Living with Neutra

How my restoration of a classic Modernist house in L.A. turned into a decade-long love affair

Interior
The dining room in the Bonnet House

Credit: David Hay

Restoration Notebook

On Oscar night this year, a cool and cloudy California evening, I was driving toward the Hollywood Hills, on my way to a party at a friend's house. Helicopters buzzed overhead, and many of the streets were blocked off, causing traffic backups and confusion. With time to kill, I decided to take a slight detour and check up on a house I had once owned and carefully restored—then sold, with great reluctance, more than five years ago. I'd heard a rumor or two about alterations the new owner had made; now back in Los Angeles for a visit, I was tempted to see for myself. So it was with some apprehension that I headed up the narrow, winding streets into the hills, wondering what I might find.

I turned sharply to the right, and there it was—the Bonnet House, designed by the renowned architect Richard Neutra in the early 1940s. Much to my relief, the house looked handsome, arguably in better shape than when I had left. The garden in front had been replanted, and bamboo now shielded the house next door. Gleaming numbers were affixed to the towering front wall. I drove past and turned around, returning for another peek. I repeated this process three times, not daring to head up the driveway, where the new owner's vintage red Corvette poked halfway out of the garage. I didn't want him to think I was spying.

But if the house looked good, well cared for, something about its appearance disturbed me. Many people develop strong, instantaneous bonds with their houses. As time passes, residences become cauldrons of rich memory. They take on personalities. They go from being houses to homes. The Bonnet House was my home for 15 years, but as I gazed upon it again, I did not see myself, my life, reflected in its walls. And it was this feeling of estrangement, as much as anything else, that perplexed me that evening as I drove back down the hill and into Hollywood.

Richard Neutra (1892-1970) moved to Los Angeles from  his native Vienna in 1925 and became one of the foremost proponents of Modernism, a style that embraced simple, rectilinear forms and shared social space. The Modernists broke down the barriers between interior and exterior, taking advantage of a house's natural setting while introducing new, often industrial materials. All this at a price most everyone could afford.

Few residences better illustrate this philosophy than the Bonnet House (though by the time I bought it in 1989, the price had soared to $370,000, almost beyond my reach). It consists of a series of elongated blocks on a steep hillside, with an angled roof that parallels the incline. Because the windows afford lush views of a densely wooded canyon and the Los Angeles basin, standing inside the house gives you the sense of floating. The house, however, needed a total restoration.

Caught up in the 1980s craze for Melrose Avenue chic, ­previous owners had painted the exterior pink, then white. The living room's wood paneling had been painted, the closet doors replaced with sliding mirrored versions. And a new bathroom mirror featured a distinctly un-Modernist light fixture. The hardwood floors had been pickled white and further desecrated by an indoor plant, which had left an ugly stain.

For help, I turned to Daniel Sachs, a designer who was restoring Neutra's 1951 Meltzer House in nearby Silver Lake. He first suggested that we try to bring back the exterior redwood and stucco. But the white paint had sunk deeply into the redwood boards, and sandblasting, which can damage wood, was not an option. We ended up repainting the house a dark reddish brown with a dusty, matte finish that approximated the original color and texture. Rather than the traditional, almost severe off-white stucco favored by Neutra, Sachs suggested a shade of cream that gave warmth to the house's box-like form.

Within two years Sachs returned home to New York, and  I found a new accomplice: preservation architect Grant Taylor. A board member of the local chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, Taylor insisted on identifying a date to which we wanted to bring the house back. We settled on its year of completion—1944.

Enter Julius Shulman, the legendary architectural photographer who got his first commission from Richard Neutra in 1936 (and who passed away this summer at the age of 98). If anybody could shed light on what the house looked like in the mid-1940s, it was going to be Shulman. I drove over to his house above Laurel Canyon one typically sunny Los Angeles afternoon. When I entered his studio, I found the then-octogenarian standing in the middle of the room, practicing his golf swing. Shulman was uncertain whether he could locate his photographs of the Bonnet House, but later, after I returned home, he telephoned to say that he'd found them.

When the freshly printed images arrived at my house, I was excited. They confirmed how far the original paneling went around the living room and what the bathroom and kitchen once looked like. But if I was looking for interior design tips, I was sorely disappointed. The Bonnet's furniture was strictly standard-issue.

Grant Taylor arranged a visit to the Neutra archives at UCLA, where, donning white gloves, we were ushered into a secure room and handed a giant brown folder. In it were the original blueprints of the house, along with small drawings and notes—exactly what we were looking for.

Taylor and I now felt confident enough to embark on scrupulous restorations of first the bathroom and then the kitchen, where, besides significant structural repairs, we did fun things like reinstalling linoleum on the floor and countertops. Not long after, art conservator Donna Williams brought the paneling in the living room back to life. We also returned the floors to their original color, restored the cabinetry, and tossed out the mirrored closet doors. Thanks to Daniel Sachs, who designed a base, and cabinetmaker Eric Lamers, who made a walnut top, I was able to install a copy of Neutra's "camel table" in the dining area.

Gradually, fans of Neutra's work made their way to my home. Early one morning, as I sat in my office in a pair of old shorts, coffee barely in my system, I saw a woman peering anxiously over my hedge. It turned out to be Barbara Lamprecht, who was researching what would become a massive volume, Neutra: Complete Works. I gave her a comprehensive tour, and though complimentary, she expressed surprise at seeing the steeply angled roof. Very unusual for Neutra, she informed me.

Early in 2000, I received a call from Allison Milionis, at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, a group that runs the landmark Schindler House in West Hollywood. (Like Neutra, Rudolf Schindler was a Viennese modernist who left his mark on Los Angeles.) Milionis wanted to include my home on an annual tour of important Modernist residences. Since the restoration was barely halfway finished, I was wary. I didn't want the Bonnet House to be seen as the ugly duckling on the tour. But then Barbara Lamprecht sent me an e-mail. "If there aren't more Neutra houses on tours," she wrote, "he will not be remembered. People won't remember him if they haven't experienced and participated in the space he created."

I interpreted this as a call to arms. All of a sudden, Neutra needed me. So on a Sunday afternoon in April, with brown paper spread across the newly restored floors and docents standing guard, more than 400 people filed through. Their opinions about Neutra's efforts were diverse. One woman, after nearly losing her balance coming down the steps from the bedrooms to the living area, remarked loudly, "Not Neutra at his best." Others, however, marveled at the siting, and nearly everyone was unequivocally positive about my restoration.

By now the house had begun to work its magic on me. Neutra became a passion, and I went out of my way to see as much of his work as I could. A visit to his Hailey House, on the other side of the Hollywood Reservoir, and a trip to the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs showed how Neutra used color to emphasize certain planes and design details. He had a particular palette: burnt-orange reds, light browns, pale yellows and blues. I decided to paint the walls and fireplaces in my house accordingly. The effect was immediate—the stark planes and occasional curves inside the house's trapezoidal interior came instantly to life.

The restoration of the Bonnet House, which took an embarrassingly long 12 years, required enormous patience—I am a full-time writer, after all—but it also brought me many rewards. When I moved in, I was writing mainly about Hollywood and the economic troubles of the late 1980s. Soon, however, in the eyes of editors, ownership of a Neutra house qualified me to write about architecture, and Modernism in particular—a subject I've covered almost exclusively ever since. If owning a Neutra house did not quite confer upon me the status of expert, it did stir a passion for architecture that inspires me to this day.

That's not all I owe the Bonnet House. Living in a house that can also be considered a "design object" makes you pay attention to details in an almost obsessive way. Each day brought fresh discoveries. Why did the architect opt for this material or that color? Why did he create forms in just this particular manner? Understanding the many decisions Neutra made more than 60 years earlier did not happen overnight, and on the day I left, my bags packed for a move to New York, I still wasn't certain I had appreciated all Neutra had done, or ­gotten completely inside his head. What I did know was that my journey in the Bonnet House had been personal and deeply felt, and that being a steward of a great Modernist house was a responsibility I had cherished.

Come to think of it, I suppose what troubled me so much on Oscar night, when I left the Bonnet House slightly perplexed, was that the place looked too perfect, too ostentatious, as if the owner were shouting, "Look at this architectural landmark!" My restoration had been authentic, and it had been modest; now the place flaunted its charms as a Neutra Trophy House, its original Modernist intentions carefully pumped up into a rather self-conscious style.

I realized, however, that the new owner's efforts reflected his personal touches. They bore his signature as much as my restoration bore mine. Seeing the Bonnet House again was akin to encountering a precocious child whom I hadn't seen for years but now found all grown up. And minor quibbles aside, I have to admit that the house looked strong and in great health. It was standing its ground. For that, I could not be more grateful.

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