In our final Q&A of the Curbed University 2013 session, we have Crosby Doe, a real estate agent who specializes in architecturally significant houses, on hand to answer your questions about buying and owning mid-century architecture.
Question: When you first got into the business, not that many people appreciated the architecture of Lautner, Neutra, Schindler, Harwell Harris, but of course now their names are familiar to even casual architecture buffs. Which architects do you see becoming more appreciated down the road?
The U.S.C. School of Architecture graduated many relatively unknown architects who did good work in the Post and Beam style. Pioneers of the style like Conrad Buff, Don Hensman, Whitney Smith, Wayne Williams, Edward Killingsworth, and Ray Kappe all studied or taught at U.S.C., and are already well known today, but I think the whole body of work, and the architects who practiced in that style will continue to grow in importance and gain further recognition because the work was so appropriate, and sensitive to living well in the Southern California environment. In its pure form, this now classic thin-line constructed lightweight style has been outlawed for all practical purposes. Petty but all powerful bureaucrats and planners in government in the name of "safety", "energy conservation", earthquakes, fire, or you name it, have legislated a significantly more opaque and heavily massed architecture.
Question: We've been looking for a house and it seems like most of the ones on sale these days are flips or remodels. How do you make sure you're buying a sensitively-updated house? I mean, if someone sticks a turret on a midcentury home I know that's not right, but what are the telltale signs of good, thoughtful work? What are the red flags?
This is a great question. Too many people are being sold labels today rather than great architecture. One of the most difficult aspects of my career is to have watched many great houses remodeled to the point where they no longer maintain their original integrity. Nevertheless, they are still celebrated by much of the real estate industry as a "Neutra" or a "Wright", etc. This is not to say that even in the most important houses certain interventions can't be made. The key is that the work on any good house should reflect the time and spirit of the original architecture. The best work will not be noticed, and will not compete with the original design and materials. If you walk into a house built in the 60's, and it looks and feels like a new house out of Dwell Magazine, I would move on, or be prepared to spend a lot of money bringing back the timeless aspects of the architecture.
Question: What sorts of problems can crop up in a modern house that don't come up in other older houses?
I would not describe it as problem, but many of our classic modern houses were built with wide expanses of single pane glass to minimize indoor-outdoor distinctions. Glass is not a good insulator so one needs to anticipate that heating and cooling will be more than your average stucco box of the same square footage. This is not a big problem due to the Southern California climate, however, and one of my Neutra clients who had electric radiant heating in the ceiling decided he would rather wear a sweater than pay the heating bills. The houses built with just stained and oiled wood will need regular maintenance, and a flat roof will probably need replacement more often than a pitched roof.
Question: I tend to have expensive taste in architecture, but no where near the budget to match. Are there any pockets of LA you'd suggest I look for well-designed, well-built homes that are at least somewhat affordable?
Affordable is a relative concept. With today's extremely low interest rates under 4 percent many houses today are as affordable as they ever have been, even though the prices are trending up over the last couple of years. We are fortunate that important examples of modern architecture are scattered throughout the greater L.A. area. Last year a house by Pierre Koenig came on to the market in Tujunga for under $500,000. I would keep an eye out in the Valley, Mount Washington, Eagle Rock, and Glendale.
Question: You must have had the opportunity to buy a lot of amazing houses over the years. What made you decide to purchase the house you live in now?
In the late 1970's I was living in a steel and glass house in Laurel Canyon. It was a wonderful space, but like so many of the new loft spaces of today, the only interior doors opened into the coat closet, or the bath. Being in the real estate industry, the phone at home was ringing all the time, and there was little auditory privacy. Ultimately, my wife demanded we find a house where she could "slam the doors." We were truly blessed when my old broker Bob Crane called, and urged me to make a bid on a great house in Hollywoodland designed by the Pasadena architect Joseph Blick in 1927. We have been very happy to be in the house since 1980, and my wife now just shuts the doors quietly.
· Curbed University [Curbed LA]