Viewed from the parking lot, the Eagle Rock Recreation Center is partially obscured by pine trees. But from the front, architect Richard Neutra’s touch is plain to see — sleek horizontal lines, flat, cantilevered roof and retractable walls opening the gymnasium to the outdoors. Sitting just off the 134 Freeway, the center has been serving the community since 1953 with outdoor screenings, Fourth of July fireworks and concerts, youth sports activities and summer camps. But with all that usage, the 64-year-old structure has lately found itself in desperate need of a facelift.
“Recreation centers can provide children with a positive place to play games and learn valuable life lessons about practice, teamwork, success and failure,” L.A. resident, Eric Ortiz tells Artbound. He grew up playing baseball at the center and later joined the team at Stanford University before going semi-pro. “Preserving parks and recreation centers should be a priority for parents and anyone in a position of civic leadership who wants to develop children into well-rounded adults and responsible global citizens.”
Ortiz is just one concerned civilian among many, including the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council and The Eagle Rock Association (TERA), two groups working on restoring the building with Neutra’s son, Dion, who is joined in his efforts by realtor Charlie Clark and designer Jeremy Levine, both local residents. They are not asking for funding from the city (although they wouldn’t turn it down), but merely a letter saying their planned upgrades are in compliance with city standards. With it, they can set up a 501c3 and begin raising the $1 million needed to cover costs.
The structure survived a push to demolish it in the 1980s, at which time it was designated a Historic-Cultural Monument, a status that guarantees preservation while also presenting enormous obstacles to structural changes. Although the building is saved from future ruin, some argue that entropy is a form of slow-motion death by neglect.
“It’s just a tragedy that this really wonderful work is being allowed to degrade,” says Dion, also an architect, who worked on the building with his famous father. “This is one of the most genial Neutra designs, and they allowed it to be so terribly degraded. It’s horrible. It’s like you have a collection of Picassos and people are marking them up and changing them and messing around with them. It’s a scandal. It shouldn’t be permitted, but it happens.”
Their list of superficial repairs includes items like removing paint and applying graffiti-proof coating to brick walls, replacing fascia and flashing on the roof eaves, removing plywood and grating from windows, and installing new lighting fixtures. “People are willing to help,” says Levine about their years-long struggle with the city. “But there is no process in place and it always runs into some kind of a roadblock in getting that final, final sign off or getting approval.”
Dion has his own list of more extensive changes like replacing the windows with bulletproof glass and restoring the wading pool on the north side. “The only structural change, if you want to call it structural, is getting rid of those columns and getting back to the original concept,” he says about a series four non-loadbearing steel columns added by the city to support the cantilevered roof, which was found to be sagging.
According to Dion, the repair required only re-welding hangers from above, and not the obtrusive beams. “We want to make these changes and they’re giving us all kinds of grief, but what about all these things that were done? Every time there was a problem they would board up a window or put some column in in a haphazard way. It’s a shame.”
Levine concurs on most points, but differs with Dion on the removal of the vertical beams, which he says will automatically trigger an earthquake retrofit and put restoration costs out of reach. “To take them out now would be such an undertaking, you would have to restructure the whole building,” he explains, adding that building codes have become stricter over the past 60 years. “If you think back, buildings were not ever retrofitted. That is a masonry building. If you touch it, even a brick building, cut a window, cut a column out, it immediately triggers a seismic retrofit for the whole building. You couldn’t build a building like that today without a lot more structure.”
Councilman Jose Huizar’s office refused a request for an interview, but his Communications Director and Senior Advisor Rick Coca said in an e-mail: “We recently received a request for a letter of support and will issue one once Councilmember Huizar has a chance to review when City Council resumes.” He goes on to say the resident Park Advisory Board is more concerned with funding to fix damaged safety rails and install restrooms compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
One of the principal players in the International Style of the 1920-30s, Richard Neutra was a driving force behind mid-century modern architecture that flourished in Southern California. His 1929 Lovell Health House marked the revolutionary use of off-the-shelf materials to build a state-of-the-art modern home. Other notable structures include the Von Sternberg House in the San Fernando Valley, built for the famous silent filmmaker, Josef Von Sternberg and later occupied by novelist Ayn Rand. It was razed in 1972, just two years after Neutra’s death.
With numerous landmarks demolished over the decades, conservancy in Los Angeles continues to be a problem. The current exhibit, L.A. Landmarks: Lost and Almost Lost, at the Central Library (another building that narrowly evaded destruction in the 1960s and 1970s), includes downtown’s Richfield Building, an Art Deco gem flattened in 1968, as well as The Garden of Allah Hotel at the corner of Sunset and Crescent, brought down in 1959 to make way for a branch of Lytton Savings & Loan. Today, conservators are working to preserve the bank branch, which was tagged for destruction to make way for a new complex designed by Frank Gehry.
Dion, the second eldest son, had worked under his father since age 11 when he began studying drafting, sometimes under the watchful eye of mid-century modernist, Charles Granger. He became a significant part of his father’s practice during the post-war boom, and is responsible for notable structures like the Huntington Beach Public Library as well as the Claremont Graduate Management Building.
Large-scale projects were a substantial part of Neutra’s practice in the middle part of the century, including the Karachi Embassy in Pakistan and L.A.’s own Hall of Records built in 1962, as well as the Gettysburg Cyclorama, which houses a mural painting of the famous Civil War Battle. Its destruction in 2013 is an act Dion calls the preservation crime of the century. “I consider that to be one of the worst acts of vandalism to be carried out under the aegis of the United Sates Government,” he says. “You have limited number of examples left of this genius architect who worked during that period. It would have made the perfect Abraham Lincoln Museum at Gettysburg, but they tore it down, crushed into dust.”
In his book, “The Neutras: Then & Later,” Dion lists 11 structures he considers at risk and spoke at length about buildings in need of restoration including the Mariners Medical Center in Newport Beach, built in 1963 and cited in 2002 by the local AIA (Architect Institute of America), as Orange County’s most important building in the past 25 years. “The developer is attacking the building from the inside. He wants to tear it down and build a multi-story medical center there.”
Still spry at 91 years old, Dion isn’t taking the assault on his father’s legacy lying down. He’s hoping to build two of his Case Study houses, 6 and 13 (Alpha and Omega), in Palm Springs, but needs additional money on top of an investor’s $2 million. “Some of those Case Study designs are real terrific,” he says as he flips through Taschen’s 2010 tome on his father, “Neutra: Complete Works.” “And if they’re not built, let’s get them built.”
Top Image: Eagle Rock Rec Center overview | Courtesy of Neutra Institute