Inside the Auction of the Kaufmann House
The Owner of Neutra's Icon Says Goodbye to the House She Helped Save.
By Eric Wills | Online Only | May 16, 2008
"And now, for a slight change of pace, ladies and gentlemen," said the distinguished auctioneer behind the podium: "Lot 42." On the evening of May 13, Christie's Post-War and Contemporary Art sale was nearly over; the auctioneer—dressed in a dark suit, his hair gray but his manner spry—had dropped the gavel on an array of masterpieces for prices that hardly betrayed our sluggish economy. To his left hung Mark Rothko's No. 15 (which, to much applause, had just sold for $50,441,000) and Andy Warhol's Double Marlon (which went for a cool $32,521,000).
Lot 42 was also a work of contemporary art (or, at least, Christie's had marketed it that way): Richard Neutra's 1947 Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, Calif., put up for sale by Elizabeth and Brent Harris. The couple had purchased the house for $1.5 million in 1992, saving it from demolition, and embarked on a five-year, $5 million restoration that was stunning in both scope and execution.
After filing for divorce, the Harrises had again attracted attention with their decision to auction Neutra's modernist gem rather than list it with a real estate agent. The goal: Assemble a select group of art-world connoisseurs who would appreciate its significance and pay a price that would all but ensure its preservation.
The auctioneer started the bidding at $9.5 million.
The Photographer's Role
"I only knew the house as a two-dimensional black-and-white image, but that was enough to start the journey," said Elizabeth Harris.
Three months before the auction, she sat poolside at the Kaufmann House with Julius Shulman, the acclaimed photographer of California modernism. Shulman, 97, his wit intact (he had scotch-taped a Mercedes-Benz sticker to the front of his walker), was staying at the house during a trip to promote his new book. Harris was staging a benefit luncheon for the California Preservation Foundation—she's the vice president of the board of trustees.
They reminisced about how his celebrated 1947 photograph of the Kaufmann house—Mrs. Kaufmann by the pool, the house aglow against the backdrop of the San Jacinto Mountains—had inspired her to embark on a full-scale restoration.
"The first time I saw the photo was in 1976 in architecture school at Penn State University," Harris said. It was the last slide of an American architecture class. "If you ever go to California," she remembered her professor saying, "this would be worth seeing."
When Harris visited for the first time, the house was for sale, and it had been "devoured," as Shulman put it. The owner, Barry Manilow, had not only wallpapered and carpeted the house but had built a sunken bar by enclosing an outdoor patio. That was probably the worst change, Harris said, because it robbed the living room of light.
But she imagined Shulman's photograph and managed to look beyond the unsympathetic alterations. "You could still see the house's form, you could still see the composition," she said. "I remember looking over at Brent and going, 'You know, this could be like it was again.'"
The Harrises hired Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner, Los Angeles architects with a reputation for restoring modernist structures. ("I bless those guys 24 hours a day," said Shulman. "They saved the house.") Elizabeth and Brent also visited Shulman at his Los Angeles studio and pored through 500 prints from his 1947 shoot, borrowing 100 or so to help with the restoration.
They used the photographs to match the grain of the wood—of the birch cabinets, the Douglas fir ceiling, the redwood roof deck. When they pulled back the wallpaper, they found penciled notes about the original paint colors (Neutra often chose colors that photographed well, Elizabeth Harris said). They even unearthed an original toilet in a pile of rubble on the property and bought matching ones salvaged from Kansas schools.
"It's alive now," Shulman said of the house. "With the Kaufmanns it wasn't well furnished, it didn't give the sense of being occupied." How do you feel, he asked Harris, now that you're about to part with this house that you restored so lovingly?
"It's a mixture of regret and relief," she replied. "I'm sorry we won't be able to spend more time here, but it's a tremendous responsibility. I jokingly say I'm giving up my career as a tour guide." (She arrived home one Friday night to discover that her visiting mother had let two buses of Spanish students onto the property for a tour—and had served them cocktails.)
"I just hope that whoever gets it doesn't lock it away," Harris said. "Whoever buys it is going to be observed. People in Palm Springs feel like it's part of their public ownership."
A New Owner
The auction lasted all of two minutes. The winning bid, submitted over the phone by an anonymous bidder (number 1783), was $15 million (for a total of $16,841,000, including the fee to Christie's). Fifteen lots remained to be auctioned after the Kaufmann House, but many onlookers left the room after the gavel fell.
Elizabeth Harris was among them. On Mother's Day, two days earlier, she had visited her teenage daughter at school in Pennsylvania, and they had gone to Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, the other celebrated house commissioned by the Kaufmanns ("the bookend to her journey," Harris says). After the visit, she spontaneously decided to travel to New York for the auction.
Though the winning bid was far less than some ambitious estimates of $30 million, Harris deemed the auction a success for the preservation movement: "The appraisal of the Kaufmann House, taking into account the architectural significance—the Realtors have their formulas—was under $6 million."
Wouldn't it be wonderful, she said, if more individuals decided to buy, restore, and maintain modernist homes? And if the sale of the Kaufmann House prompted that?
Tears welled in Harris' eyes; the reality was that the Kaufmann House was no longer hers. She decided it was time for a drink, and with a good friend of hers by her side, disappeared into the crowd.
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