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Owning an icon

Times Staff Writer

At 77, white-haired, blue-eyed Betty Topper is aging gracefully. Her 75-year-old home atop a Los Feliz hillside, however, is not.

Time and weather have battered the structure, chipping away at its white concrete walls and rusting its sturdy beams. The kitchen is outdated and the pool leaks. The yard is overgrown and a mini-mansion, built on a small lot next door, blocks the once legendary northeastern view of Griffith Park.

“We’re just two old ladies, she and I,” says Topper.

The house, though, is no mere tear-down. It is an international landmark that made the career of its architect, Richard Neutra. Considered one of the greatest examples of modern architecture, the residential icon of International Style became the country’s first all-steel-framed residence when it was built in 1929.

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The Lovell House, made of steel, glass and gunite, has inspired generations of architects worldwide. It is also one of Los Angeles’ most photographed estates.

“It’s about as pure and powerful a piece of Neutra as there is,” Charles Moore wrote in his book, “Los Angeles: The City Observed.” “With continuous bands of strip windows, smooth spandrels, flat roofs and rooms all very simply lined up; its detailing is squeaky clean.”

Don’t be fooled: It’s not easy living in a modern architectural masterpiece. Even Moore notes in his book that the house is showing its age, like “some famous beauty at the very end of a long life.”

Topper never wanted to live in the house to begin with. She would have preferred a Hancock Park traditional. Now she’s alone with the Lovell, trying to scrape together the money to fix it up.

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Some days, she’s determined to sell the 4,500-square-foot residence, which could easily command a price tag in the millions. Other days, she thinks she’ll stay. One thing is certain: The decaying house needs to be renovated.

“I want to do what needs to be done to the house, before I move on,” Topper says.

She says she feels deeply responsible for this place, which she and her late husband purchased in 1960 -- 11 years before he died suddenly of a heart attack. She is wary of letting anyone see the house in disrepair and often discourages photographers from taking pictures of its flaws.

Complicating matters, the widow is under pressure from Richard Neutra’s son to impose a long list of demands on the next owner. The requirements as envisioned by Dion Neutra would forbid anyone from altering the 2 1/2 -level structure and its interior beyond what his father, who died in 1970, had intended.

“A buyer might think it’s fun to own an icon but then they want to come in and put in a granite kitchen countertop,” says Dion Neutra, who at 77 spends much of his time trying to protect his father’s legacy. “That sort of thing worries me a lot. We want to make sure that everything is left as it is.”

Topper and her son, Ken, who shares the house, say they also want to see the Lovell restored. But they think Neutra is being too demanding.

“It’s not like in 1927 they had all the answers,” says Ken. “Our philosophy is whoever owns it, owns it. People say, ‘Oh, gee, I hate to see you sell it and have someone else change it.’ I say, ‘Well, then you buy it.’ ”

Preservationists say Neutra’s concerns are well-founded: In recent years, some of his father’s finest work has been drastically altered or demolished. (The architect’s fans still lament the destruction two years ago of the Maslon House -- a U-shaped, flat-roofed house built to fit into the landscape along a golf course in Rancho Mirage.)

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Richard Neutra’s family and his followers say it is especially important to preserve the Lovell House, which marked a turning point in Neutra’s career, making him world famous.

“This house represents the creme de la creme,” says photographer Julius Shulman, who was the first to photograph the house for the architect.

In his book, Moore described the house as “a Mondrian painting come to life,” jutting out from the edge of a green hillside. Although it is still striking, the house “suffers the problem of most buildings in this idiom: Without moldings and the shadows they cast, and the other reasons for forgiving the signs of wear and tear and old age that come to any building, they look like the very devil when they start to go,” Moore noted.

Neutra says he would like to see a combination of public and private ownership of the house, similar to what he has with Neutra houses in other parts of the country, to make sure the house survives generations longer.

“It’s a big house and there is a lot to maintain,” he says. “It illustrates the problems facing a private owner of a monument. What we need are funds available to help these kinds of people. We need a support system, not just a lot of problems.”

Topper and her son, however, say they don’t want charity.

“It’s not like we’re here with our hat in our hands,” Ken says.

Kids in a showplace

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In 1960, Betty Topper became the house’s unwitting caretaker. She and her husband, Morton, were looking for a larger place to raise their five children. Topper wanted to buy a traditional-style house. “I liked all that dark wood,” she says.

But when her husband discovered that the Lovell House was on the market, he was determined to buy it. He had grown up in the area and had fond memories of playing at the house, which Neutra built for health and fitness advocate Philip Lovell and his wife, Leah.

The place was full of history. Neutra -- like his contemporaries Rudolph Schindler and Frank Lloyd Wright -- believed that the city’s social culture and climate allowed for experimentation. The Lovell House gave Neutra a chance to shine.

Acting as general contractor for the project, Neutra had set a heavy concrete foundation, which became the basis for the pool, into the rugged hillside. A light steel frame -- prefabricated in portable sections transported to the site -- was put up in less than 40 hours.

Large casement windows were then clamped into place while exterior walls were covered with wire lath, and then sprayed with gunite, a concrete mixture. Inside, Neutra designed open, spacious rooms with high ceilings and walls of windows. A large staircase -- illuminated by translucent glazed Model-T Ford headlights -- connected the street-level entryway to the main room, located on a lower level.

“The Lovell stairway became one of the grandest and most exhilarating spaces in the modern movement repertoire,” UCLA architecture professor Thomas S. Hines wrote in his book “Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture.”

Neutra also designed most of the furniture for the house. “Beds, banquettes, cabinets and desks were generally built-in, though he also designed free-standing tables and bentwood tubular-steel chairs,” Hines wrote. The house featured hidden stairways and was decorated in neutral shades of blue, gray, white and black. Carpets and draperies were gray and beige.

The Toppers made an offer, buying the house for $60,000 -- $5,000 less than what Lovell paid in 1929.

After they moved in, they discovered that people were constantly knocking on the door, asking to see their home.

Then came another surprise: Neutra would occasionally show up unannounced, with his entourage. “I’d open the door and there he would be,” Betty Topper says.

She tried her best to keep the place neat, but with five children and all their friends running around, it wasn’t an easy task. Behind her back, she could hear Neutra’s friends criticizing the way she kept house.

“A lot of times it was not presentable in the way he wanted to see it, with kids and friends and dogs,” Topper says. “He would have to step over toys. That’s just the way it goes.”

The maintenance was constant. The children often broke the two-story-tall windows with balls, toys and even shoes. (One son kicked off his cowboy boots once, accidentally flinging them through a window.) In fact, they broke the windows so often that Morton Topper became an expert at replacing the panes.

“There was always something to break or fix,” Ken Topper says.

After her husband died, Betty Topper found herself solely responsible for the house. Occasionally, location scouts would stop by and offer her money to use the house in movies and commercials. She welcomed the extra cash. (She says she received a hefty sum -- which she spent on repainting the white exterior -- when the house was used as a set for “L.A. Confidential.”)

Eventually, the structural problems became more complex. When she noticed rust two years ago, she called Dion Neutra, who sent out a crew to shore up the beams. “Some of them had to be welded, which has been done,” Topper says. Neutra wanted to do more exploratory work but Topper thought the project was getting to be too expensive.

“We just couldn’t agree on what had to be done next,” she says.

More than a year ago, Topper began contemplating selling the house. Recently, Ken Topper approached Shulman to get his opinion on what they should do. Shulman said he is working on a plan to help the Toppers come up with the funds needed to get the house ready to sell. (The Toppers have no idea yet what they’ll ask for the home, but Ken notes that Neutra’s Hammerman House in Bel-Air was recently on the market for $6.39 million.)

“Betty Topper is reaching a decision,” Shulman says. “She doesn’t want to sell the house until everything is up to snuff. I agree with her. It’s an admirable way of doing it.”

Topper says she also needs to figure out where she wants to move next. “I just haven’t decided,” she says. Ken says he doesn’t want to rush her.

“It’s her house and I don’t want to tell her what to do,” he says. “That wouldn’t work anyway.”


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