American Idyll

American Idyll

With the restoration of a neglected mid-century Neutra home in the West Covina hills came a renewed sense of history and a revived quality of life.

by Mark Morrison

Photo by Cameron Carothers

The first time Deborah Chumi Paul set eyes on Richard Neutra’s Roberts House in early 2014, it looked more like a drug den than a mid-century find. “There was garbage everywhere, needles everywhere. Copper had been pulled out, presumably to sell. It was a disaster,” says the architectural home restorer. To make matters worse, she continues, “the second owners had turned it into a Spanish home. It was very dark. All the natural pine and birch had been stained a dark brown and Mexican tile had been put on the floor. And everything had been clad in this distressed ash veneer from the seventies which looks cheap and hideous. It was very ugly.”

However, there was little denying that, despite the abuse and wear of time, the sprawling 2,500-square-foot, four-bedroom house in the hills above West Covina had all the elements of a classic Neutra. “The bones were incredible,” says Paul. “It was Neutra’s version of a ranch house with a ribbon of windows all around it so you could see right through the house from almost any angle. It had high ceilings that would rise and fall as you went through the house. And it was large and expansive and you could see Mt. Baldy—it was built on bedrock and had three-and-a-half acres, very private. So it had a lot of potential. But it had 70 years of decay just from the elements.”

At the time, Paul had recently restored Schindler’s Schlesinger House in Silver Lake and was looking for another project when her contractor, Eric Lamers, called to tell her the Roberts House had hit the market. “He said he was panicked because it was being advertised as a unique development opportunity. There were many interested buyers—some were developers, some were couples asking, ‘Can I cut down this oak tree and that oak tree?’ And, ‘How big a house can I build here?’ Eric was very worried because he thought it was a beautiful house and could see how majestic it used to be.”

Looking back, Lamers remembers attending an early open house there. “I was taking a lot of detail pictures like I always do at open houses, and I overheard a lot of talk—parties asking what they could do if the house was demolished, and what could they do if they cleared the site. The listing agent told them they had to contact the city for that information. But you get a read that the house may potentially have been removed.” So he and Paul decided to join forces and protect it, along with another mid-century modern aficionado, designer John-Mark Horton, who had previously restored his own architectural home, Schindler’s Goodwin House in Studio City. “People were looking at [the Roberts House] to tear it down and build several houses up on top of the hill there,” he says. “We began working on it to save it—that was the entire reason to do that.” “It was pretty trashed,” recalls Lamers. “Bedroom doors had dead bolts on them and some of them had been kicked in to break the latch out of the jam. There was an outbuilding that used to be a tack stable for a horse in the old days which had been converted into a room and that was pretty dismal. They had had horses through the years as well as chickens and other stuff.” “It was like a ramshackle homestead situation. So we did a lot of clearing of fences and brush,” adds Paul. “But we didn’t plant. We spent our money on the house itself.”

Happily, the Roberts House remained surrounded by magnificent California live oak trees and the vestiges of an avocado grove. Birds filled the air and, with its panoramic view of the San Gabriel Mountains, the property retained a sense of peace and privacy. “You never felt the influence of the outside world when you were on the site,” says the contractor. “You may drive down the 10 freeway or the 210 but when you came on the site that whole world disappeared.”

Lamers also appreciated that the house was unusually large and lavish, since it was originally built for an owner with fairly deep pockets (Roberts owned a successful metal-products business). “There is detailing that reminded me of some of [Neutra’s] Bel Air homes [such as the Brown House, currently owned by designer Tom Ford and restored by Marmol Radziner]. Maybe not as lavish. But it was built in the same period and has the same kind of Texas shellstone walls and fireplaces some of those houses had.”

Though the exterior of the house had not been significantly altered, the second owners had gutted the interior so there was only one remaining built-in that was original—and that had been covered in veneer (it was a year before they discovered the original wood underneath). In fact, most of what had to be done involved stripping surfaces. “We spent a good year just on wood repair,” says Paul.

First, they removed an obvious eyesore—the air conditioning ducting on the roof looked like a giant octopus that was consuming the house. “It was very sad,” she recalls. When they removed the unit, they found holes had been punched through the ceiling for the ducting. “So Eric and two other carpenters got up on the roof for a year and were pulling ceiling board off and sanding the dark stain off and repairing the holes and putting each one back. The roof was bigger than the house so about 4,000 square feet of ceiling work had to be repaired. There was water damage to the eaves and exterior spider legs, which we replaced minimally, repairing as much as we could. We replaced maybe 15 percent of the ceiling boards; new ones had to be custom milled.”

Though most of the wood paneling was intact, paint-grade birch wood was used to replace cabinet doors. “We salvaged as much as possible of the spider legs and used a wood filler to repair damaged wood,” says Horton. “We replaced some beams in the garage because they were in terrible shape. We replaced the doors on the sliders which had been replaced by Spanish-style doors. But beyond that, it’s original—the ceilings are all original, though we had to do some repair and replacement.” [They replastered the living room ceiling with real plaster, not drywall.]

Removing the Mexican pavers, they sunk the ducting for central heat and air conditioning into the slab floor beneath. “The original brick-colored concrete floors were so beautiful,” says Paul. “But they were in such bad shape since they’d been tiled over. It really hurt not to be able to restore them. But that didn’t make sense since the radiant floor heating that had been in there was broken.” After weighing options, they decided to cut costs by drilling into the slab, burying the ducting, and covering the floor with cork, since it would provide warmth underfoot and it was also true to mid-century design. And, by drilling into the concrete, they were pleased to discover the house was built on bedrock “which is great,” says Paul. “The house is not going anywhere and there are no potential water problems.”

Though they had no visual images of the original interiors to help guide them on design details (Julius Shulman had photographed the exterior but not the inside), they did have Neutra’s specifications book for reference. Plus, Paul and Horton made a trip to UCLA to consult the Roberts file in Neutra’s archives. They also discussed options with Eric, who consulted detailing books he has from other houses, often yielding to his expertise and understanding about what Neutra might have done.

While two of the pastel-colored bathrooms were intact, they had to retile the yellow counter and shower in the third with matching square tile they found at B & W Tile Company. Original Crane hardware was gone so they replaced it with vintage hardware. Missing toilets were replaced with vintage Crane commodes. And the original terrazzo floors in the bathrooms were cleaned and polished. Only one of the original copper-colored Schlage “Plymouth” doorknobs from 1955 remained throughout the house, so Paul combed eBay and salvage yards to find and install over a dozen sets.

In the open kitchen, old Formica counters were replaced with a clean white laminate. And new top-of-the-line GE Monogram appliances were added (they decided that’s what Neutra would be using today). For practical purposes, they moved the induction cooktop to the kitchen island. And for aesthetic purposes, they moved the curiously-placed refrigerator to the other end of the island so it didn’t block the mountain view. This change not only opened up the space but provided more usable countertop for serving.

For the kitchen and dining rooms, Paul found two vintage cone fixtures on eBay that came from a church in the Midwest. “I don’t know what used to be there,” she says. “Sometimes you just have to [trust your instincts].” But they did know that the impressive back-to-back fireplaces nearby were an important feature of the house, so they repaired the existing gas lines and cleaned up the intact Texas shellstone chimney walls. They also restored the adjacent stainless steel firewood boxes which had been randomly removed. As for the walls of glass, all the original sliding aluminum windows were there and a water element outside the master—a pond that was perhaps not original to Neutra—was fixed.

Though a lot of cabinetry had been removed from the bedrooms, they were forced to draw the line on what they could and couldn’t restore due to budget constraints. Which is one of the factors that dictates decision-making on any home-improvement project, but can be especially perplexing, even heartbreaking when doing restoration work. “[Restoration] can be an endless thing,” says Lamers. “There was a lot of casework and interior details we never got to put back in. But that was something that subsequent owners can always put back on their own.”

In the end, the sellers and the contractors were happy with their work when the home was finished in 2016 and put on the market—where it was met with a flurry of interest and nearly a dozen offers. “It was nice to see people’s reactions who had never seen the house,” says Lamers. “It’s a very graceful house and very transparent in a way that some of Neutra’s other houses aren’t. There’s so much glass, it has a lightness to it. It [also] looks crustacean-like—it has all those spider legs and the ridge beam is like the spine. If you stand at the right angle, you can almost see that kind of structure some of the other Neutra houses don’t quite have.”

Having completed eight or nine large-scale modernist restorations like this one, Lamers says, “They’re all hard. The nice thing about this house is that it was very well made originally and laid out very accurately. So in that sense, things were easier to figure out and there wasn’t too much of an idiosyncratic nature. The thing that made it difficult was the scale. After awhile, it felt like processing the roof boards was endless. You’d get up there and say, ‘This is like three or four tennis courts.’ The roof extended so far beyond the living space with the carport and the lanai—and the overhangs extend six to eight feet beyond the walls. It’s a significant roof area. But it shades the house nicely and has a lot of character to it.”

So was it worth all the time and money in the end? Horton and Paul agree: Absolutely. “I’ve seen so many basic mid-century buildings that are really lovely that are dipped into white paint—they’re homogenized, modernized and poorly done,” says Horton. “There’s no acknowledgement of the original. They’ve decided, ‘Let’s make this as clean as possible to appeal to as many people as possible to get the price up.’ I would argue that if they really paid attention and maintained some of the integrity of the building as it was originally designed, they would get better money.”

Says Lamers, “So many of these houses have suffered injustices over the decades. [Yet] they’re houses that are exceedingly beautiful and thought out. You could never replicate this house exactly just because building codes wouldn’t allow you to do it—whether it’s because of energy or safety or engineering. They’re important pieces to save just for the vocabulary and architectural history and evolution of the city and building.” Or as Paul puts it, “Architecture is art. And it’s history. When we destroy architecturally significant homes it’s like erasing part of our history.”

Compare listings