I love the house, but how can I have a walk-in closet here?’” Ms. Bestor said. “Because it’s a passion project — it’s not like someone has to move in here tomorrow — they’re able to restore it in a way that you couldn’t with someone on a deadline.”

Ms. Bestor, who also worked on the restoration of Silvertop, a Lautner house on a much grander scale (and got married there as well), likened the Salkin House to one of the pavilions that Wright’s students built in the desert at Taliesin West.

“It’s a beautiful glass pavilion on this one-acre lot,” she said. “You could almost have an outdoor concert below and have the house be a reception space.”

The project ultimately took more than two years to complete. It would be more than a year from that September day until Ms. Turk and Mr. Skow could even think about furniture.

During that time, the couple, along with Ms. Bestor and Mr. Knoll, studied Lautner’s drawings. They worked to retain the original floor plan and transparent feel of the glass walls, while updating the materials and using modern technology to solve the waterproofing issues that had frustrated previous residents and so damaged the house.

“Nothing is getting expanded, the bathrooms aren’t twice as big,” Ms. Bestor said. “I think we’re changing the tub into a shower.”

The ill-conceived bedroom addition was ripped out and the carport restored, the sagging foundation was lifted and the redwood siding was sanded down and restained to a luster. Much of the day-to-day managing of the project fell to Mr. Skow, while Ms. Turk saw to their fashion and housewares line and weighed in on the material choices and finishes.

“Jonathan was horrified that I wanted black kitchen countertops,” Ms. Turk said.

Last fall, the couple began furnishing the house, mostly with vintage pieces they had bought over time at Los Angeles-area flea markets, like a Danish sofa and a Neutra coffee table. They also added colorful rugs they had picked up on a trip to Morocco, in keeping with the low-key bohemian vibe.

For Mr. Skow, the finished house feels like a groovy 1960s or ’70s hippie cabin. “The thing I love about it is there’s this weird rustic element mixed with this super space-age quality,” he said.

They envision the Salkin House as an office for Mr. Skow and a place where the couple will host out-of-town guests.

“When the glass doors are open, it feels magical in here,” Mr. Skow said. “It’s a transcendent experience. It’s totally cool.”

But he and Ms. Turk aren’t taking much time to stop and admire the finished project. They recently bought a house at Sea Ranch, the ’60s utopian community in Northern California. It’s an 850-square-feet home designed by the architect Joseph Esherick.

“It’s in decent condition,” Mr. Skow said. “But it does need some attention.”

He laughed. “We’re on to the next.”