IT has been a tough year for the Neutra VDL Research House II, the fabled glass box overlooking Silver Lake reservoir. Already in need of costly repairs, the house where Richard Neutra lived and worked was damaged further by winter storms that overwhelmed its flat roof, poured rain into the walls and flooded the floors. Then a steady $10,000-a-year revenue stream used to pay for basic expenses dried up.
Now the house’s owner, the nonprofit Cal Poly Pomona Foundation, has announced that it might be forced to sell the landmark and close it to the public if supporters can’t raise upwards of $2 million by the end of next year.
“We need to find money,” Sarah Lorenzen, the resident caretaker of the property, said as she carefully tried to push a loose piece of aluminum railing back onto a balcony. “The deadlines are very serious.”
The deadlines in question were spelled out in a letter from Cal Poly Pomona President J. Michael Ortiz to Richard Neutra’s son Raymond, who has until October to raise $30,000 for insurance, utilities and upkeep of the site through 2009. The letter said Neutra, who is spearheading efforts to raise money, has until December 2009 to raise $1 million for an endowment to cover future expenses. Supporters also hope to raise an additional $1 million to cover building repairs.
If fundraising is not successful, other options would be considered, wrote Ortiz, who has refused further comment. The VDL house website, www.neutra-vdl.org, states that if supporters fail to raise the initial $30,000 in time, “the building complex is threatened with closure, possible sale to a private party and quite possibly permanent loss of public and educational access.”
At a time when architectural preservation is a growing movement, interest in midcentury modernism is booming, and Neutra houses are valued in the millions of dollars, the questions seem obvious: How did this site, where one of California’s most influential modern architects worked for four decades, fall into such disrepair? And why would an educational and cultural institution be in such a rush to get rid of it?
“It’s a result of benign neglect for the 20 years since my family donated the house to Cal Poly,” says Neutra’s son Dion, an architect who worked with his father to rebuild the house and studio after a 1963 fire destroyed the original 1932 VDL house. “The school never seemed to have the funds to care for it. Now there are statewide budget cuts, and, meanwhile, the house keeps degrading and the situation getting more drastic.”
Visitors on Saturday tours see reflecting pools that are cracked and dry. The electrical system, so sophisticated for its time, is shut down. Some problems linger out of sight: the uneven settlement of the foundation, the termite damage, the jammed sliding glass doors, the asbestos.
It’s a far cry from when the design was celebrated for its innovations. Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Eames visited the site. Its downstairs studio served as a hands-on school for young architects including Gregory Ain, Raphael Soriano and Donald Wexler. Photographer Julius Shulman captured on film the graceful way the Neutras used industrial materials.
Preservationists say the experimental residence was decades ahead of its time in how it addressed the density question in Los Angeles. Neutra wanted to show that a reasonably sized house -- 2,100 square feet -- could fit on a 60-by-70-foot lot, open to views and not hemmed in by neighbors. The design proved that a smartly planned small space could create a sense of well-being, one in which Neutra’s wife, Dione, said every step was an aesthetic and artistic experience.
Karen Hanna, dean of Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Environmental Design and a member of the committee that manages the VDL site, defended efforts to maintain it.
“The property fell into disrepair over a number of years, which is natural for a vacant property,” she said. Hanna added that ongoing maintenance has been performed since Dione Neutra left the house to the foundation in 1990, along with a $100,000 endowment. But the cost of repairs is higher than the interest earned on the endowment, about $5,000 a year. Operating expenses, even with volunteers, are $18,000.
Since February, tours of the house have been offered for $10. Caretaker Lorenzen said they generate about $400 each week, but Hanna worries that the revenue might taper off.
“The weekly tours are new, and it remains to be seen how strong that the interest will remain,” she said. “Even so, that income may cover operating and maintenance costs but will not begin to address the major repairs that are needed.”
The first major fundraiser is scheduled for April 26, when Raymond Neutra and actress Kelly Lynch, who owns a Neutra house, will host a $100 breakfast at the house.
In the meantime, Lorenzen will be preparing the site for more events. The main house is too damaged to be occupied, so she lives and works out of the small, glass-walled Garden House, added to the backyard around 1939. Sixty Cal Poly students have been lined up to wash windows and pull weeds. “But we don’t want to conceal the problems too much,” said Lorenzen, an assistant professor in Cal Poly Pomona’s architecture department.
The goal, she said, is to make the house a showpiece or museum. But if it can’t be repaired, she added, some supporters want a new steward to step in.
If the foundation were to put the house on the market, real estate agent George Penner said, finding a buyer would be no problem.
“Neutra houses are rarely on the market,” said Penner, whose Beverly Hills firm, Deasy/Penner & Partners, specializes in selling architecturally significant homes. “And this is a top-tier trophy property. It’s just in need of loving restoration.”
Estimating the price is difficult, he said. Despite the small lot and deteriorating condition, any buyer would be paying a premium for the house’s history. “There are dozens of collectors in L.A. who would buy it, restore it to a pristine state and hold on to it.”
Dion Neutra, however, fears that a private buyer, even a sympathetic one, would not keep the house open to the public, which was his family’s intention. He said dozens of strangers e-mail him each week asking if they can go inside one of his father’s houses.
“It’s one thing to drive by the house,” Dion Neutra said, “and another thing completely to go inside. The question is: Would the new owner hold it open for people to see it? That’s the legacy we wanted to leave, to have at least one Neutra house open.”