A Modern dream come true
Michael LaFetra remembers the first time he heard from architect Pierre Koenig. It was late 1999, and LaFetra was just moving into Case Study House #21, a glass and steel Modernist classic perched high in the Hollywood Hills. He had hardly unpacked a box, much less sent out change-of-address cards for friends or family. But Koenig, somehow, found him.
“Within the first week of owning the house, I had a message on my machine: ‘Hello, this is Pierre, your architect, and I want to talk,’ ” LaFetra recalls. “I thought, whoa -- my parents don’t even have my number yet!”
Koenig introduced himself and told LaFetra that “I ought not have to change anything in the house, but that if I needed to, I should get in touch with him,” LaFetra says.
It was a call that Koenig made to anyone who bought one of the close to 50 houses he designed. A leading proponent of midcentury Modernism in Los Angeles, Koenig was best known for designing two houses for the legendary Case Study Program, which between 1945 and 1966 commissioned prominent Modern architects to build beautiful -- and affordable -- model homes, most in and around Los Angeles. Koenig’s Case Study House #22, photographed by Julius Shulman, is widely considered the iconic postwar L.A. home, with its sweeping city views and openness to the outdoors.
Koenig reached out to the people who bought his homes because he was anxious to preserve the integrity of his clean, spare designs. He didn’t want people tinkering with his work. But with his call to LaFetra that day, Koenig, who died of leukemia in 2004 at 78, was helping ensure the survival of his houses -- and his reputation for Modern architecture -- in ways he couldn’t have imagined.
Not only did LaFetra, a 38-year-old actor and movie producer, not muck up Case Study House #21, he wound up endorsing successful efforts to get the house registered as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument along with the more famous Case Study House #22. He went on to commission what would be the last house Koenig designed: a 4,000-square-foot glass box set on a breathtaking Malibu beach. LaFetra is also putting together a documentary about Koenig’s life and buildings, complete with filmed interviews with the master. He’s supporting other architects’ work too. Thanks in part to Koenig’s influence, as well as some savvy stock market and real estate investing, LaFetra has become an enthusiastic collector and restorer of architectural homes in the Los Angeles area, a “passionate” homeowner who’s known for doing “top-quality, well-researched work,” says Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy.
LaFetra has restored two Rudolf Schindler homes, including a 1938 house in Sherman Oaks where he currently houses his production company. He hired custom metalworkers to recreate vintage doorknobs, and spent months searching for the right linoleums to cover countertops and the right plywood to panel walls. He’s just begun fixing up a Brentwood house designed by Thornton Abell, another Modernist. He lives in a Brentwood Ray Kappe-designed home and has hired Kappe to build a new house, also in Brentwood.
LaFetra bought the site in Malibu before he had learned much about midcentury homes. But from the start, he says, he seemed to instinctively want a Koenig house on the beachfront property. A real estate agent he was working with had handed him a stack of Architectural Digests, one of which featured photographs of Case Study #21. LaFetra was instantly smitten. “I dropped the magazine where it was, and I said, ‘I want that house, on the beach,’ ” LaFetra says. “My agent just laughed.”
Instead, there was a contemporary spec house that once belonged to actress Pia Zadora on the Malibu property. But six days after he closed escrow, Case Study #21 went on the market. LaFetra’s agent told him he should buy it. “I said, ‘Dude, I can’t!’ ” LaFetra says today. “But he said, ‘It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’ So I took out a second killer mortgage and bought it.” He decided to split his time between the Malibu and Hollywood Hills houses.
The fateful phone call from Koenig took place just weeks after he bought Case Study #21. Over time, LaFetra grew closer to Koenig and his wife, Gloria, who introduced him to the folks at the Los Angeles Conservancy, with whom he began working to get his houses registered as historic landmarks. He and his girlfriend, Alison Letson, also began socializing with the older couple, who offered a connection to a glorious past: the age of the great Los Angeles Modernists. Koenig, who designed his first house in 1950 when he was still a student at USC, was one of the younger members of this pantheon, which included Richard Neutra, Schindler, and Charles and Ray Eames.
Identified as a visionary for the postwar middle class, thanks to his Case Study work, Koenig was also known as one of L.A. Modernism’s most “principled” practitioners, says Charles Lagreco, associate dean of the School of Architecture at USC. “Pierre was very consistent with what he did. Almost without peer, he was unwavering to a particular aesthetic with steel, minimal detailing and flexible space. He was clear and unambiguous about it.”
The idea of designing a new structure for the Malibu site came from Koenig. During a conversation at a benefit for the Hammer Museum in 2000, LaFetra complained to the Koenigs that his decks in Malibu were collapsing. Koenig asked how much it would cost LaFetra to make the repairs. “For $150 a square foot, I can build you a new house,” he told LaFetra. He warned that the new house would not be a duplicate of Case Study #21.
“Pierre told me he would not repeat a design,” says LaFetra. “But he promised me I’d have a fantastic house.”
It took LaFetra less than a month to greenlight Koenig’s offer. The plan Koenig ultimately came up with called for a house built from a massive steel-and-glass grid, with living space on the first two floors and three bedrooms on the top level. The entire wall facing the ocean would be made of transparent glass. Although LaFetra asked for polished concrete and cork floors in place of the vinyl tile Koenig favored, in most other ways the house would adhere to Koenig’s spare style. It would have an open floor plan and would be finished with Sheetrock and painted steel. Also, LaFetra says, it would “blur the distinction between inside and outside. The architecture disappears -- I think that’s what Pierre was ultimately after.”
About a year into the design process, LaFetra and the Koenigs decided to make the documentary, intending to unveil the house in the movie’s final act. LaFetra filmed about three to four hours of interviews with Koenig. LaFetra sold Koenig’s Case Study House #21 in 2002, in part so he could afford to build the new house. In most cases, he hangs on to the architecturally significant houses until he can register them as a cultural landmarks, which restricts the changes a new occupant can make.
By early 2004, LaFetra was working through piles of paperwork to secure zoning for beachfront construction. Activity slowed. Koenig, who was ailing, became harder and harder to reach on the phone. On April 4, 2004, he died.
That might have been the end of LaFetra’s run with Koenig -- if it weren’t for Gloria Koenig. An architecture writer intent on protecting her husband’s work, she knew that her husband had designated a colleague to take over for him. Within a couple of weeks, she called LaFetra and directed him to James Tyler, a younger Modern architect and former associate of the Case Study architect Craig Ellwood, to carry out the construction of the house.
Tyler had been a colleague of Koenig’s at USC. He is best known for his commercial work, including the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, for which he won the 25 Year Award this year from the California Council of the American Institute of Architects.
Like everyone else, Tyler hadn’t known he’d been tapped to take over work on the house until he got a phone call from Gloria after Koenig’s death. But choosing him made sense. Tyler designs buildings, usually in steel, in which the structure essentially is the design. “He really understood Pierre’s work,” says Gloria.
Outsiders don’t take over for recently departed masters very often. “Because of egos, I don’t know if you’d find a lot of people who’d do this,” Tyler says. “They’d rather just start over.” When it does happen, it can be a challenge sussing out the original architect’s wishes. This project is no exception. Koenig had finished the elevations and the floor plan for LaFetra’s house. But some details remain to be ironed out, and Tyler will have to make tweaks as he sees fit. “My hope is that Michael will get a very good house -- a Pierre Koenig house, executed as well as it can be,” Tyler says. But some decisions, he says, may vary from the ones Koenig might have made.
For instance, Tyler and LaFetra say Koenig had not yet worked out how he would shield the house’s metal components from ocean moisture and inevitable rusting. Tyler’s proposed solution uses glass cladding on the exterior. “Pierre used a lot of metal siding, but I worried about that for this house,” he says.
“The house is 99% Pierre,” says LaFetra, who hopes to break ground early next year, once zoning is cleared. He also hopes by that point to have his documentary done. He’s decided to produce an initial version of the film without the house revealed in the third act. He’ll add that footage as a coda.
For Tyler, building Koenig’s last house is an opportunity to do a great favor for a beloved friend. For Gloria, working with LaFetra on the house and movie provides a gentle way to resume protecting her husband’s work. “I’ll get more involved,” she says. “I’m the steward of this legacy, and I’m fierce about it.”
For LaFetra, the project is pure joy. “I had this really cool opportunity to know a guy who served as a time machine back to a time when the cynicism wasn’t so great. We live in this time where there’s so much bitter irony. We don’t realize how good we have it. I’m not saying the world is perfect, but I’m really attracted to people who aren’t cynical [or] ironic.”
Asked if the responsibility of helping shape an artist’s legacy is daunting, he demurs. “I don’t feel responsible,” he says. “To me, responsibility would imply I’m doing this because I’m obligated to. But I couldn’t be more excited about this. I feel like I’ve received the best gift an architect can give.”
Eryn Brown can be reached at email@example.com.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.