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Michael Webb
writes on modern architecture, design, and travel. He is the author of 26 books, most recently Modernist Paradise: Niemeyer House, Boyd Collection (Rizzoli) and Venice CA: Art +Architecture in a Maverick Community (Abrams). He travels widely in search of new and classic modern architecture and contributes to magazines around the world. Michael lives in the Neutra apartment that Charles and Ray Eames once called home.

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« LOOPING THE LOOP | Main | Celebrating John Lautner »
Friday
Aug052011

When will Beverly Hills start protecting its heritage? 

 

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10)

Thanks to the LA Conservancy and an outpouring of public concern, the threatened demolition of a major Richard Neutra house has been postponed until after October 10 and—if a buyer can be found—averted. The 1955 Kronish house, located at 9439 Sunset Boulevard, is the last survivor of the three this modern master designed in Beverly Hills. Soda Partners, a greedy speculator that wants to clear the 2-acre site of its “encumbrance,” bought the 7500-square-foot house in a foreclosure auction for $5.8 million, tried to sell it as a tear-down, and now wants to flip an empty plot for $14 million. In a more civilized neighborhood than this, a major work by a 20th-century giant would add value to the property and command immediate respect. Here, as in Rancho Mirage where Neutra’s Maslon house was flattened before anyone could protest, the threat was off the radar until two weeks ago.

At a five-hour public hearing on August 2, the Beverly Hills City Council was shamed into recognizing that it lags far behind its neighbors in saving its architectural heritage. The cities of LA, Pasadena, West Hollywood, Santa Monica and others have preservation ordinances that have saved scores of significant buildings. Beverly Hills has none and has squandered its heritage.  When Lautner’s Shusett house was demolished last year, councilman John Mirisch proposed a new ordinance but was outvoted by the mayor and all his colleagues. For them, property ownership is sacrosanct, and private gain outweighs the public good.

Happily, that reactionary attitude may change. At the hearing the council was pushed into considering greater protection, but one has to wonder how far they will go and how deep is their commitment. Beverly Hills has no monopoly on philistinism and greed—they have been the hallmark of Southern California since the first real estate boom of the 1880s. However, a few communities have seen the light, and concerted public advocacy may persuade elected representatives that Beverly Hills should be known for something more than vulgar mega-mansions and Persian palaces.  Developers and their lawyers will fight to keep the status quo, so it’s crucial to lobby the mayor and council. Write, call or email if you believe they should follow through on their pledge and adopt an ordinance that will effectively protect what remains of their depleted cultural and architectural heritage. And support the LA Conservancy’s ongoing efforts.

Next, spread the word to any enlightened millionaires you happen to know. The Kronish residence needs some work, but far less than the Kaufmann in Palm Springs, which was transformed from a near ruin by Marmol + Radziner, to regain its former pre-eminence as one of the century’s greatest houses. Steven Ehrlich, Lorcan O’Herlihy and several other LA architects have displayed an equal skill in restoring unique works of art and enriching the lives of their fortunate owners. I’m lucky enough to live in a modest, but storied Neutra apartment so I know first-hand how much this means.

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10)

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