Modernist architecture: feeling the pinch too?

Special to The Times

CLASSIC houses by Modernist architects -- once relatively immune to swings in the real estate market -- are no longer able to fetch the premiums they once commanded, if recent prices are any indication.

John Lautner’s 1949 Schaffer residence in Glendale, originally listed at $1,958,000 in the spring and then reduced to $1,775,000, has been reduced again, to $1,573,000.

The architect’s 1947 Gantvoort house in La Cañada Flintridge, which sold for $2 million in 2004 and again in 2007, recently dropped its price to $1.65 million. It has been on the market since February.


In Palm Springs, one of Modernism’s most iconic works -- Richard Neutra’s magnificently restored 1946 Kaufmann house, which in May fetched $19.1 million at auction in a deal that fell through -- was listed last week for $12,975,000.

“In earlier downturns good architectural properties saw an increase in price,” said Crosby Doe, the listing agent for the Kaufmann house and an instrumental figure in fostering the market for homes by California’s Modernist masters. “This is the first time I can recall prices going down and inventory, select though it may be, increasing.”

Elsewhere the story is the same. Louis Kahn’s 1959-61 Esherick house in Philadelphia failed to sell through Richard Wright’s auction house last spring when the minimum bid deemed acceptable by the seller was $2 million. It is on the market at $2.4 million.

“We have seen some foot traffic but not a lot,” said Patrick Gallagher of Eichler & Moffly Realtors, Philadelphia.

In Sarasota, Fla., the 1955 Cohen residence -- one of Paul Rudolph’s most famous houses -- went into foreclosure in late August after more than a year on the market.

Do architectural Modernist homes no longer command a premium? Or are the sliding prices simply a mirror of the broader housing market?


A 2004 article in the New York Times cited “houses by architects like Neutra selling for twice the prices of those of similar size.” Lautner’s Schaffer house, if it were to sell at the asking price, would bring in only 13% above the $820-per-square-foot median for its ZIP Code. The Gantvoort house’s current price of $916 a square foot is 28% less than the median for its ZIP.

The standard factors behind any real estate decision -- location, for example -- are gaining renewed importance.

Referring to the two Lautners, agent Phyllis Harb of Dickson Podley in La Cañada Flintridge said that “out here, people are not so in love with the big names, and they want more square footage.” The Gantvoort house has about 1,800 square feet of living space.

Mike Deasy, of Deasy/Penner & Partners, echoed Harb, saying that in certain parts of the region, size trumps architectural style. “If the house is in West L.A., then there will be less of a problem.”

Buyers, Deasy said, are questioning the value that an iconic architect adds. “Architecture is a form of art in a generous sense, but unlike a painting, it’s not fine art. What distinguishes it is ‘livability.’ ”

Defining the Modernist house as an artwork was the goal of the auctions earlier this year. Wright partly attributes the failures to the process itself -- how buyers have “very little power to alter the deal” and also bear transaction costs, which in a traditional real estate deal are paid by the seller. But he also said the premium that sellers expected to reap was unrealistic.


And now?

“I don’t think we’ll be seeing any more such auctions until there is a significant economic recovery,” Doe said.

Promoters of California Modernism, however, are far from giving up.

“The value of good architecture is not going to get lost,” said Frank Escher, a partner in the Los Angeles firm Escher GuneWardena and a board member of the John Lautner Foundation. “There will always be a collector interested in a piece of historic architecture.”

Still, even before the current economic downturn, Deasy and others predicted that the love affair with Modernist homes was likely to wane. Deasy started one of the first firms to specialize in Modernist homes in Southern California, but now Deasy/Penner & Partners focuses mostly on younger contemporary architects.

“We weren’t going to remain stuck in the middle of midcentury,” Deasy said.