Frank Gehry's Schnabel House: Updated, but would the master approve?

To some design aficionados, altering landmark architecture can be as perverse as painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa; any departure from the original tampers with its integrity.

Frank Gehry, not surprisingly, takes a contrarian view.

"I don't have a compulsion to preserve things like that," the architect said. "People have to live in buildings. You have to roll with the changes. To get locked into a straitjacket of design seems to me counterproductive to one's life."

That's good news for Jon Platt, owner of Gehry's Schnabel House in Brentwood. The residence has been called many things since its completion in 1989: deconstructivist design (which Gehry says is inaccurate). Free-form architecture. Career watershed. Antic cross between cartoon geometry and elaborate medieval village. Status symbol. Family home. Sculpture.

When Platt, Tony Award-winning producer of "Angels in America" and "God of Carnage" and a current producer of "Wicked" on Broadway, moved into the 5,700-square-foot residence in 2006, it became something else: passion project. He went on to spend four years "invisibly shepherding this house into the 21st century."

Simple tasks such as replacing fluorescent light bulbs with LEDs were accompanied by massive undertakings, such as centralizing and consolidating the home's climate controls, TVs, lighting and security cameras onto one technologically advanced system, now managed by eight iPads. Platt altered the wading pool three times until he deemed it perfect. Through it all, he considered the architecture to be nothing less than sacred.

"My mission statement for the house was: Take this gorgeous piece of art that happens to be a home," he said, "and allow it to function as efficiently as a residence designed in 2010."

Oh, and do it in a way that pleased Gehry.

The renovation process wasn't easy. "How to hide wires when the ceiling is exposed wood, the floors are concrete and the walls are glass?" Platt asked rhetorically. One day at Gehry's office in Venice, the two were speaking about the sunlight that pours into the diamond-shaped master bedroom, the window-wrapped space ringed by a sparkling wading pool, which original owners Rockwell and Marna Schnabel affectionately called "the aquarium." Platt wanted to block the morning sun, so he asked Gehry for advice. Gehry's response: Install electric shades.

"That's great at night, Frank," Platt recalled saying. "But looking at those wires during the day — it'll just scream at you."

Gehry turned to Platt and replied: "Oh, Jon, you're such a purist."

Forging ahead

Platt pressed for solutions, eventually tracking down a company in Taiwan that makes a thin film that can render windows less transparent on demand. Controlled by iPad, the technology blocks glare while leaving the room's aesthetics untouched.

For Platt, who splits his time between L.A. and an apartment in New York, the Schnabel House was an immersion in architectural preservation. He agrees with UCLA professor Sylvia Lavin, who in the introduction to the 2009 book "Frank Gehry: The Houses" wrote: "Every inhabitant of a house by Gehry becomes an artist, as they are called on, not merely to use its spaces, but to preserve its architectures."

One isn't so much the owner of a Gehry house as its steward, Platt said. "It's your responsibility to maintain the Gehry vision for as long as you can and then you do your best to pass it on."

At first glance, the vision here is controlled chaos: abrupt juxtapositions of spheres, trapezoids, cubes, railings, pools and pillars in harmonious balance. The "house" is actually composed of four buildings on a 100-by-250-foot lot. The office and guesthouse stand alone. A two-story structure housing the garage and gym are connected to the main house by an outdoor breezeway, which Gehry added to get around code limitations on the number of buildings allowed on one property. The main building includes living room, library, family room, kitchen, dining room, media room, study, sauna, plant room, two kids' bedrooms plus that master suite, which has the appearance of being a fifth structure.

Despite the complexity of the design and variations in form and volume, the materials are consistent, a repeating palette of stucco, wood, glass, lead and copper. When Platt executed any changes to the original design, he called upon the same vocabulary, whether that meant matching outdoor patio railings to the indoor stair railings or repeating the tiles from the Olympic-length lap pool when adding a hot tub. (Gehry told Platt that the one thing he wished had been added to the original design was a hot tub, to which Platt happily replied, "The hole's already dug, Mr. Gehry.") The separate wading pool — a sort of modernist pond that was part of Gehry's original design until drought spurred the Schnabels to pull it out — has been added back, undergoing multiple transformations and emerging as a tiled reflecting pool with "floating" walkway and platform for lounge chairs and built-in umbrella bases.

The kitchen faucets and appliances were updated easily, but the overhead lighting — a suspended rectangle of long fluorescent tubes — was more difficult to update. It took several tries to find modern fluorescent bulbs that could generate light that felt warmer but was still energy efficient.

The colossal 40-foot-tall entry into the home provided another challenge. Massive panes of glass made it an inefficient space to cool, even with seven separate A/C systems throughout the property. Platt's solution: Install a temperature sensor to the skylight, which automatically opens to let hot air rise out like smoke through a chimney.

"Every time the room gets warmer than 75 degrees, the house takes care of it," Platt said.

After he left town with the skylight open and rain poured onto his Alvar Aalto armchairs, he added precipitation sensors too.

When construction began nearly 25 years ago, sustainable design wasn't the movement it is today. Now some critics might cringe at the house's size, which makes it difficult to call green. But Platt insisted that changes have been made wherever possible to make the house more environmentally friendly — "a smart house," he said. "A really smart house."

Preserving the integrity of the Schnabel House is also preserving what amounts to a time capsule of an important era in Gehry's evolving career. Architecture writer James Steele said in 1993 that the Schnabel House was "the final step in an evolution of ideas that occupied Frank Gehry during most of the 1980s." Years before Gehry's metallic curves and sweeps became a signature, the Schnabel House encapsulated his most reaching work.

"The design is one I had fantasized about for my own house," Gehry said. "I had wanted to build it for myself, but I didn't have the money."

The Schnabels purchased the property in 1986 before jetting off to Finland, where Rockwell Schnabel served as the U.S. ambassador to Finland during the construction — the reason the house came to be dubbed the house that fax machines built. Marna Schnabel, who holds a degree in architecture from USC, worked briefly with Gehry. Once the house project got moving, she had pivotal influence, deciding foremost that she wanted to give the architect much freedom. She did express many of her own wishes, such as the copper dome that sits atop the office, reminiscent of one of her favorite buildings in Los Angeles.

"When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to take me to Griffith Park Observatory, and I just thought it was the greatest thing I'd ever seen. As a kid, I fantasized about living in an observatory," said Marna Schnabel, who added the couple decided to move to another nearby house after their children had grown and their interests changed.

During the home's three years of construction, the dome caused a stir among neighbors. Marna Schnabel joked that she would field questions about what was inside the dome by answering, "My husband is with the government, and I'm not at liberty to say."

What also separated the Schnabel House from the Tudor homes, neo-Colonial farmhouses and Italianate palazzi that shared the block was its position on the lot: well back from the street. It's not a house that crowds the curb, looking out to the neighbors. Schnabel House is a village that looks inward.

"It was great because everyone had their own little space, and that was super," she said, chuckling. "It was like living in a little town with my kids."

Fantasy and illusion

For Platt, the house holds a different kind of allure. It's theatrical. The play of fantasy and illusion, of perspective and perception — walk through the front gate and it's hard to deny.

"The first thing that went through my head was, 'I'm in trouble,' because I fell in love with this work of art just by taking an instant peek at it," said Platt, who said he actually had been in the market for a two-bedroom pied-à-terre in the Hollywood Hills when he came upon the Schnabel House. "I thought, with all the built-in furniture, I'll just bring a toothbrush and that would be it."

Platt had headed the restoration of the 110-year-old Colonial Theatre in Boston and also had renovated a 300-year-old seaside estate in Dartmouth, Mass. But not even he was prepared for what he described as "four years of pain and suffering" that lay ahead in Brentwood. New wiring was strategically hidden in walls. Something as simple as a wireless Internet signal proved to be a challenge given all the copper, lead and concrete. ("We now use something from Cisco Systems that they also use at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.," Platt said.)

The Broadway producer didn't think of his changes as an improvement to the architecture. He saw the work more as a restoration, a new interpretation of the house for a new era. More significant changes would have been akin to "taking ' Oklahoma' and adding new songs," he said. "Some things are perfect and inspired, and you don't mess with them."

Few have seen the results. Platt has opened the home to a large group only once, when he recently hosted the book launch for "Living Architecture: Greatest American Houses of the 20th Century," an Assouline release in which the Schnabel House is featured.

He declined to disclose how much he invested in updating the house or how much he stands to profit if he were to sell. Platt admits to have entertained thoughts of putting the Schnabel House on the market. He said he has put too much of himself in the project to sell, at least not yet, but he coyly added, "Never say never."

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