A Modern Dilemma

Neutra's Los Angeles Home Needs Work

Neutra VDL Residence and Studio, Los Angeles

Credit: David Hartwell

In better economic times, the sleek steel-and-glass boxes designed by architect Richard Neutra were among the most sought-after homes among Hollywood celebrities and other aficionados of Modernism.

Yet the compound that Neutra designed for his own family in Los Angeles, where he lived and worked for more than 30 years, has fallen into disrepair.

Like the Kaufmann House, famously chronicled by photographer Julius Shulman, Neutra's former home is a landmark of Midcentury Modernism. Built in 1932, shortly after Neutra's innovative hillside Lovell House—the first house in the U.S. built with a steel frame—Neutra's home was meant to demonstrate that a family could live communally, privately, and spaciously in a small area.

Much of the current damage at the Neutra VDL Studio and Residences was caused by leaks in its trademark flat roofs, known for the reflecting pools that once graced their surfaces. Captured photographically by the late Shulman, the shimmering rooftop pools complemented the Silver Lake Reservoir across the street. But those shallow pools have led to significant leaks.

"Our big fight is water," says Sarah Lorenzen, architect and resident director of the Neutra VDL Studio and Residences, who lives with her husband in the adjacent garden house built in 1940, which they have repaired and restored.

In 1990, 20 years after Neutra's death, his widow Dione bequeathed the house and working studio to California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. The gift included a $100,000 endowment, all the family could afford, which generates about $5,000 a year in income.

"It wasn't given with a huge endowment like you would do nowadays," says Christine French, director of the Modernism and Recent Past program, administered by the Western Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "It was not always realized how big an endowment you actually need."

Lorenzen would settle for a lot less than the $10 million that French says is standard today. It will cost $100,000 to repair the roofs of the structure, rebuilt in 1966.

Neutra's VDL house, completed in 1932, was named for Dutch industrialist C.H. Van der Leeuw, who loaned Neutra $3,000 to build his own home. After arriving in Los Angeles in 1925, Neutra and his young family lived in an artistic commune with a fellow Viennese emigre, architect Rudolf Schindler. After previous stints in New York, Chicago, and Wisconsin, where Neutra worked for Frank Lloyd Wright, Neutra moved to California and rented part of Schindler's house.

In 1963, a fire destroyed the original VDL, along with many office files and drawings. It was rebuilt in 1966 on the same site. One of Neutra's sons, Dion, also an architect, co-designed the second iteration of his family home. Often referred to as VDL II, father and son used the project to again experiment with new ideas and materials.

The two implemented "things like bringing in water to the site, to make up for the lake view we used to have, creating a reflective space on a limited site by using glass and mirrors," says Dion Neutra, now 83. "We put together a patchwork of an almost model house, with many systems displayed, many different materials."

Interior of Neutra's home, one of only a few of the architect's houses open to the public

Credit: David Hartwell

Both Dion and Neutra's youngest son, Raymond, a retired public-health official, have gotten involved to save their former family home.

Two years ago the nonprofit Cal-Poly Pomona Foundation, which owns the house, was so short of funds for basic operations that it nearly put it up for sale.

That close call fueled a sense of urgency to save the structure. The house was opened for weekly public tours. Lorenzen applied for grants. Actress Kelly Lynch, who owns a Neutra home with her husband, producer Mitch Glazer, co-hosted a $100-a-plate breakfast in April 2008. A group called The Friends of VDL began selling signed limited editions of a black-and-white Shulman photograph of Neutra sitting on the rooftop terrace near one of the reflecting pools.

Thanks to those efforts, VDL now has about $90,000 in the bank. It was awarded a $10,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"Unfortunately we haven't hit the jackpot yet on a big-ticket donation," Dion Neutra says.

This month, work begins on the two roofs without water features. Other problems include ceilings, walls and floors with extensive water damage, malfunctioning lighting systems, and sun louvers that no longer rotate.

Neutra's VDL Studio and Residences, named after Dutch industrialist C.H. Van der Leeuw, who loaned Neutra $3,000 to build his own home

Credit: David Hartwell

Following in Neutra's footsteps, Lorenzen is working to get contractors to donate materials. Hydro-Stop, the developer of impermeable roofing products, is doing so. Dion Neutra is contributing his time as a consultant, and architects Marmol Radziner of Los Angeles are working pro bono. (The firm won awards for its meticulous restoration of Neutra's famous Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, which sold for $15 million in an auction in 2008 sponsored by Christie's, but the deal fell apart.) Managing principal Leo Marmol plans a fundraising campaign to address water infiltration issues.

Once the repairs are made, Lorenzen believes VDL can sustain itself on income from weekly tours given by Cal Poly Pomona docents for $10, plus revenue from books and videos. VDL is one of the only homes designed by Neutra that is open to the public.

This spring visitors will see pumps on the dry, cracked roofs, keeping the water at bay during an exceptionally rainy season. But as the recession—and the California rain—starts to ebb, the house's supporters hope more funding will follow.  

"L.A. has a great responsibility and a great resource from an educational perspective," Marmol says. "There is this fantastic reservoir of modern tradition right here at our fingertips. The question is, will we care for it?"  

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Submitted by Calbert at: March 22, 2011
I was reminded of the Neutra renovation project as I watched the torrential rains California experienced over the last few days. Coming up on a year since this article was written, I'm wondering how the necessary funding, home services, and repairs are coming along? MVallen, sounds like quite an experience. It's easy to see why you would feel so strongly about this historic space.

Submitted by Rowena at: June 22, 2010
Why would you want to save something that isn't original?!? This article says that the original burned down & this is house was built in the 60's -- not nearly old enough to be worthy of preservation (which is anything build before 1940). This is apparently just a fake; it isn't a real historic 1932 house.

Submitted by MVallen at: June 3, 2010
This is such a great piece of Architecture! I am a lucky CPSU Pomona Arch grad and was lucky enough to meet Mrs. Neutra before she died. Later, after Pomona received the house the professor who first lived their invited me to stay in the house over a two week period. I will never forget that experience. It was just amazing to look over the Neutra library, which was still held there, to sleep in the glass rooftop cabana and to just watch the clouds and sky reflect off of that beautiful rooftop...which still held water in 1991-2. Let's hope that that big donor is found soon to save this fantastic and inspiring piece of purely American Architecture!

Submitted by porno at: May 24, 2010
hello, great write.. very nice photo..thx

Submitted by Anonymous at: May 19, 2010

Submitted by Teddy at: May 19, 2010
Love this article

Submitted by goodmaab at: May 18, 2010
San Francisco has similar issues of modernism, and lack of understanding for the "cultural landscapes" like Parkmerced facing the pressures of redevelopment. The Draft EIR is available for comment regarding the "total-tear-down" of the garden apartment units. www.sfgov.org Under MEA at the SF planning department. The Historic Preservation hearing is June 2nd, and Planning Commission Hearing June 17th. The loss of single buildings and large scale public endeavors such as Parkmerced must be reviewed in terms of the SUSTAINABLE inclusion of preservation in the discussion.

Submitted by Bill Kennedy at: May 18, 2010
I am typing these comments from inside a building originally designed by Neutra in Dayton, Ohio. Formerly known as the Dayton Museum of Natural History, it is at present named the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery. The original building has been expanded significantly and the original entrance designed by Neutra is now our staff entrance at the rear of a much larger facility. It once had a reflecting pool (now filled in) and serves more humble purposes than it once did, but is still largely intact on the exterior. We have a large white sphere that once served as our planetarium and is now the unique office of our CEO. If you'd like to see Neutra architecture in the Midwest, come to Dayton, Ohio.