Sweet Sorrow

Elizabeth Edwards Harris on restoring a masterpiece—and letting it go

Elizabeth Edwards Harris at her Kauffman House

Credit: David Glomb

Before saving modernist houses was fashionable, Elizabeth Edwards Harris and her former husband, Brent, established a glowing precedent. In 1992, the couple purchased the Kaufmann House, Richard Neutra's 1946 International-style jewel in Palm Springs, Calif., for $1.5 million. They not only saved it from demolition but also embarked on a five-year, $5 million restoration of everything from the terrazzo floor to the Douglas fir ceiling. Last year, after filing for divorce, the Harrises announced their decision to auction the house. Preservation spoke to Elizabeth poolside about her planned departure, a prospect she faced "with a mixture of regret and relief."

"When we bought the house, the outdoor dining area had been turned into a media room with a large television and sunken bar. That was probably the biggest change to the house because closing that space took all the light away, changed what the living room was supposed to be like. And of course everything was wallpapered and carpeted. We pulled up the carpet, and anthills were coming through the floor. It had degraded to the point where it was just crumbling.

Perhaps our single biggest contribution to preserving the house was to figure out how to put in humidity systems and air-conditioning. The plaster walls are four inches thick, so we had to devise ducting that was smaller than standard. All the returns are hidden in the furniture. That way, we minimized the amount of ducting and grillwork that you see.

When we decided to sell, we felt the appraisal value didn't match the artistic value. My thought was, if it's sold as a work of art, it might encourage other people and collectors, the types who can pay $50 million for a Rothko painting, to purchase it. My goal for preservation is to say, 'Why buy a house and remodel it? Why not buy a work of art like this and maintain it?'

I am sorry we won't spend more time here. But I jokingly say I'm giving up a career as a tour guide. My mom came out once when she was 75. It was a Friday night, and I was caught in traffic, and she had flown here from Texas, where she lived. The housekeeper let her in. Buses came up with students from Spain. I drove up at 10 o'clock, and there were more than 200 Spanish people roaming the property. My mom had served them cocktails.

You can't spend your entire life showing one house. I'm ready for the next adventure in preservation, whatever it is." 

Read more about the Kaufmann Auction

The Kaufmann House might have been demolished if not for Julius Shulman, the acclaimed photographer of California modernism. Shulman's 1947 photo of Neutra's masterwork inspired Elizabeth and Brent Harris to purchase the house and embark on an extensive restoration. We recently spoke with Shulman, 97, who told us the tale behind his iconic photograph:

Before I took the photograph at twilight, I was in the house with Mr. Neutra and Mr. Kaufmann. I saw the glowing sky and the glowing mountains. I ran outside to look at the view, ran back in to take my camera. Mr. Neutra saw me. He grasped my elbow—this elbow, my right one—I remember it so vividly.

"Shulman, where you are going?" he asked.

"Richard," I said. "You, too, Mr. Kaufmann. You've got to come outside and look at this view."

Neutra said, "No, you can't go out, we have more interiors to do. Mr. Kaufmann is allowing us to stay on before he goes to bed."

I broke free, came outside, set up the camera. Mrs. Kaufmann was lying on a pad I put down to block the light from the spotlight reflected in the pool.

We created a classic. It's not just a house; it's a statement worthy of preservation.

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.