Popular Mid-Century Modern Homes Are Fetching Top Dollar

21 January 2018

Popular Mid-Century Modern Homes Are Fetching Top Dollar

The Wall Street Journal

21 January 2018

Though they can be a challenge to live in, buyers are paying premium prices for a slice of history.

Architect Reja Bakh specializes in international mega projects, such as the cultural center and hotel complex he is designing in Beijing. But the project that has captured his imagination involves a tiny glass and stucco house in New Canaan, Conn., built in 1953. Known as the Alice Ball House, the home was designed by Philip Johnson—an icon of Midcentury Modern architecture.

“I looked at the house and said, ‘I must have this,’ ” said Mr. Bakh, 49 years old, who paid $2.3 million for the 1,500-square-foot rectilinear house in 2015. “We’re not building onto or doing anything to the original house—it would be like buying the Mona Lisa and taking a magic marker to it.”

Midcentury Modern architecture—a catch-all term that encompasses a wide range of styles, from Bauhaus-inspired glass houses to the California ranch home—has gained cultish popularity in recent decades.

For devotees, the classic Atomic Age house—picture a compact geometric design, an open-plan living space and a lot of glass—is as much an art object as a place to call home. But with their modest square footage, outdated kitchens and often idiosyncratic layout, classic Midcentury Modern homes can be a challenge to actually live in. Homeowners face a dilemma: How to modernize a modernist house without diluting its distinctive features? And where are they going to put all their stuff?

“It’s a more reserved, more streamlined way to live. It’s great for someone who is very neat, very organized,” said Hilary Lewis, chief curator of the Glass House—Philip Johnson’s former home in New Canaan—which opened as a museum in 2007. “A lot of people find it a little too restrictive; they want to have nooks and crannies in their home where they can pile up stuff.”

Mr. Bakh, who lives in New York City with his wife and their twin infant sons, has no plans to live in the Ball House. Instead, he is designing a contemporary glass house nearly 10 times its size at an estimated cost of $3 million, which will be tucked behind it on the woodsy 2.2-acre site. The Ball House, which the family uses as a weekend retreat for now, ultimately will become their art gallery.

The Alice Ball House in New Canaan, Conn., designed by Philip Johnson and now owned by Reja Bakh and his family, has a floating fireplace.
The Alice Ball House in New Canaan, Conn., designed by Philip Johnson and now owned by Reja Bakh and his family, has a floating fireplace. PHOTO: JULIE BIDWELL FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Architect Reja Bakh and renderings of the home he is planning to build for his family on the property of the Alice Ball House. He intends to preserve the Ball House as a gallery.
Architect Reja Bakh and renderings of the home he is planning to build for his family on the property of the Alice Ball House. He intends to preserve the Ball House as a gallery. PHOTO: JULIE BIDWELL FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Architectural connoisseurs such as Mr. Bakh have been drawn in increasing numbers to New Canaan—a wealthy suburb distinguished by its trove of modernist houses designed by a group of Bauhaus-inspired architects dubbed the Harvard Five, who settled there in the 1940s and ’50s.

 “In the 1980s, you couldn’t give them away. There would be regular families living in these houses,” said John Hersam, a real-estate broker with William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty in New Canaan, noting that dozens of the midcentury homes were torn down in the ’80s and early ’90s to make way for new construction. “The ownership has really changed. It’s really more a luxury market.”

Mr. Hersam and his colleague Inger Stringfellow are the listing agents for Mr. Johnson’s Wiley House. Built in 1952, it features a cantilevered glass cube with a double-height central living area, set atop a fieldstone base with four small bedrooms. The house, which last sold in 1994 for $990,000, is on the market for $12 million.

“It’s a really significant, internationally known property,” Ms. Stringfellow said.

Nationwide, the West Coast has the largest inventory of Midcentury Modern homes, according to data compiled by Realtor.com. (News Corp, owner of The Wall Street Journal, also owns Realtor.com.)

Listings of homes for sale that mentioned Midcentury Modern as a selling point were most prevalent in California, Washington and Oregon in 2017, and they were priced at a premium. In Seattle, for example, Midcentury Modern houses were 44% more expensive than comparable homes.

The Neutra home’s glass walls blur the line between indoor and outdoor spaces.
The Neutra home’s glass walls blur the line between indoor and outdoor spaces. PHOTO: JOE SCHMELZER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“It’s become so trendy in L.A., a lot of art-world people want Midcentury Modern,” said Barry Sloane, who heads a department specializing in architecturally significant properties for Sotheby’s International Realty in Beverly Hills.

Nevertheless, an undiluted modernist aesthetic poses certain challenges in the current luxury market, as Mr. Sloane discovered when he was the listing agent for a house designed by Richard Neutra, a leading modernist.

“One of the biggest problems was the kitchen. Neutra was never very strong on kitchens. It had linoleum counters, very basic,” Mr. Sloane said. “No one wanted to be the philistine that would come along and rip that out.”

Lari Pittman and Roy Dowell bought the 1,382-square-foot home in 1998 for $470,000.
Lari Pittman and Roy Dowell bought the 1,382-square-foot home in 1998 for $470,000. PHOTO: JOE SCHMELZER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Artists Lari Pittman and Roy Dowell own a 1953 glass house that Mr. Neutra designed for his secretary Dorothy Serulnic on a 5.5-acre hillside property in La Crescenta, Calif. The 1,382-square-foot house, which the couple bought from Ms. Serulnic in 1998 for $470,000, features many distinctive Neutra elements, such as mitered glass walls that dissolve boundaries between indoor space and the landscape, and inventive built-in furniture.

“It’s the type of house that requires you to be conscientious about how you physically deal with it,” said Mr. Pittman, a painter and professor at UCLA, noting Mr. Neutra’s use of “humble materials” such as birch plywood and Formica.

Physician and homeowner Carol Harracksingh takes WSJ on a tour of her stunning Midcentury Modern glass home, designed by renowned architect Toshiko Mori. Photo: Cory Hill for The Wall Street Journal.

Rather than remodel or upgrade the Neutra after living in it for more than a decade, the couple built a second house on the property—a seven-sided contemporary with an interior courtyard designed by Michael Maltzan —for $2.5 million in 2009. “We quickly realized that to preserve the house and honor the house it would be best to move out of it,” said Mr. Pittman, who now uses the Neutra as a guesthouse.

The couple, who want to be closer to their L.A. studios, have listed the compound with its two homes for $4.5 million. Due to their efforts, the Neutra was designated a historic-cultural monument in 2006, safeguarding it against developers who might want to tear it down and preventing future owners from significantly altering its exterior.

“The house is set up for a person who is inclined to a certain connoisseurship of architecture,” Mr. Pittman said. “If you want a screening room and six bedrooms, you shouldn’t buy a Neutra.”

Matt Leaver and Krysta Lin spent four years restoring their 1953 Cliff May ranch house in Long Beach, Calif., which they bought in 2007 for $645,000. A developer, Mr. May widely is credited with inventing the ranch house, a single-story home that mixes elements of the Spanish hacienda and the western ranch with modernist floor-to-ceiling glass.

“It’s pretty ideal in terms of indoor-outdoor living, which is nice for California,” said Ms. Lin, a 40-year-old mother of two who designs children’s clothing for her own label, Youth Independent Party.

The family’s 1,421-square-foot “Californian” is part of Mr. May’s Lakewood Rancho Estates development of about 700 tract homes, built 1953-54. Many of the home’s hallmark features were intact, from its Douglas fir post-and-beams and redwood siding, to the mistlite panels of obscure glass used throughout as room dividers.

“A lot of those homes underwent some pretty bad additions with second stories being put on,” said Nate Cole, a real-estate broker whose Unique California Property firm specializes in homes by modernist architects.

The couple replaced a wall in the kitchen with an island.
The couple replaced a wall in the kitchen with an island. PHOTO: JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

He recently sold a sleekly renovated Californian in Rancho Estates for $920,000. “One block away,” outside the May development, “a similar sized house would be probably $675,000 to $725,000,” he said.

Consulting old magazines, sales brochures and photographs, Mr. Leaver, a 44-year-old graphic designer, had doors and windows fabricated to match the originals, stripped decades of paint from the birch woodwork, and replaced the shingle roof with a period-correct rock roof.

In one concession to the 21st century, the couple opened up the narrow galley kitchen, removing a pony wall that divided it from the living room and replacing it with a large island. “Women are not behind the kitchen wall anymore,” Ms. Lin said.

But living with all that glass, transparency and openness means that the couple is engaged in a constant battle with clutter. As Christmas approached, Ms. Lin told her daughter to expect just one gift from Santa.

“It was a watch,” she said.

Appeared in the January 19, 2018, print edition as ‘The Midcentury Modern Cult.’