LA’s modernist homes threatened by hot housing market and McMansions

The modernist homes Los Angeles are in danger of being replaced by McMansions and other big homes:

The Backus House still hovers on the same Bel Air hillside where Grossman built it. But because of the sprawling megamansions that have sprung up around the property, and because of the increasingly overheated state of the Southern California real estate market, Grossman’s elegant modernist creation—one of the few surviving examples of residential architecture by a groundbreaking woman now ranked among the finest designers of her era—may not survive much longer.

There’s an irony here. Starting in the 1920s, the combination of climate, terrain, and a young, progressive community of (largely European) architects and clients triggered an efflorescence of modern residential design in Los Angeles that culminated in the famous Case Study House Program (1945–66)—a series of experimental model homes sponsored by the local magazine Arts & Architecture and designed by some of the period’s greatest architects. The modern single-family dwelling may have been invented in Europe, at the Bauhaus and elsewhere, but many believe it was perfected in Southern California…

But a certain kind of modernist property—namely, a lesser-known house situated on a prime lot in an expensive neighborhood—is still at risk, and may be especially imperiled in Los Angeles’s current residential market, which has posted the nation’s largest increase in average sale price (20.7 percent) over the last year. “An economic downturn is always a good thing for preservation,” says Regina O’Brien, chairperson of the Modern Committee of the Los Angeles Conservancy. “A lot fewer developers are making a lot less money, and therefore they have a lot less motivation to pursue these profit-oriented flips. But the problem is that the opposite is true when the market picks back up.”…

“Most modernist homes are considered very modest by the standards of these neighborhoods, where people want far more house than they need,” says Nate Cole of Unique California Property, a Long Beach brokerage specializing in modernist architecture. “Buyers see anything that they deem a compromise, and out come the bulldozers.”

There are several issues at work:

1. It sounds like there are questions about individual property rights versus community-wide preservation efforts. Should property owners be able to cash in during a good housing market? This is a common issue across all sorts of communities debating teardowns and historic preservation.

2. These modernist homes are part of southern California’s image. Elsewhere, modernist homes might elicit more negative reactions but they are part of LA’s coming of age narrative. Part of the argument here is that the replacement homes don’t really add much to LA’s character.

3. Who exactly is supposed to pay to preserve these houses? As if often the case with preserving homes, supporters of the modernist homes are hoping for buyers who want to preserve and fix-up the homes. But, if those people don’t come, it is less clear what might be done.

4. The irony: a down real estate market is good for historic preservation. Not only might the old buildings survive, it might be easier for those interested in preservation to purchase the homes. But, who would wish for leaner economic times simply in order to preserve buildings? All of this suggests historic preservation might be partly about timing and having the opportunity to purchase property that might not be as marketable.

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