At a time when the revival of interest in Modernist architecture is at a historic high, a Rancho Mirage house considered a masterwork of the Modernist architect Richard Neutra was torn down late last month. Built in 1963, it had been considered a landmark in the Palm Springs area as a showcase for the owner’s Modern art collection and as an example of the livability of Neutra’s simple, sensitive designs.
Widely written about and known as the Maslon House, for the late Minneapolis lawyer Samuel Maslon and his wife, Luella, who commissioned it as a second home, the residence was put up for sale in the wake of Luella Maslon’s death in July. The house sold for $2.45 million and closed escrow Feb. 28 after spending less than a month on the market.
Architecture aficionados and preservationists kept a close eye on this unique property when the Maslon heirs listed the house for sale. Fear-filled rumors circulated early on that potential buyers might alter or demolish the 5,000-square-foot, six-bedroom house, built on 1.3 acres in the Tamarisk Country Club. But those anxieties were allayed when the selling agent, Deidre Coit of Fred Sands Canavan Coit Real Estate in Palm Desert, said the new owner, Richard J. Rotenberg of Hopkins, Minn., was thinking of restoring it. Rotenberg’s father was a partner in Samuel Maslon’s law firm.
Within a month after escrow closed, the house was flattened. Why this happened remains a mystery. The Rotenbergs have not responded to requests for comment, and the listing agent, Sotheby’s International Real Estate, says it cannot say. Jim Maslon, son of the original owners and whose wife, Laura, is Sotheby’s director of public relations in Los Angeles, said, “We were so disappointed. That would never have been our desire.”
Whatever the motives, reaction from the architecture and preservation communities has been heated.
“I’m continually amazed at how disposable our disposable culture is,” says Barbara Mac Lamprecht, author of “Neutra: Complete Works” (Taschen, 2000). “This residential palazzo of art embodied sophisticated abstractions about positive and negative space in a structure that was equally sophisticated in construction. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to demolish, at least I hope so.”
Janice Lyle, executive director of the Palm Springs Desert Museum, which included the house on a sold-out tour of Palm Beach Modernist landmarks last year, says museum officials were shocked to hear the Maslon house was gone. “This house was a local landmark and a masterpiece of architecture in the desert. We had had little concern initially because we were told that the new owners were aware of the architectural importance of the house. And this house was in great condition and had never been changed or modified.”
Richard Neutra was born in Vienna in 1892, immigrated to the United States in 1923 and died in 1970. He was based in L.A. from 1926 until his death, and his first major commission, the Lovell Health House in Los Feliz (1929), gained worldwide recognition in 1932 when it was included in “Modern Architecture-International Exhibition,” the first architecture show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Among Neutra’s strengths was his ability to extend architectural space into the landscape.
The Maslons’ U-shaped, flat-roofed house was built to fit the landscape, allowing for a vista from the living room and master bedroom across the green oasis of the golf course to the mountains beyond. And it did so perfectly, says Leo Marmol, whose firm Marmol Radziner+Associates in Santa Monica restored the nearby Neutra-designed Kaufmann House in Palm Springs.
Adele Cygelman features the house prominently in her book, “Palm Springs Modern” (Rizzoli, 1999), which quotes Luella Maslon as saying that she and her husband wanted a house with immediate access to the pool, an indoor barbecue and as much natural and recessed light as possible for their paintings. Cygelman writes: “Outside the living room and den, the overhang created a deep corner pocket that functioned as an outdoor living area.”
Coit says that before the house was torn down she had believed the Rotenbergs were thinking of restoring it because they asked for books on Neutra, were aware of the house’s importance and requested information about local restoration firms. She says she was not told of their plans to tear down the house and was surprised to find the house gone.
“I was showing the house to some other potential buyers in case there was a problem with escrow when I drove up and found the house being destroyed. I was devastated when I saw it almost gone,” she says. “The Maslon heirs were keen on finding a buyer who would appreciate the house. And the land alone wasn’t worth what the Rotenbergs paid for it.”
Only two Neutra-designed houses remain in the desert, the 1946 Kaufmann House and the 1937 Grace Miller House in Palm Springs.
Peter Moruzzi, chairman of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, a volunteer organization dedicated to promoting and maintaining Modernist architecture in the Palm Springs area, says the Rotenbergs paid a premium for the property because of the house’s architectural importance. Nevertheless, getting a demolition permit is easy in Rancho Mirage; after an asbestos review, a permit can be issued over the counter. The house had not been designated a historic landmark. The lack of review, says Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy, “shows an appalling misunderstanding of the California Environmental Quality Act. Many local governments have the misconception that if a building is not officially designated a local landmark it does not need to be considered as a potential historic building. Under CEQA, a city has an obligation to decide if a building is significant or not. You cannot destroy historical properties without a review.”
But, Bernstein said, “that did not happen in this case.” CEQA is a self-enforcing statute, and its power comes from the public, through litigation or the threat of litigation.
“For the museum it’s a tremendous loss, since the Maslons supported the museum for over 30 years and in the mid-'70s and ‘80s were a major force in the contemporary arts community,” Lyle said. So major, in fact, that their art collection, to be auctioned by Sotheby’s in May, is expected to bring up to $33 million.
“What we lost was precious,” says architect Marmol. “The architecture supported the Maslons’ art and lifestyle. It was very different from the other two Neutra houses in the desert, although every nook and cranny showed [Neutra’s] passion for human things. It’s not the raw materials. It’s the histories, stories, human activities and all they represented. Houses like these aren’t valued as relics. Instead they show who we are and where we come from.”