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Touring John Lautner's Incredible Schaffer House and Talking About Why It Isn't Selling

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Photos by Elizabeth Daniels

The Schaffer Residence in the Verdugo Hills is probably best known now as the house from Tom Ford's great-looking movie, A Single Man; it's one of architect John Lautner's most understated designs, maybe, but it's also one of his most elegant. The 1949 house has been on the market for more than four and a half years now, it's been pricechopped and pricechopped (currently asking $1.395 million), and it still can't find a buyer. For its breathtaking loveliness and its run of bad luck, we've chosen the Schaffer as the inaugural house in Curbed's new series documenting the great LA architecture that can't seem to find the right buyer (it's currently owned by a commercial director). We visited the Schaffer recently and talked to real estate agent Crosby Doe (who has specialized for decades in selling such top notch LA architecture) about its troubles. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Daniels provides a full photo tour above.

Curbed LA: Can you tell us a little about the Schaffer?
Crosby Doe: It was one of Lautner's early pieces; I think it harkens back to a lot of his influences when he was with Frank Lloyd Wright. The little shape of the kitchen, actually, was pretty much the shape of his tent that he had to design for himself when he was living at Taliesin West [FLW's home and training grounds]. And I think it's one of the most resolved of his work, there's a lot of intricacy here, but it all fits together in a sculptural manner that makes it not only a wonderful environment to live in, but what I translate as a work of art as well.

And what about its design and the original owners?
The Schaffers, basically, from what I had heard, and this was only hearsay, originally came here just after the war and they bought this extra large piece of land and used to come and picnic under the oak trees. And they enjoyed that experience so much they came to Lautner and said "I want to have a house that feels as if we're picnicking under the oak trees," and he actually designed the house around all of the existing oak trees, and created this really remarkable space for them. I don't have a lot of personal history about the Schaffers.

And it's had something like five owners now?
After that, there was a lady who lived here I think from the early '50s all the way through the mid-'80s. When she got too old to be able to live in the house anymore, we sold it to the actor Michael O'Keefe, who had it for many years and lived here and enjoyed it very much. He was moving around the country more, doing New York shows and things of that nature, so he sold it to some fellow from San Francisco, who was a friend of another person that owned a Lautner, and then this client, who's a collector, bought it eight or nine years ago and did a full restoration at the time. And he's had it for sale for the last several years.

What was the work done during that restoration?
Indoors and outdoors, the entire house was stripped and refinished, cabinetry was completely rebuilt, the appliances were redone. Electronics for computers and WiFi and all of that were put into the house, the house was wired for sound, there are speakers remotely controlled in every room. It was just brought up to, I guess for entertainment standards, twenty-first century amenities.

Are there particular original details or elements that you want to point out?
I think there are so many really wonderful details and unique details just from the way he uses all of the materials, if you look ... just those pivoting doors, and the way this entire ceiling appears to float, gives us a very light feeling to the house. The doors aren't supports, they pivot. Even the glass support at the end there isn't structural, because glass isn't structural, so he really has created a remarkable sense of this floating environment.

Could you build this house today?
For many reasons you couldn't build it. This is all clear heart redwood and even the architects changed after they saw what was happening. Nowadays if you want redwood like this you have to go to the Columbia River and find a sinker log and pay a fortune for it and haul it out of the river and get it custom milled. And some of that I'm sure was done here to find the right wood to match up in bad spots, but it could never be built again.

The house is listed at $1.395 million and it's been in escrow maybe once or twice?
We had offers that didn't go and then it was in escrow once.

What do you hear from potential buyers about why they're not interested?
A lot of people have a preconceived notion about what Glendale is and they don't know the Verdugo Hills and they don't know the Montrose community, which is much like Larchmont, just a couple of blocks away. They're not aware of the amenities and the ease that it is to get here, they feel that they're getting too far away from things. So that's been the biggest challenge in terms of finding someone to come out and actually buy it. The one person who was in escrow I think just became concerned about potential things that could happen, like what would happen if the radiant heat broke [the house has original radiant heating under its floors], and although there are solutions to that, it kind of freaked him out.

What about the livability, are people concerned about living in what, square footage-wise, is not a huge space?
I've found this with my own experience when I've moved from one piece of architecture to another piece of architecture, that you pretty much have to put a lot of your past behind you, it's not easy to drag it into a work of architecture like this. So perhaps your parents' furnishings that they inherited or something like that really have to go into storage. It's a minimalist house, it's a place where the seasons will give you something every day, from sunrise to sunset, light changes, it has a completely unique effect on your psyche. But you do have to make a few compromises to live in it, and I think minimalism is one of them.

In general, the real pedigree architecture just doesn't sell the way a Picasso does.
When I first started in the industry many years ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to represent a Richard Neutra house, very early on in my career. And although I had grown up in Pasadena surrounded by a lot of classical architecture--Greene & Greene was the first house I ever voted in, the Blacker House--I was sitting at open houses and I was saying "Why do I feel so good?" and I was really energized, I'd feel great. And then I started studying about Neutra's theories, how you live longer, you feel better, and architecture gives you more than just an abode. And I started studying and realized that the entire market at the time was valuating these--if we take, as you mention, the analogy to art, that they were taking a paint-by-number painting and a Rothko and they were measuring the square inches and the thickness of the paint and deciding if they were the same square inches that they'd be the same value. I thought "this is crazy, I'm gonna tell people about this," and one at a time, we started working to make a new marketplace for architecture.

I still believe, in terms of their relative importance--like Frank Lloyd Wright's La Miniatura, we haven't sold that for years as well, but let's consider it: it was nominated to be a World Heritage Site, one of the only in the country; that put it in the top 12 of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy of all of his work. It's internationally recognized as a masterpiece, it's an icon. Now every single Rothko that he painted that's four feet by five feet, is worth $80 or $100 million nowadays. And still we're only asking $4.5 million for one of the most important pieces of residential architecture in the world.

That's one of the things that excites me about this career. It will change. The world is getting smaller and smaller, and we have begun to really get the recognition that these houses deserve. Right before the crash, things were starting to be auctioned, like the Farnsworth House outside of Chicago by [Ludwig] Mies [van der Rohe]. It's a little 1,600 square foot house, all glass; it sold for $7.5 million at auction. All of the houses around it, there weren't any comparables, none ... I really felt that we were beginning to get an understanding of the value of architecture, but the meltdown came, a lot of the collectors either were getting divorced or [had] financial stress, kind of rushed to the door with their inventory. And since then, it's been a slow clawback. We're seeing great improvements in the price range--first it was around a million, now it's up to a million and a half, especially anything around the Hollywood Hills gets multiple offers ... the market's definitely improving again. Whether it's gonna take five years or ten years, I think it's a no-brainer for the people that invest now in a market like this with low interest rates, there're just great opportunities.

And you see the buyers there for these houses?
I always found that it takes longer. Even when [producer] Joel Silver--and I didn't represent him; I represented him when he bought the Storer House [designed by Frank Lloyd Wright]--but when he sold that, it took several years in a good market to find the right buyer. And he kind of kicked a couple of buyers out, some actresses that asked some dumb questions, he said "Get out of here, you're not gonna touch this house. Out! I'm not gonna sell it to you." And he waited and he eventually found someone who was on the National Trust for Historic Preservation, whose husband was involved with Microsoft, understood what they were getting, it's not their only house, and they love it and cherish it. So it takes finding just the right buyer, especially when prices are up a little bit above--for instance, this house, it's above the comparables in the neighborhood, so as much of a bargain as it is, it takes someone with a little bit of courage to say "I'm not afraid of buying the most expensive house within the next few blocks for what it'll give me."

Do you think these houses make more sense as second homes since you're talking about paring down your things--it's a particular lifestyle, and for someone with the kind of means...
Well, it's a particular lifestyle, for sure, but it's a better lifestyle. Think about all the people in these apartments and condominiums--average condominium on the Westside is $600, $700, $800,000 and it's like body warehousing. I can't tell much the difference between that and a prison, it just doesn't make any sense. There's no spirit to the place. This has some true spirit, it really gives you something, it's not just four walls where you hang a picture and a closet you put your clothes in.

There is a community of people who love these houses, but it seems like a lot of people who have the means want the Beverly Park megamansion.
Yeah, or they want--Benedikt Taschen [who owns Lautner's Chemosphere] called me and wanted to see if it would be possible to move it to his land in Malibu. And I love Benedikt, he's been a great supporter of architecture, but it can't happen. We have to find someone who loves it here.

How do you think the market for this kind of architecture in LA compares to other cities, like Chicago or New Canaan, Conn.?
I think the market is really growing. We're getting architectural specialists and working with some back East and upstate New York. It started here; I guess I'll toot my horn a little bit: I was one of the first people that was lucky enough to recognize these priceless assets and treasures in a market that doesn't recognize them, and bring a lot of my clients to them when they were being given away. And we have people like that now back East and we're actually representing a number of properties--we're representing a remarkable Louis Kahn house, the Esherick House that is now down to $1.25 million for a masterpiece as well.

There were years when a lot of great art nowadays couldn't be sold as well. Think of modern art ... some of those early [LA] galleries struggled and just couldn't sell those pieces that are priceless. I think for people of vision and patience, not only does it give you the opportunity probably for a great investment play--I would consider it better than any normal piece of real estate--and additionally, what it gives you in terms of your living is well beyond the importance of what you might make in dollars. And most of my clients, if you talk to people that have lived in houses like this, I always think my best sales are ones where people have never moved, unless they grow out of them or something, they'll tell you about what the houses give to them. You can't get them away. I had Howard Rodman, the screenwriter, and he had a family and it was a little, tiny Lautner, not any bigger than this, and kids and a giant dog, and [he] worked at home as well. But he couldn't give up the experience of, every day, what that house gave him.
Interview edited very slightly for length and clarity.

Schaffer Residence

527 Whiting Woods Rd., Glendale, CA