Wealth — Modernism as an Investment

Architecturally significant houses require special consideration

Noel Birns interior at the Abernathy House, 1965

Palm Springs Life Archives

Eric Ellenbogen spent two years painstakingly restoring the William Cody-designed midcentury modern Abernathy House. The work involved trenchant research into the Cody archives at California State University, San Luis Obispo. “This restoration was both a labor of love and insanity. Yet I would do it again,” he says. “You must really admire the work of your architect in order to do the restoration correctly.”

Ellenbogen’s efforts were recognized when the Abernathy House won a restoration award from the Palm Springs Modern Committee. “This was a meticulous restoration,” observes President Peter Moruzzi. “It goes beyond what is typically attempted with these historic homes.”

Buying or selling a home by one of the desert’s premier modern architects — be it Cody, Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Donald Wexler, Albert Frey, or E. Stewart Williams — requires special attention and expertise.

“Noted architecture is still a good value when compared to fine art,” says Crosby Doe of architectureforsale.com. An authority on marketing architecturally significant homes, Doe secured the listing on Neutra’s renowned Kaufmann House after an unsuccessful auction buy. Last May, Christie’s included the house — estimated to bring $15 million to $25 million — in its auction of postwar and contemporary art. It brought $19 million; but when the deal fell through, the owners turned to Doe. “They re-evaluated the price and came down significantly,” he says of the drop to $12,975,000. “This shows that even this market is taking a breather.”

Mike Deasey, founding partner of deasy/penner & partners, a Southern California real estate firm specializing in architectural properties, says, “Architecture is not the same as fine art. That’s one of the reasons that the auction model doesn’t seem to work that well for these types of homes.”

Palm Springs Art Museum is holding a symposium, “Possessed: The Obsession of Ownership,” on Feb. 21 as part of Modernism Week. “The people who purchase these homes are passionate about architecture and want to preserve them and make them as authentic and genuine as can be,” says Sidney Williams, associate curator. “It takes quite an investment to be truly authentic. Some people want to live there forever because of this incredible commitment they’ve made, and others want to go onto the next challenge.”

Allen Miller, founder of Architectural Properties, which specializes in midcentury modern properties, says, “Right now there are more chances for buyers to negotiate prices on these homes, where before that was unheard of. Even with a sales premium, you’ll probably pay less than you would have two years ago.”

If you’re considering an unrestored property, before signing any contracts, Ellenbogen advises, “Find a property that has already been restored by the same architect to appreciate its pristine condition, and know what you’re getting yourself into.” Make the effort to see the breadth of that architect’s work and determine the importance of that particular house in the architect’s portfolio. That way you can judge the appropriate amount to invest in the property and the restoration.

Ron de Salvo of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage set a record price when he sold Lautner’s famed Arthur Elrod House for $5.5 million five years ago. “Take each house on its own,” he says. “People make mistakes and overpay, thinking a date and a name make a property significant.”

If you own an architecturally significant home and are selling it in today’s market, work with a real estate firm specializing in desert modern architecture. Ask to see their listings over the last few years to determine how many of these homes they listed and sold. Then have an experienced architectural photographer take a picture of your house to best showcase its distinctive features.

It takes patience to find the right buyer. “Keep in mind each house was developed specifically for the first owner,” Doe says. “When it’s maintained in that original state, you have smaller kitchens and smaller bathrooms, so you need to wait for the right person who says, ‘This is my lifestyle.’”

When you find a buyer, make sure the appraiser is someone that specializes in these types of properties.

In most cases, owning an architecturally significant house is a long-term relationship. “These homes are not flippers,” Moruzzi observes. Particularly given the current climate, his words ring true.

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