The post prefab
Renovation of a 1950s manufactured house sounds like code for a tear-down. But Ben Thorne and Eliza Howard think differently, perhaps because their home is Los Angeles’ best-known example of the modernist prefab houses by the General Panel Corp. If that moniker doesn’t ring a bell, then the name of one of its architects might: Walter Gropius, founder of the legendary German design school, the Bauhaus.
Gropius may have been the famed master architect but much of the credit for the General Panel design -- more than 20 years in the making -- belongs to Konrad Wachsmann, who led their creative collaboration on the project. Prior to his tenure at USC as director of the Institute for Building Research, Wachsmann had gained international attention as the architect of Albert Einstein’s summer house, a modular, wood-sided construction built in 1929 with a flat roof and large windows near Potsdam, Germany.
General Panel’s goal was to mass-produce modular homes using standardized manufactured components, and when construction began, Wachsmann wrote to Einstein to tell the physicist that he was in essence General Panel’s first patron, as many of the design components first appeared in Einstein’s house.
Wachsmann’s system cut cost and construction time because it was based on standardized panels, each about 3 feet, 4 inches wide and 8 feet, 4 inches tall. The panels were built on a wood frame and covered with quarter-inch waterproof Douglas fir plywood on both sides. This basic building unit formed the walls, the floor, the ceiling and the roof. Other panels were fitted with doors and windows.
In General Panel’s Burbank factory -- formally the Lockheed plant for the P-80 Shooting Star fighter jet -- plumbing, heating, ventilation and electrical components also were manufactured. At the core of the design were three built-in metal “wedge connectors,” a sort of Chinese puzzle that locked the panels together. A hammer tightened the wedge; no nails or screws were needed.
The connector was a precisely engineered technological solution, one that Wachsmann patented. The design opened up endless variations. Rooms could be made practically any size, in multiples of 3 foot 4. “General Panel has standardized not the house, but its elements,” Wachsmann would declare in company documents.
The panels provided not only flexibility in floor plan but also greater shear resistance, which made the houses more resilient in an earthquake.
The original interiors featured blond birch or red mahogany paneled walls that were simply lacquered. Flooring was hardwood or cork, countertops were Formica. Full-length picture windows and “Venetian glass louvered windows” were touted in the company’s promotional material. Exteriors were finished with redwood siding.
It all may sound remarkably contemporary, but there was little that looked fashionable when residential architects Thorne and Howard bought their General Panel house in the Mount Olympus area in 2005.
“My first reaction was there’s no way to save the house, but there was something intriguing about it,” Howard says. “We couldn’t let it go, but it was also a little intimidating to think about what it would take to make the house right.”
Structurally the house remained sound, but much was in disrepair. Electrical outlets were jury-rigged, walls lacked insulation, surprisingly little aluminum framing supported the windows and the heating vents and tiles had asbestos.
“No one was interested in preserving the house,” Howard says. “If we hadn’t bought it, we felt it would end up getting torn down.”
Thorne says the panel system excited them, but they “didn’t feel beholden to it if it had been a Neutra or Schindler.”
“It didn’t have the baggage,” he said. “There wasn’t a preciousness to it, but there was a different responsibility and that freed us up to maintain the logic of the house with the upgrades and addition.”
Thorne and Howard bought the three-bedroom, two-bath house from the family of the original owner, architect Rudy Wolf, a German emigre who first worked as a draftsman for the Murphy Door Bed Co. in New York before becoming Wachsmann’s right-hand production man, serving as General Panel’s chief designer and then director of quality control. Wolf later designed houses and commercial buildings in Los Angeles, including several large projects for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in the late 1960s and other medical buildings through the 1980s.
After living in the house for years, Wolf decided to modify the floor plan, and he hired architect William Merzbach to make the changes based on Wolf’s plan. Like Wachsmann, Wolf and Merzbach were natives of Frankfurt, where they had seen early examples of prefabricated housing.
“Rudy was many years older than me and was my tutor when we lived in Germany,” Merzbach says, adding that they worked together at the General Panel factory on Victory Boulevard too.
For the Wolf house, Merzbach converted the garage into a bedroom and bathroom, added a bedroom patio and built a new carport.
As with most prefab housing efforts of the era, General Panel did not achieve critical mass and eventually it failed. Tens of thousands of General Panel homes had been planned, but when the company entered bankruptcy and was liquidated in 1952, only about 200 homes had been built in Southern California.
“The company did not succeed for two reasons,” Merzbach says. “The electrical boxes, conduits and wiring were contained within the panels, and the electrical workers union did not like this since work was done more cheaply in the factory than in the field by electricians. The other reason had to do with people’s prejudices, because ‘prefab’ sounded like it was done on the cheap.”
Today, perceptions of prefab housing have improved dramatically, especially as environmentally responsible design moves into the mainstream. Modern manufacturers tout reduced construction waste and fast installation, among other benefits. And for better or for worse, prefab is no longer synonymous with the word “cheap” -- or even the phrase “low-cost.”
Thorne and Howard’s from-the-ground-up restoration is almost complete after nearly two years of work. Hard to believe a crew of six men put together a typical General Panel house in just two days.
Look for a follow-up story on Thorne and Howard’s completed house later this year in Home.