Some architects reach the point where even a minor or obscure example of their work becomes significant. That may be the case with architect John Lautner, whose underdog individualism has propelled his reputation skyward.
Supporters hope Lautner's prestige can help save one of his earliest commissions, a 1951 house north of Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills known as Shusett House. The current owner, Enrique Mannheim, wants to knock it down and build a new place to live. The demolition could come in the next few days.
Mannheim says he's tried to make the place work for his family, but after 23 years, he's reached the end of his patience with the structure – as well as with Lautner fans.
"They are trying to make waves now, even though they've had 23 years," says Mannheim, a 62-year-old retired Chilean-born engineer, who lived in the house with his wife, Katalin, 61, an agent for menswear companies, and three children until temporarily relocating a few weeks ago. "Even in the Lautner book, the house is mentioned in only one line."
Frank Escher, a Silver Lake-based architect who serves as a director of the John Lautner Foundation, thinks the house can and should be saved. His message to the house's owner, he says, has been: "You have a historically valuable property here. It might be your personal property, but there is a larger responsibility."
These days, the house on Monte Leon Lane does not look like much, especially with a construction fence blocking most of the view. Besides the general disrepair, and the notice of pending demolition posted near the mailbox, large white columns that were not part of Lautner's design — added before the Mannheims bought the house — sit in front.
The house was built early in the career of Lautner, a Midwesterner who studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, settled in Los Angeles and did much of his building in California. After designing innovative homes, many in secluded hilltop locations, he established a reputation as an architect who balanced intellect with a builder's pragmatism.
Alan Hess, a historian and author of a book on the architect, champions his style as "organic modernism" for his love of natural materials, especially wood, and his use of the natural lines and shapes of caves and trees in his designs.
But despite his designs for stunning homes like Silvertop, Elrod and Chemosphere Houses, some of which were used in films such as "Body Double" and "Diamonds Are Forever," and a strong reputation in the '60s, not everyone in the field loves his work. Lautner never received commissions for significant civic buildings, and near the end of his life — he died in 1994 — he despaired for his work and reputation. (One of his most famous commercial buildings, Googie's coffee shop, which lent its name to a vernacular architectural style, was knocked down near the end of his life.)
After the recession of the early '70s imperiled many of his commissions, he became a kind of architect's architect, and then a cult figure. Over time, in part because of tasteful restorations like the kind Escher and partner Ravi GuneWardena brought to Chemosphere House, now owned by publisher Benedikt Taschen, his prestige surged.
Lautner's style was celebrated in a 2008 Hammer Museum exhibition, "Between Heaven and Earth: The Architecture of John Lautner," a year after the Getty Research Institute took over his archives.
Escher says the Shusett house owned by Mannheim provides "almost a perfect storm" of architectural preservation issues. "You have a house that is of architectural and historical significance, but it's in terrible shape," he said. "And the city of Beverly Hills is lax at preserving its architectural heritage. And you have an owner who is not interested in finding out what they have. We've tried everything, been very diplomatic."
Crosby Doe, a real estate agent and architectural historian who saw the house several years ago, also favors preserving it, but he isn't optimistic.
"Lautner is like Picasso — every one is important," he says. "We've lost some wonderful architecture lately through shortsightedness. This is not the masterpiece that some of his other pieces are, but every Lautner house is worthy of restoration. Ultimately the owner has the property rights. If you want to burn your Picasso, you can."
Mannheim bought Shusett House, he says, because of its large lot, low price and its location in Beverly Hills. Its architect's reputation "was not part of the equation."
"The house was in bad shape," Mannheim said of the place when he purchased it. "Bad, bad, bad. When we moved in, the bathroom was rotten, with mold. The kitchen, by all the standards of today, was atrocious."
Preservationists point out this is often the case with neglected historic homes. They point to the success of the Lautner home in hillside Los Feliz that actress Kelly Lynch and producer husband Mitch Glazer restored in the late '90s.
"It was in terrible shape," Lynch says of Harvey House. "Everyone was looking at it as a demo," damaged by water and altered from Lautner's original design. It seemed to be valuable only for its promontory views.
But the couple put about a million and a half dollars into the home after purchasing it for about the same price: They now get offers of well over $10 million for it.
Escher sees the two homes—both built in the early '50s—as sharing much in common. Shusett in particular, he says, has what he calls an "ingenious" floor plan, in the way the house and its windows move you "through the house into the landscape."
Mannheim has given several different time frames for the demolition; earlier this week he said that he expected the house to be destroyed by Wednesday. But at that point, the demolition permit had been applied for but not yet issued.
Sometimes an imperiled structure can be saved. The most iconic of Southern California's Case Study Houses—designed by Pierre Koenig—was almost leveled, but saved in part by the Los Angeles Conservancy.
But Shusett House, conservancy members lament, sits in Beverly Hills, a city they characterize as having weak preservation laws. Escher goes further, calling the city "an architectural freak show" for its destruction of old buildings and erection of new ones.
David Reyes, a Beverly Hills planner, concedes that each city is different, and that building and demolition in Beverly Hills do not have as strict a review process as many in the county. .
"Each city has its own laws and ordinances," Reyes says. "And this property owner is compliant with ours and with state laws. I think they are close: Based on my review of the record, they have a few things left to do – it could be three days to two weeks. The ball is in their court."