Riverside

The Hidden History of the Kaufmann House

Kaufman Residence

Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann Residence (1946, Richard Neutra)
470 West Vista Chino Drive
Palm Springs

Even before my first visit to Palm Springs, the building I most wanted to see was Richard Neutra's Edgar Kaufmann Residence. I knew the 1947 photos of the house by architectural photographer Julius Shulman which are among most famous and widely known architectural images of all time. Architectural historian John Crosse assembled an 82-page bibliography citing over 150 published articles on the house (most accompanied by Shulman photos) beginning with the house's completion through Neutra's death in 1970. But the house settled into obscurity with only 70 articles published about it after 1970 until the house was purchased and restored by Beth and Brent Harris in 1993. Since their restoration of the house (completed in 1995) there have been close to 275 articles about the Harris' efforts and those of their architects, Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner.

This is the image of the house most seen by tourists. |                                                                                                     Photo: Patrick McGrew.

On my first visit, I was disappointed to discover that only a small part of the house is visible from the road. Arguably the most famous home in Palm Springs, in 1996 it was the twentieth1 building to be designated as a local landmark, or "Class 1 Site" as protected properties are known locally. It was the first private residence still in its original use to be so designated. In 2008, a small crowd of about thirty people gathered at the site for the dedication of a bronze marker denoting the designation. The crowd included a couple of friends of mine, the mayor, and owners Beth and Brent Harris who accomplished the exacting restoration. After the crowd dispersed, Beth (who is devoted to an informed public) spontaneously invited the few of us who lingered for a private tour. It was my lucky day. The tour was fascinating in its detail, but Beth's personal recollections left the most lasting impression.

The origins of the house are familiar to architecture fans because of the pedigree of its owner, Edgar Kaufmann, the Pittsburg department store magnate. Kaufmann established himself as a patron of architecture with his commission to Frank Lloyd Wright for the design of his famous Bear Run, Pennsylvania home called "Fallingwater." Ten years later, in 1946, Kaufmann chose Austrian émigré and former Wright colleague Richard Neutra to design his desert home and a lot of tongue-wagging ensued. Kaufmann meant no disrespect to Wright, but he sought a home more open and airy than anything in Wright's vocabulary. Wright was not amused.

From 1946 to 1948 -- the years that gave birth to the Kaufmann desert house -- a number of other world-wide iconic structures were built. Mies van der Rohe's produced the Farnsworth Residence in Plano, Illinois and Marcel Breuer delivered the butterfly-roofed Geller Residence in Lawrence, New York. Charles and Rae Eames Pacific Palisades residence arrived; Eero Saarinen's General Motors Technical Center unfolded in Warren, Michigan; and Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation soared skyward in Marseilles, France. Each of these buildings played an important role in defining architecture of an era. Like these contemporaries, the Kaufmann desert house is a masterpiece -- a structure of unexcelled modernism and sophistication that continues to serve as a model of its type, style, and period.

In 1945, Kaufmann acquired a large 200' x 300' (2.6 acre) site that was isolated near the foot of Mt. San Jacinto and studded with rugged desert landscape. His desert house was not designed to blend into the site in the Wrightian style; rather it was to be an object in space in the classical fashion of the European villa. Originally priced as $30,000, (the 3,800 sq. ft. home ultimately cost $300,000) the house turned out to be simple -- and simply expensive. Rectangular in plan, its form was essentially a glass pavilion with planar walls that extended into the site via two axes one north-south -- the other east-west. The footprint has been described as resembling a pin-wheel, a Neutra signature. In this plan, outdoor living areas are sheltered by adjustable walls composed of movable vertical fins that offer flexible protection against sandstorms. When the windscreens are not required, louvers can be adjusted to open up to the views.

The home is a one-story structure that subtly accommodates itself to the site by stepping up slightly on three levels, made more dramatic through the introduction of a roofed (but otherwise open-air) second floor room. Centered above the main entrance, Neutra called this outdoor room a "gloriette" -- from the 12th century French for "little glory." Neutra's use of the term derives from history's' largest and best-known gloriette in the Schönbrunn Palace garden in Vienna. Much was made of Neutra's skirting of local ordinances that prohibited second stories, but similar upper-level sleeping porches were commonplace in the desert. They were often included in early Spanish-style homes that, in pre-air conditioning days, had sleeping porches (or gloriettes) that caught the evening breeze and allowed locals to sleep outdoors during the hottest summer months.

The Kaufmann desert house is composed of a simple palette of few materials that include buff-colored Utah stone laid in a mortar-less ashlar pattern; walls of floor-to-ceiling glass, and thin sheet-metal faced roof-planes that extend beyond the glass walls creating an illusion that the roofs hover weightlessly over transparent planes that either disappear or reflect the dramatic natural surroundings. A double cantilever allows the absence of a corner post in the master bedroom (where the glass doors meet at a 90-degree angle) giving a powerful illusion of a floating roof. Neutra biographer Thomas Hines described the house as a "model of sophisticated climate control" with its "overhangs, adjustable louvers, and radiant floor heating and cooling systems." However, the technological advances of triple-glazing and heat-reducing films had not yet been invented. The extensive south-facing glass walls had to be covered with an inelegant system of exterior canvas drapes.

Kaufmann, a notorious womanizer, completed the desert house as his marriage disintegrated. In the early 1950's, Liliane Kaufmann commissioned Wright to design another house in Palm Springs on the north side of the property where the Neutra house sits. An unflattering image of the Neutra house appears in Wright's rendering. Named "Boulder House," as confirmed by Edgar Kaufmann Jr. in his book "Fallingwater Rising" this commission was to be a home for Liliane Kaufmann who could no longer live with her philandering husband. But she died before the project could be built. It is said that Wright put both Edgar and Lilianne's names on the rendering in a vain attempt to regain Edgar's patronage. Following Edgar Kaufmann's death in 1955, his desert house sold to Francis C. Park, who in turn sold it in 1962 to art dealer Joseph Linsk and his wife Nelda. Mrs. Linsk was the first owner to make substantial changes to the property. She directed the addition of approximately 2,200 sq. ft. of interior space by converting a patio into a media room; a wall was removed so the newly enclosed space could open into the original living room; additional air conditioning was placed on the roof that cluttered the roof planes.

Proposed Liliane Kaufmann Residence, the 'Boulder House' by Frank Lloyd Wright, unbuilt.

Designed by local modernist William F. Cody, the Linsk addition was compatible and relatively seamless, but removed the glass corridor to the master bedroom and drastically reduced the amount of light to the interior. Modernist furnishings selected by Neutra were replaced with those chosen by prominent Palm Springs interior designer Arthur Elrod. In 1968, the Linsks offered the house for sale for $350,000, furnished. It was purchased by Eugene and Francis Klein, owners of the San Diego Chargers, who sold the house in 1973 to entertainer Barry Manilow who owned it until 1993.

<em>Palm Springs Villager</em> Magazine, November 1968.

It is not known what changes were made by the Klein's, but of the Manilow years, Beth Harris relates an amusing story. Filmmaker John Waters visited Manilow at the house during his ownership. Manilow had decorated the two guest bedrooms for favored guests; one was actress/comedienne Susanne Somers -- the other was a male friend. Somers' suite was tricked out with wallpaper, drapes, linens, and bed clothes done in a famous Laura Ashley lavender floral print. The other guest room was decorated with faux-marble wall coverings and stage-set Roman columns. The interiors of the main house were also extensively wall-papered. Years later, upon a return visit to Palm Springs, Waters toured the Harris' extensive restoration, remarking to Beth with an arch grin: "My dear, you've just ruined the place!"

Barry Manilow ultimately moved into the old Walter Braunschweiger Residence, a 1935 Spanish-style compound on a private hilltop in the town's Mesa neighborhood, leaving the Kaufmann desert house to sit empty for 3 ½ years. His realtor indicated that although the location and the site of the Kaufmann house were spectacular, the house itself was no longer considered valuable and the property was being sold (ultimately at $1.5 million) as a tear-down. Alternatively, according to the listing agent, "it could easily be made more stylish by converting it to a Spanish style." At this point, Beth and Brent Harris decided to purchase and restore the house.

Brent Harris is a successful investment manager; his former wife Beth Edwards Harris is an architectural historian. Both are ardent preservationists. Their work in Palm Springs places them among the earliest supporters of historic preservation in a town that is now known for its remarkable collection of mid-century modern architecture. Los Angeles restoration architects Marmol Radziner and Associates were commissioned to restore the house. As described by the architects, "The restoration returned the residence to its initial form, size, and aesthetic integrity. An important challenge of the restoration was to re-create the dialogue between nature and sculpture, a difficult undertaking in an area that has grown from a rugged desert into a suburban residential neighborhood. Extensive archival research of Neutra's original details was undertaken at the UCLA Special Collections Library Department. Julius Shulman's original photographs of the house were invaluable in determining the original characteristics of this modern monument." The architects did replace the original pool house with a new pavilion that provides a perfect vantage point from which to view the main house and also serves as catering kitchen and entertainment center.

A few details of the restoration have become the stuff of local legend. So exacting were the standards of the owners and architects that when, in the course of the restoration, a missing stone wall had to be reconstructed a defunct Utah sandstone quarry was re-opened to secure matching stone. The first batch of stone that arrived was not a perfect match, but a second quarry did the trick. To help restore the remote physical setting of the house, the Harrises acquired several adjoining parcels to more than double the land around the house. Now fully restored, the Kaufmann desert house has assumed a significant place among important American houses of the mid-century period.

When the Harrises decided to end their marriage, they faced a dilemma regarding the disposition of the house. Both were clear that the house required a special buyer who would fully appreciate its cultural significance and provide the kind of maintenance such a property requires. They hit upon a seemingly perfect solution -- they offered the house at auction as a piece of art. A precedent had already been set with the 2003 Sotheby's auction of Mies van der Rohe's innovative Farnsworth house which sold for $7.5 million. The Harrises went with Christies who put a pre-auction estimate for the house at $15-25 Million. The Kaufmann desert house received a final bid of $15 million, but the sale was not completed due to a breach of terms by the buyer. As part of the divorce settlement, Mr. Harris now holds sole title to the property.

While Beth Harris may have moved to Los Angeles, many feel her heart has stayed behind in Palm Springs. She continues to promote architectural education through her work with the California Preservation Foundation, and as a major donor to the emerging Palm Springs Art Museum's Architecture & Design Center, named the Edwards Harris Pavilion in her honor. Her former husband Brent also continues to actively support preservation activities in Palm Springs and is currently restoring a Welton Becket-designed home in the historic Tennis Club neighborhood.

Julius Shulman's photographs played an important role in establishing the Kaufmann residence as one of the nation's most iconic modernist houses. It remains both Neutra's and Shulman's best known and most published work. Upon completion of the Kaufmann house, Neutra gave Shulman explicit instructions about how he wished the building to be photographed, suggesting dusk and evening shots that looked back into the illuminated interior. The resulting time-lapse photo is famous, not only for the multiple images of the running "ghost" puppy, but also for Shulman's request that Lilliane position herself on a mat to block the pool light from over-exposing the photo.

Photo of the author at the Kaufmann house just before dusk. | Photo: Robert Julian

Before she moved to Los Angeles, Beth Harris threw one last cocktail party at the Kaufmann House for local friends of the California Preservation Foundation. I mentioned the invitation to my partner, author Robert Julian, and suggested I'd seen the house many times and maybe we should decline. He replied, "If you're lucky enough to be invited to the Kaufmann House, you accept." We arrived about 5:30 p.m. on a Sunday and met a group of friends who had already arrived. Early in this convivial social gathering, I noticed Robert had disappeared. I found him reclining on one of the chaises near the east into the pool where a superb view of the house unfolded. It was "magic hour" and I decided to join him on the adjacent chaise. Magically, as the sun dropped behind the mountains, the lighted pool and the house began to glow as if from within. I have never seen a more beautifully choreographed light show. Sitting poolside, I felt a profound connection to both Neutra and Shuman. I can only reiterate that sage advice, "If you're lucky enough to be invited to the Kaufmann House, you accept."

1 The marker says #29 but that includes a number of Class 2 sites as well.


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Top image: View from poolside. Photo: Patrick McGrew.

About the Author

Architect, author, architectural historian and photographer, Patrick McGrew received his Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1965. He has been actively engaged in the architectural profession, specia...
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