Architect-Made Abodes Up the Ante
by kathy a. mcdonald
Los Angeles embraces well-designed living with a passion. Here, architects with boldfaced names have set the bar for residential architecture and contributed precious pieces to the city’s cultural heritage. Exceptional examples dot the region, from the hand-hewn Craftsman mansions of Greene & Greene in Pasadena and Gregory Ain’s Mar Vista Tract homes to Frank Gehry’s innovative corrugated-metal-and-chainlink-fence-framed residence in Santa Monica. Betwixt are well-known gems by Frank Lloyd Wright and modernist masters Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, and John Lautner. Stalwart traditionalists, Paul Revere Williams and Wallace Neff most prominently, have their admirers too, as do today’s contemporary practitioners like Ehrlich Architects, Marmol Radziner, and Koning Eizenberg.
When it comes to reselling homes by an esteemed architect, real estate agents agree that name value brings greater attention to properties when they hit the market, and often, an increased price at closing. Buyers have come to recognize, in a place where knockoffs and carbon-copy tract homes abound, these homes are the real deal. Think haute couture for houses, with no alterations and the original labels intact.
“In Los Angeles, there is an understanding that any significant architect-designed house is a much better quality house,” says real estate agent Crosby Doe of Crosby Doe Associates. “The architect has sited the house more purposefully, providing a better lifestyle and better way of living to the resident,” he contends.
The trademark bold, classic lines and elegant curves of Paul Williams’s mansions (built in the 1920s–’60s) epitomize traditional LA style. “The people who like [Williams’s] homes tend to be purists,” says John Woodward IV of Coldwell Banker Previews International. Known as the architect to the stars (Jennifer Jones and Tyrone Power were clients), Williams designed more than 2,000 homes during his career, as well as renovating Chasen’s Restaurant (now a Bristol Farms), redesigning the lobby and designing the Crescent Wing addition and Palm Terrace at The Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows, and the interiors of Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills. Williams’s homes are sought out for their design sense. “Like a rare coin, buyers tend to want to keep it authentic; they’re not going to knock out walls or invade the integrity of the architecture,” says Woodward.
Recently a relatively untouched, 1937-built Georgian Colonial on Sunset Boulevard by Williams was listed at $7.495 million. (Woodward and Coldwell Banker Previews International’s Jade Mills shared the listing.) Among its architectural details are an unusual oval-shaped formal dining room complemented by oval-shaped bay windows and a lattice-covered guesthouse that resembles a Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow.
“People who seek out these architects and their homes want them to look fairly original or to have been updated beautifully,” asserts Mills. As the listing agent for a restored Spanish Revival, Wallace Neff–designed home north of Sunset Boulevard (asking price is $18.495 million for the seven-bedroom, eight-bath abode), she understands the romantic appeal of this 1926 home, but notes that while the name brings out star-architect fans, “if it’s not a buyer’s style or doesn’t fit [his or her] needs” there is no sale. Faithfully restored by Diane Keaton, down to the original keyholes and doorknobs, and privatized behind high hedges and trees by Madonna (also a previous owner), the combination of location, architectural, and celeb provenance makes the manse “as prime as it gets,” per Mills.
For all the coveting of homes designed by master architects in Los Angeles, once built, they exist and are maintained at the whim and fortunes of their homeowners. Historic or notably designed residences are not fully protected from financial and cultural vandals, tasteless remodels, or even demolition (witness the April 2012 razing of the Lloyd Wright–designed Moore House in Palos Verdes Estates). As Crosby Doe explains, the current owner of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Alice Millard House (known as La Miniatura; for sale at $4.5 million) has kept it on the market for some time, waiting for a buyer who would agree not to significantly alter Wright’s original interior design.
Buyers for these kinds of homes “need to understand the complexity and responsibilities of owning a piece of history,” says Doe. “They are more work to maintain, so it is not as easy to find the right buyer,” he explains. Aaron Kirman of Hilton & Hyland concurs, saying there might be some pitfalls when balancing an architect’s original vision with today’s lifestyle. “It’s often a fine line for owners,” says Kirman. Questions can arise, from replacing versus restoring original kitchen cabinets to room additions. “Do you maintain authenticity? There’s a big responsibility to owning one of these homes,” says Kirman, who argues that significant architecture qualifies as art and can deliver a premium price. (He points to a memorable example: the sale of Pierre Koenig’s 900-square-foot Case Study House #21, which fetched $4 million.)
Culver City–based architect Steven Ehrlich believes first-rate architecture endures. Contemporary architects know how to take full advantage of a site as well as unlock California’s ease of indoor/outdoor living. Advises Ehrlich, “A quality designed house can add value to the quality of life and, from a real estate point of view, add to resale value.”
photography bybarry schwartz (carrillo); photography by tom bonner