Small Schindler house in Inglewood remodeled for a new era
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Architect Steven Ehrlich is sitting in the front garden of a 1940 Rudolph M. Schindler home in Inglewood that he recently restored for daughter Onna Ehrlich-Bell and her family. Forty-foot-tall liquidambars line the street of mostly post-World War II houses. It’s a real Ozzie and Harriet neighborhood, traditional to its core except for this low-slung piece of modern design. For two years, this is where Ehrlich spent much of his time — “channeling Schindler,” he says with a chuckle.
As Ehrlich tells the story, it was serendipity that he came upon the home by the renowned midcentury architect whose iconic Kings Road House in West Hollywood is often considered the big bang of California Midcentury Modernism. Ehrlich and his wife, Nancy Griffin, had been invited to dinner by friends Kali Nikitas and Richard Shelton.
“I’d never been to their home before,” Ehrlich says, “but as soon as I walked through the door, I asked, ‘Is this a Schindler?’ ”
It was. And so was the house next door, and, incredibly, another down the street. As fate would have it, the Schindler next door was the subject of a probate sale the next day. “He built three houses on the same street in 1940 for a developer on spec, which was very unusual for him,” says Kimberli Meyer, director of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Kings Road House, where Schindler explored the relationship of space, light and form, as well as communal living.
Ehrlich toured the Inglewood probate house the following day, then put in the winning bid: $265,000.
Slightly more difficult was convincing his daughter that this might be the house of her dreams. Onna, a fashion designer, and her husband, Joel Bell, had been living in Culver City for six years and looking for homes in their area with no luck. They had been through several bidding wars and were burned out.
“We put finding a home on the back burner,” says Onna, who acknowledges not knowing much about Schindler at the time. When Ehrlich suggested they take a look, they went the next day. The house, abandoned for two years, sported a dead lawn and ugly fiberglass panels hanging off the roof.
“It looked pretty awful,” Onna says. “I peeked in the window and saw a filthy shag carpet and peeling wallpaper.” She didn’t even go inside. She went back to the car, where her husband was waiting with their 6-month-old son, James, below. But then Joel went to take a look. “He loved it at first sight.”
A few weeks later, the Ehrlichs’ friends Nikitas and Shelton invited everyone to an annual Fourth of July block party. The friendliness of the neighbors, as well as a fresh look at the house, changed Onna’s mind.
That left Ehrlich with an ambitious goal: to restore the house so that it would function for a young family. This was not to be a museum. “We were constantly asking ourselves, ‘If Schindler were alive today, what would he do?’” the architect says.
It took nine months to bring the two-bedroom, one-bathroom, less-than-1,000-square-feet house into the 21st century.
The restoration often required Ehrlich to put on his detective cap. With the carpet gone, an outline on the living room floor suggested a built-in desk. Schindler homes often featured built-in furniture, so Ehrlich built his own, taking inspiration from the neighbors’ built-in desk next door.
Another mystery was the original color of the stain that Schindler used on the plywood closet in the bedroom. The color had faded to a pale yellow. The answer came in the back of a hall closet not exposed to light. It still had the original greenish-gray stain, which Ehrlich duplicated.
Perhaps the best news about the house was that it had changed hands only twice in 70 years and still had the original doors and windows. Ehrlich refinished the wood frames, stripped the hardware and inserted tempered glass for safety. He insulated the ceiling, the floor and the walls for energy efficiency.
Architect Ehrlich also added a new kitchen and bathroom using modern materials. Caesarstone quartz now tops the counter, cabinets wear solid-core plastic laminate veneers with back-cut faces for door pulls, a classic Schindler detail. A new peninsula counter doubles as the couple’s dining table, and contemporary appliances include a Wolf range, a Miele dishwasher and a Sub-Zero refrigerator. Left in the adjacent utility room: a vintage sink and classic fold-down ironing board that resonate with mid-20th century charm.
“We didn’t feel like we needed to find a fridge or an oven from the ‘40s,” Ehrlich says. “If Schindler were alive, he would be using the materials of today.”
The MAK Center’s Meyer agrees: “There’s always a tension when you restore a home from the 20th century. Schindler never paid much attention to the kitchen — for him it was more of a utility area. Kitchens have to be changed when people live in them today. Steven did a nice job bringing the house up to contemporary standards but sticking with the spirit of the original Schindler plan.”
No design detail was too small to overlook. Ehrlich had a saw blade made to duplicate a triangular canted baseboard found in the small bedroom; wood then was cut and installed throughout the house. In the bathroom, the original medicine cabinet as well as the vintage Thermador wall heater were replated.
But some things had to go. The wood floor was so badly damaged by cat urine that they removed it, milling new oak and installing it in the same narrow plank fashion. The vintage diamond-shaped tub also was in terrible condition. A modern shower with 1-inch-square white tiles and a seamless glass door stands in its place.
“Keeping it all white in the small bathroom and kitchen made both rooms appear bigger, brighter and happier,” Ehrlich says.
Outside, ugly fiberglass overhangs on the front and back of the house were removed, as was the metal flashing added onto parapet caps by a previous owner. Ehrlich rebuilt the entire roof using a photograph that the legendary Julius Shulman took of the third Schindler home on the street to show the way.
Landscape designer Stefan Hammerschmidt was called in to create a xeriscape in front. Dymondia margaretae, a grayish-green ground cover, replaced the lawn, now appointed with a fire pit and a small bench fashioned from stacked concrete recycled from the back patio.
Inspired by Schindler’s sleeping porch at the Kings Road House, Ehrlich designed a new outdoor room with a steel trellis in the backyard. Although the West Hollywood landmark’s porch is fashioned of wood, the architect opted for galvanized steel in Inglewood.
“We knew the grape arbor was going to grow over it and we didn’t want it to rot,” Ehrlich says. “We also wanted it strong enough to hang swings and a hammock.”
Perhaps most intriguing is the communal aspect of the side-by-side Schindler homes, whose owners regard each other as extended family. Schindler’s Kings Road House was built as a cooperative live-work space for two young families: Schindler and his wife, Pauline, as well as Schindler’s friend, partner and later rival, Richard Neutra, and his wife, Dione. It’s easy to imagine Schindler praising the continued existence of the communal yard that Ehrlich-Bell and her husband share with their neighbors.
“We often begin the day by having a cup of coffee outside around the fire pit,” says Bell, adding that he and neighbor Shelton take out each other’s trash if one couple is out of town.
They also take turns caring for each other’s dearest loved ones: Bell and Onna’s toddler, James, and Shelton and Nikitas’ toy poodle, Ravi.
“Their dog comes over to our house and our son plays at theirs, so we have a dog we don’t have to take to the vet and they have a child they can send home,” Bell says, grinning. “We think Schindler would approve.”
-- Barbara Thornburg