PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE FLETCHER
In 1962, Joe and Nelda Linsk, newly arrived in Palm Springs and living temporarily at actress Claudette Colbert’s half-acre compound on Monte Vista, decided to put down winter roots in the clubby little resort town. Colbert’s house was convenient to a social life that revolved around the nonstop revelry of The Racquet Club.
They made an offer on Colbert’s house and while they were waiting for her answer, a real estate agent stopped by with a book of listings. One modern house featured a second-story loggia that intrigued Nelda. At that time, all houses in town were required to be single story. “I showed it to my husband,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Let’s go see it for fun.’”
Richard Neutra’s roofed but open-air gloriette averted local building codes that forbade two-story structures.
The house on Vista Chino had been unoccupied since the original owner passed away in the house in April 1955. The neglect showed. “The pool was full of debris and the drapes were falling off the curtain rods, but it still had the bones,” says Linsk, whose good eye for homes later propelled her career in real estate. “I loved all the stonework on the walkway going to the front door. I loved the big glass door, and I loved the fact that the corner doors opened with no seam.”
When Colbert turned down the Linsks’ offer on her weekend home, Nelda and Joe decided to see what they could do with the fixer-upper. They paid $149,000 … with no small amount of trepidation about what the odd modernist house would require in terms of restoration and maintenance.
It’s hard to say today to whom we owe the greatest debt of gratitude: Colbert, famously hard-headed in business matters, or the naïve newcomers, Nelda and Joe. Without them, the Kaufmann house, architect Richard Neutra’s 1946 desert masterpiece, would no longer exist except in the black-and-white photographs taken by Julius Shulman. The glass, steel, and wood creation that architect, historian, and author Alan Hess calls “one of the half dozen most important modern houses in the world” would probably have gone the way of the wrecking ball if Neutra and the Kaufmanns hadn’t sited it so far out of town. Brent Harris, who has owned the home since 1993, points out that at the time the Linsks bought the home, the preservation of important residential architecture was almost nonexistent. (Indeed, Neutra’s Maslon house in Rancho Mirage was leveled in 2002 only a week after its new owner applied for a demolition permit.) During the early postwar decades, houses that became outmoded or required substantial repairs were often take down and replaced. “I’m glad she rescued the house. I think that was a great act,” Harris says, adding that it could have easily gone the other way.
The origins of Neutra’s commission were in a wooded piece of land outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Department store heir and philanthropist Edgar Kaufmann oversaw his family’s business and was a passionate supporter of the local arts. In the mid 1930s, Kaufmann and his wife decided to build a country house near the Bear Run waterfall in the Allegheny Mountains. A friend suggested he read An Autobiography by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Wisconsin-born Wright’s career had bottomed out during the Great Depression, but Kaufmann was so impressed by Wright’s vision of an organic architecture that the two formed a partnership in 1935 to create Fallingwater, arguably the first great American modernist residential masterpiece. A decade later, looking to escape the harsh Pennsylvania winters, Kaufmann chose Palm Springs. He learned a great deal about architecture from Wright, perhaps so much so that he rejected the idea of organic integration with the boulder-strewn desert, but instead wanted a home that contrasted with the environment while at the same time invited the dramatic landscape inside the living space.
This seeming contradiction found a strong advocate in an Austrian-born architect named Richard Neutra. He came to the United States in the early 1920 to join his countryman, Rudolph Schindler. Both men gained notoriety in the ’20s and ’30s in Los Angeles, where they championed the International style of architecture, notable for its steel framing, extensive use of glass, and cable-suspended balconies. Though they had at one time been colleagues, Wright was reportedly enraged by Kaufmann’s decision to use Neutra, whose work the elder architect considered “cheap and thin,” according to Neutra biographer Barbara Lamprecht.
Wright might have been resentful that Neutra’s reputation had eclipsed in his own in the ’30s, when Neutra won an international reputation for work such as the 1936 Joseph Kun house in Los Angeles. The Kaufmann house was also not Neutra’s first desert residence. In 1937, he designed an intimate living/work space for a St. Louis socialite and fitness advocate named Grace Miller. If the Kaufmann house site was considered the edge of civilization when it was built, the Miller house — which still stands — on North Indian Canyon Drive near East Racquet Club Road was in the wilderness. This suited both architect and owner. The stucco and steel home featured floor-to-ceiling windows and screens that brought the seemingly endless expanse of desert to the front door.
A flight of stairs in the main courtyard leads to the gloriette, a breezy outoor living room.
The Grace Miller house is key to understanding Neutra’s approach to the Kaufmann house. By 1946, he understood the seasonal shifts of light and shadow at the foot of Mount San Jacinto. The Kaufmanns’ intention was to live in the house for only two months per year. According to Harris, they announced their annual arrival by throwing a New Year’s Eve party packed with artists and celebrities. By early March, the Kaufmanns — along with 90 percent of the desert’s snowbirds — were winging their way home. When Harris undertook his exhaustive and painstaking restoration of the property in 1993, he enlisted then-90-year-old desert modernist Albert Frey as a consultant. Frey invoiced Harris $25 an hour for his time and invariably showed up to the house dressed in his favorite canary yellow trousers. Harris recalls that the design of the living room became an issue with Frey. “He said, ‘Why isn’t there an overhang here?’ Well, first of all, it wouldn’t look very good, and second, they wanted to harvest the light of January into February. The glass harvests the sunlight, particularly the southern glass.”
Harris says that one of the reasons that Kaufmann and Neutra clicked was that they were both Austrians interested in the theories and writings of fellow countrymen Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. While that may not seem pertinent to a discussion of the house’s design, it is interesting to speculate how it might have influenced the creation of private and communal spaces on the property.
Neutra’s work is notable for its ability to blur the boundary between inside and outside.
The pinwheel layout of the house centered the living room and second-story gloriette, as Neutra labeled it, and placed the bedrooms and private spaces at the far ends. As Lamprecht says in her monograph on the house, “ … the pinwheel’s arms, terminating with bedrooms and patios, also reveal a specific social order. Hosts, servants, children and guests are granted ‘extreme’ privacy. Their opportunities to mingle occur in shaded walkways, living areas and the outdoor patios … Radiant heat extends to the pool area; Neutra even placed it in the low-seating wall linking house and pool, a socially magnanimous gesture that ensures the party continues on a chilly winter’s night for shivering wet bathers or formally dressed party-goers.”
Neutra favored the airy, rectilinear “international style,” which Edgar Kaufmann felt would stand out in the desert.
While Wright and Neutra shared a love of natural stone, its use in the Kaufmann house isn’t intended to integrate or marry the structure to the environment, as Wright might have done. Instead, the stone seems to help levitate the house. The absence of obvious verticals (except for the dominant fireplace at the center, which might be seen as a visual complement to Mount San Jacinto) and the preponderance of glass emphasize the vertical planes, as if the house and pool are floating above what Neutra called the “moonscape” of the site.
Hess says the brilliance of Neutra’s work was that “it was a steel and glass house that used those materials so expressively, but it was also the setting. It was the contrast between those ultra-modern, man-made materials and then the spectacular, rugged raw nature of this mountain rising behind. It symbolized that mankind could [not only] live in a desert, but live in a beautiful way, make the desert bloom. The desert became habitable because of modern technology like steel and glass. Neutra expressed all of that … I can’t think of another house that does that so well as that one design.”
Neutra was not only an artist and visionary; he was also a practical man. He was convinced that before the house could be built, the pool needed to be completed. And, even for Palm Springs, it is a large pool. It is unknown how he justified this approach to Kaufmann, but it’s well known he supervised much of the work on the house while floating in the water.
One of the conundrums facing new owners after Kaufmann’s death is that Neutra was meticulous in observing his original client’s dictates in how and when the house would be used. It is the perfect winter villa, but not so much in May, let alone July, August, or September. In fact, it’s almost perverse exposures to wind, sand, and sun made it a hot weather torture chamber. Though the Linsks paid less than half of what it cost Kaufmann to build, Nelda says that she and Joe knew from the start that they’d need to make changes in order to extend its habitability. “Between the main house and the guest house, there was just cement and tufts of grass. We had no real place to sit down and read the newspaper. There was no bar. We added a room — and glass enclosed it — and put a bar in. It was a fabulous add-on. Then, we added an office because my husband needed [one], and he needed a closet because I took over the closet in the master bedroom. [Architect] William Cody did that for us. When Neutra came down one day to visit us … he loved what Cody did. He said, ‘I approve. I love it.’”
Because Nelda and Joe were hosts of heroic stature, the property with the Arthur Elrod interior was a fixture of the local party scene in the early to mid-’60s. Not only did the couple throw the after party for the annual Bob Hope Classic, but Nelda hosted fashion shows and charity fundraisers on a regular basis. “We had wonderful neighbors,” she recalls. “There was [composer] Frederick Loewe, the Hearsts, Jack and Mary Benny. Raymond Loewy and my husband used to drive all around town in the Avanti convertible he designed.” Nelda also carved out an hour to accommodate society photographer Slim Aarons, who called one morning and asked if she could gather a few friends for a photo out by the pool. Though Julius Shulman’s black-and-white photo of Mrs. Kaufmann reclining by the pool at twilight may be the most artistic and evocative photo of the house and environs, Aarons’ photo, Poolside Gossip, did more to enhance the glamour and mystique of Palm Springs than any other single image.
Julius Shulman’s famous photograph juxtaposes the hard lines of Neutra’s geometry with the natural contours of the San Jacinto Mountains.
Edgar Kaufmann and his wife Liliane flank their son Edgar Kaufmann Jr.
But Nelda and Joe tired of the maintenance and staffing required to care for the place. “We wanted to be able to travel,” she says. “We wanted something low maintenance that we could just lock up and go.”
Having acquired her real estate license and a desk at Edie Adams Realty, Nelda brokered a deal with San Diego Chargers owner Eugene Klein. When Klein decided to sell, she made the deal with Barry Manilow to purchase it. When Manilow decided to move on, she sold the property to Brent and Beth Harris.
Brent is an investment manager and his former wife, Beth, is an architect and preservationist. Together and separately, they have owned the property for 27 years. Last October, he quietly listed the property with Gerard Bisignano of Vista Sotheby’s. (That is, if any property can be “quietly” listed for $25 million.) Bisignano, who has years of experience brokering architecturally significant properties, says he increased exposure of the house since the holidays and attracted the attention of high-profile, highly qualified, architecture-savvy buyers. If it sells for the asking price, it will almost double the highest amount paid for a property in Palm Springs: $13 million for Bob Hope’s John Lautner-designed Southridge house.
It is impossible to describe the impact of the Harris’ ownership of the Kaufmann house, both in terms of its restoration and preservation as well as its impact economically and culturally for Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. Harris says that when he and Beth first looked at the property in 1990, they weren’t particularly interested in acquiring a desert house; they were more architectural tourists. At the time, Beth was studying for her doctorate in architecture at University of California, Los Angeles under Thomas Hines, who wrote the definitive biography of Richard Neutra, according to Hess.
“I didn’t buy it for a year and a half,” Harris says. “It wasn’t until really digging into the Neutra files at UCLA, after seeing it again in February ’92, that [we realized] the full extent of what it was.” The Harrises studied rarely seen photographs, as well as Neutra’s meticulously drawn plans. They finally decided to buy the house, but as Harris quickly points out, that didn’t include plans for a five-year restoration. After living in the house for a while, the Harrises continued their research, which led them to Shulman. The photographer, then in his 80s, was still living in his Raphael Soriano house in the Hollywood Hills. “He had all these pictures from every possible angle, and all well done, of the house that showed you how to put it back together,” Brent says. “It just kind of stoked the mind.”
So much so that the Harrises contacted the Santa Monica architectural firm Marmol Radziner, which had restored Neutra’s Kun residence. “After we hired Marmol Radziner, there was more of the possibility of doing this crazy project. I say crazy because modernism was largely unknown. Palm Springs sunk to a sad place in the early ’90s. No one was buying properties, let alone restoring a modern house. Modern houses are kind of meant to be used, enjoyed, and disposed of.”
The pool was essential to Neutra, who was known float in the water as he supervised work on the house.
The Harrises paid $1.5 million for the property, but that price tag paled in comparison to what they spent over the next five years. The house was essentially deconstructed stone by stone (each meticulously labeled) until only the skeleton remained. The lengths to which they went to secure identical materials to rebuild are legendary, including opening a long-closed quarry in Utah to perfectly match the buff sandstone and building a metal stamping machine for the fascia. Early on, Brent realized one of the huge costs and difficulties in restoration was finding the craftsman who could do the work. He brought in skilled labor from all over the country and housed them for the duration of the project. “I joke [that] the average age of people [who] worked on my house was just touching 80 years old. Julius [Shulman] was 83 and [stonemason] Clive Christie was late 70s.” Harris says that one of the benefits of the work was seeing the satisfaction in these retired gentlemen as they became relevant again. “You could see the twinkle in Julius’s eye.”
One often-misunderstood aspect of restoration is that you can’t simply remake everything the way it was in 1947. It’s not a question of ingenuity or integrity. Whenever Brent couldn’t find a door handle or window frame, he had them made. It’s more a question of what Harris calls an “intervention,” in which he uses modern methods and technologies in hidden or unobtrusive ways to protect the house from the elements. For the unforgiving desert climate, Neutra used the most up-to-date materials and technology available, but they weren’t enough to protect the house from 50 years of a subtropical Sonoran desert climate. Earlier occupants had installed a huge air conditioner on the roof that, of course, ruined the aesthetic of the gloriette. Harris found an air conditioning engineer named Mel Bilo, who found a way to navigate around the boulders beneath the house’s concrete slab and install central air in a way that makes the plenums in the ceiling circulating the air practically invisible.
One of the Harris’ most significant upgrades was Marmol Radziner’s pool house at the eastern end of the property. There was no structure in Neutra’s original plans; when Aarons took his famous photograph, he backed up against a wall of bushes. Klein built a tennis court on one of the adjacent lots and a tennis pavilion between the pool and the original eastern boundary. Harris says Klein’s structure was unsound, so he had Marmol Radziner replace it with a pool house with modern amenities, including a bar and television viewing area. Such amenities disturbed the aesthetic of the main house, but feel much more at home in the pavilion. Nonetheless, Marmol Radziner’s design of the detached, open-air, wood pavilion is a seamless addition to the property and a brilliant homage to Neutra.
The completion of the pavilion in 1998 coincided with the rebirth of a popular fascination with modernism. Though New York creative director Jim Moore had quietly stirred interest in certain circles when he bought one of Donald Wexler’s Steel Houses, the media coverage of the Harrises’ restoration prompted a closer examination and appreciation of other desert modernists, such as Frey, Wexler, E. Stewart Williams, Hugh Kaptur, Robson Chambers, Paul R. Williams, and others. Brooke Hodge, the former director of architecture and design at Palm Springs Art Museum, says the Kaufmann restoration “was a catalyst for others to notice all the midcentury gems here and begin to restore them.”
Certainly, a number of factors contributed to Palm Springs’ resurgence, but there’s no denying that restoring the Kaufmann house led to today’s preservation of the city’s architectural heritage, inspiring Modernism Week and the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center. The rebirth is still magically ascending.
And it sure didn’t hurt property values.
Which recalls the Kaufmann house’s $25 million price tag. After the Harrises divorced, the house was placed in a 2008 Christie’s auction of important contemporary art. Though the house gaveled to a qualified buyer at $19.1 million, the sale fell out of escrow not longer after — the rumor being that the buyer’s money was from a family trust, and family lawyers put a stop to the sale.
The house’s architectural and historical significance raises an interesting question: Should the property continue to pass through private hands or would it be better preserved for future generations if it was bought by an institution with the means to purchase and maintain it? Palm Springs Art Museum owns the iconic Frey House II, after all. Janice Lyle, director at Sunnylands Center & Gardens and the art museum’s former executive director, says, “When I look at preservation, I would say that there are many appropriate ways to preserve modern architecture, and they do not all push you in the direction of public ownership. I think that [the Kaufmann] house actually can thrive as a lived-in house. In my personal opinion, the best way to save the house is to have individuals who are completely committed to the idea of the importance of the house and to keep it alive by living in it.”
Brent Harris agrees. For almost three decades, he’s cared for one of the Coachella Valley’s greatest treasures, and now, he says, “It’s time for a new steward.”