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Our Life With Schindler

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Great Modern architects are notorious for making houses that are difficult to live in. So now that the exhibition “The Architecture of R.M. Schindler,” which opened last weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art, finally places the Austrian-born architect among the great designers of the last century, it’s worth asking: What’s it like to make a home in a Schindler house?

My husband, Marco Cenzatti, an architect and urban planner, and I casually began our involvement with the work of Schindler in 1983. As an architectural historian, I was vaguely familiar with Schindler, who made his career in Los Angeles from late 1920 until his death in 1953, through Esther McCoy’s classic 1960 book “Five California Architects.” I had even, years earlier, visited his best known building--the Lovell beach house in Newport Beach.

One day, wandering through the Hollywood Hills, architectural guidebook in hand, I followed a set of steps up a steep hill to the “DeKeyser Duplex,” built in 1935. By chance, I encountered the owner, Sharon DeKeyser, a beautiful woman who I later discovered was then in her 80s, and asked for a tour. When she mentioned that the lower half of the house would soon be for rent, I jumped at the chance, attracted as much by a notably low rent as by the opportunity to experience Schindler’s work first hand. The DeKeysers, Dutch immigrants who sold classical sheet music from a tiny store on Hollywood Boulevard, were typical Schindler clients--bohemian, involved with Modern art and radical politics, but far from wealthy.

Sharon, widowed when we met, explained that she and her husband had hired the architect on the recommendation of Harriet Freeman, who lived at the top of the same hill in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The DeKeysers, who lived in the spacious two-bedroom upstairs portion of the Schindler duplex, had always had tenants living in their small, downstairs three-room apartment, and I just happened to come by at the right time.

Like all of Schindler’s houses, the duplex was designed for a unique site, this one so steep as to be almost unbuildable. The house is accessible only by climbing 80 stairs from the street below, or descending a steep, precarious path from behind the Freeman house above. First, we lived downstairs, then, when Sharon moved to New Mexico to be close to her daughter and the man she later married, she left the house in our care because she believed that we both loved and understood it. We moved to the upstairs unit, leaving some of her possessions downstairs, and gradually came to occupy the whole house. Finally, in 1990, we bought it. But that’s jumping ahead.

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Occasionally, we thought of abandoning the house because of its many quirks, for a more normal way of life. Living in a work of art is both exhilarating and a burden. Living there was about more than just real estate; it involved accepting a sacred trust. We stayed until last August, when teaching opportunities at Harvard made it impossible not to go. But like Sharon, who left only with reluctance, we are for the moment too attached to the house to sell it.

When Sharon decided she could finally let go of the house, nothing about the transaction followed the usual rules of L.A. real estate. Not wanting to take advantage of her friendship and good will, we offered to pay more than her asking price. Understanding her attachment, we extended an invitation to her to stay at the house whenever she wanted. At some point I understood that we hadn’t chosen the house, the house had chosen us.

From the day we moved in, we started to restore the house to its original condition. A little information gathering quickly turned into full-scale research trips to the Schindler archive at UC Santa Barbara. As we understood and appreciated more about Schindler and the house, the task of restoring it became more and more daunting. Normal maintenance turned into a full-blown obsession. Any apparently innocuous repair could easily become a thorny problem of architectural restoration. We pored over Schindler’s blueprints (two very sketchy sheets), trying to understand his intentions. Since many of our friends were architects, historians or preservationists, this usually turned into a collective exercise focused on the question: What would Schindler have done?

When our lower balcony disintegrated, it took us three years to arrive at an acceptable replacement strategy and then another year to build it. After finally acknowledging that Schindler’s original design was flawed--both in his choice of materials and in the construction of the deck--we replaced it with a visibly different contemporary metal structure that could not be confused with the original.

Such conceptual design issues were compounded by practical concerns. Schindler never used standard materials or dimensions, and we couldn’t afford expensive custom work and would never trust such precious work to just anyone. So Marco took over. Over the next decade, he replaced all the windows and rebuilt and added to the built-in furniture, and along the way he became a meticulous and accomplished craftsman.

Part of the challenge was Schindler’s paradoxical combination of cheap construction and sophisticated design. He built our house--2,000 square feet--for $3,500, a very low budget even in 1935. Schindler was already famous for his experimental use of ordinary materials--he loved materials like plywood and linoleum, usually combined with stucco used in interesting ways. But the DeKeyser’s budget challenged even his ingenuity.

He covered the roof and the exterior wall of a large portion of the living room with horizontal bands of asbestos roofing paper, and he paneled much of the interior with fir plywood. Restoring these cheap materials turned out to be surprisingly expensive. To replace the roofing paper properly, we hired a restoration architect who specializes in Schindler. Since asbestos is now illegal, we had to settle (after many tests) for an inferior substitute that required exacting hand installation. This cost three times the price of a normal roof.

The plywood interior imposed other limitations. We sanded off 50 years of grime (a toxic process that often ate the skin off of our fingers) and waxed it back to its original state. And yet we were faced with the fact that it was still plywood and didn’t easily accommodate furniture made with more upscale finishes. Although not cheap, a pair of Eames lounge chairs fit in, but I had to warn my mother not to send me any of her prized mahogany chests.

Schindler designed the house as a treehouse, perched above a grove of eucalyptus, and the way he placed the walls and windows created a sense of seclusion, with the neighbors invisible, despite the fact that the hillside is fairly densely built up and the urban life of Hollywood is not far away. Yet bringing in groceries or taking out the garbage could be a nightmare. And any large purchase that had to be delivered was a predictable crisis.

In our 17 years there, the mailman never made it up our steps. On the other hand, a steady stream of homeless people, runaway teenagers, and drug dealers and buyers often managed to find their way up the hill. Such mundane tasks as tree trimming are extremely complicated and expensive.

The house also made the process of adopting our daughter terrifying. When I discovered that a home visit by a social worker would be required, I was sure that the sheer, two-story drop from Schindler’s elegant floor-to-ceiling living-room window would automatically disqualify us for consideration as responsible parents. As it turned out, the social worker loved the house and thought it was a perfect environment for our future daughter, with a little child-proofing. Our plastic Toys R Us playhouse blocked the dangerous window and livened the pristine environment in ways that the house gracefully accommodated--and that I believe Schindler would have enjoyed. He had a sense of humor.

Living in the house was an extraordinary experience. If its somewhat funky appearance disappointed visitors looking for the Modernist purity of Neutra or the drama of Frank Lloyd Wright, the house revealed its complex architecture to us gradually over the years. Some of its pleasures were obvious, such as the light that poured into the rooms from every direction, or the fact that every room except the bathrooms had doors to terraces or balconies. Other effects were more subtle, like the carefully designed sequence of changing ceiling heights (from 7 to 20 feet) that made moving through the house continually invigorating.

It took a while to notice that all the rooms were interlocking--a piece of one room became a design element in the next--a closet, an alcove or a nook. Diagonal views made a relatively small house expand into the landscape and seem much larger. Other pleasures were pretty esoteric. After hearing a Schindler scholar lecture about the architect’s use of “eucalyptus colors,” we discovered that the hues of all our exterior paint and materials corresponded to different pieces of the eucalyptus leaves, bark and tree trunks surrounding our house.

One reward was having the house photographed (and interpreted) by a range of different photographers. Their vision revealed the house’s fine structural qualities to us, even if it meant temporarily removing every one of our possessions to remind us how the house is actually a work of art.

After 17 years, it was almost unbearably hard for us to leave the house, even for exciting new jobs. Looking back, especially from our new life in a narrow Cambridge row house, Schindler’s DeKeyser house embodies much of what I miss about Los Angeles. It embraces the outdoors, even as it firmly establishes its own identity. It is accommodating to living a full life, even though it tastefully turns away certain more conventional styles. It has the strange ability to be simultaneously insubstantial, yet artful.

These are all qualities that I love.

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Margaret Crawford was formerly chair of the history, theory and humanities program at Southern California Institute of Architecture, and is currently professor of urban design and planning theory at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University.


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