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Natural Habitat: Inside Job

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By Meg Sullivan, Photos by Daniel Chavkin

Published Jan 1, 2011 11:47 AM


UCLA architectural historian Thomas S. Hines lives his work — literally. Hines is an expert on the architecture of Richard Neutra, the king of mid-century modern design in Los Angeles. Much sought after and very pricey, it's almost unimaginable that any Neutra-designed gem would be available to rent. But at least one is: Hines' own apartment.

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Thomas Hines at home. Behind him hang studies by Neutra for the George Kraigher house, built in 1937 in Brownsville, Texas.

As one of the nation's foremost urban and architectural historians, Thomas S. Hines rarely encounters a locked door. Philip Johnson let him spend an afternoon alone in his iconic Glass House in New Canaan, Conn. Hines toured the Getty Center and Disney Hall so early in the process that he had to wear a hard hat. And he's broken bread with the late Ray Eames in her world-famous Case Study house in Pacific Palisades.

But when he comes home, it's to a 1,000-square-foot apartment not far from UCLA's Fraternity Row. By his own description, the abode is simple and spare. And most of its furnishings were purchased five decades ago at thrift stores in the Midwest. Still, Hines wouldn't have it any other way.

"In my work, I see and visit a lot of wonderful buildings, but I'm always happy to get back here," says the author and UCLA professor emeritus of history and architecture. "It feeds me."

That's because Hines' is no ordinary apartment. In an architectural historian's spin on a bus man's holiday, he rents a triplex designed by the architect with whom he is most closely associated: Richard Neutra. Considered one of modernism's greatest architects, Neutra is credited with helping to introduce the International Style to Los Angeles, which then became one of the world's most vibrant laboratories for modern architecture, especially modern residential architecture. Neutra's rigorously geometric but airy 1929 Lovell house in Los Angeles and 1946 Kaufmann House in Palm Springs are routinely named as among the nation's best-designed homes.

For 21 years, Hines has awakened in one of Neutra's favorite designs. He has eaten breakfast while seated in what was one of the modern master's favorite spots. From his living room, he has watched the sunset through beautifully proportioned waist-to-ceiling-high windows. He has feted guests on a balcony off the front living room. And when life has teetered on overwhelming, he has retreated to another balcony, off his study at the rear, nestled in a secluded spot above a wooded hill.

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On display in Hines' bedroom (from top to bottom): a hand-lettered invitation to Frank Lloyd Wright's third wedding; a 1924 job offer from Wright to Neutra; a flier promoting an architecture course taught by Neutra and fellow modernist Rudolph Schindler.

"I feel very privileged," he says.

Especially nowadays. Affordability was a hallmark of the Viennese émigré's approach. Where his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright usually outfitted his designs with custom hardware, windows and fixtures, Neutra preferred off-the-rack components. He wanted to bring good design to users of modest means, including small-cottage owners, public school children, residents of public housing and apartment dwellers.

But that was then; this is now. Thanks to America's renewed love affair with mid-century modern design, Neutra is rarely considered "design within reach." Today, celebrities vie for homes he originally designed for low- and middle-income families.

Yet even as the modern master's stock continues to soar, an enclave of modest Neutra rentals beckons just to the west of UCLA. Dating to the mid-1930s, these one- and two-bedroom units were some of the first buildings constructed on the west side of the campus. The earliest example, the 1937 Landfair apartments, now serves as UCLA student co-operative housing and, Hines believes, is one of Neutra's best designs.

Two years after joining UCLA as an assistant professor, Hines rented an apartment with his wife, Dorothy, in a 1937 Neutra complex on Strathmore Drive. The building's manager introduced the Hineses to Neutra and his wife, Dione. After the arrival of one child and with another on the way, the Hineses bought a more conventional house with a yard. In 1989, Hines returned as a single man to the neighborhood and has occupied the Kelton Avenue triplex ever since.

Still owned — and lovingly maintained — by Neutra's son Raymond, a Bay Area physician, it was originally built for Neutra's in-laws, a retired Swiss civil engineer and his wife. The architect took such care in designing the 1942 building that it turned out to be one of his favorite projects, Hines says, and was on the cover of a special Neutra issue of a prominent French architecture magazine in 1946.

Not that the two-story, flat-roofed structure draws undue attention to itself. From the street, the only hints that it is something special are bands of ribbon windows and an L-shaped lattice that rises above a pair of wood garage doors before spanning the driveway in a simple, but elegant, gateway. The building steps back in a series of flat roofs and balconies in sculptural masses that are definitely modernist, but not flamboyantly so.

The interior also is as subtle as a whisper. Smooth, white walls rise without a hint of color or texture and meet the ceiling without molding. The doors also lack molding as well as mullions and other adornments. Simple, recessed lights dissolve into the ceiling. What little trim encases the windows is painted a muted silver, a color Neutra believed to be less distracting than white.

"The point is to effect a space that would not have unnecessary interruptions to the eye and to the sense of moving psychologically from inside to outside," Hines says.

And so it does. Guests often comment that the place feels like a treehouse. The L-shaped band of windows that encircles Hines' living room looks onto eucalyptus, Victorian box, Chinese elm and other trees planted by Neutra, who was also trained in botany and horticulture.

Hines describes the overall effect as "a profound sense of serenity" — the most celebrated characteristic of Neutra's style.

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The L-shaped band of windows encircling Hines' living room recalls the open, airy feel of a treehouse.

He should know. Hines has organized three museum exhibitions of the architect's work, including a landmark 1982 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He also has written two books on Neutra, including the definitive history, Richard Neutra: And the Search for Modern Architecture (Oxford, 1982/ Rizzoli, 2005).

Neutra also figures prominently in Hines' latest effort: Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism, 1900-1970, published in 2010 by Rizzoli. The 765-page magnum opus traces the genealogy of modern architecture in Southern California from the Craftsman era through the generation of modernists that followed Neutra.

But if the Kelton Avenue apartment is a textbook definition of Neutra's approach to residential design, Hines' furnishings are less orthodox. Replete with early modern "antiques," architectural renderings, objets trouvés and touching mementos, the décor is a kind of physical manifestation of the family tree that the historian lays out in Architecture of the Sun.

Beside the front door sits a chair designed by the Viennese architect Otto Wagner for the 1904 Postal Savings Bank, a celebrated early modernist landmark in Vienna. Neutra much admired the building, Hines says.

Over the mantle hangs a blueprint for El Paso's Union Station by influential Chicago architect and planner Daniel H. Burnham, whom Neutra also admired and who was the subject of Hines' first book.

The living room and dining room are furnished with classic oak and leather pieces by Gustav Stickley and his brothers. Hines and his former wife picked up most of the Craftsman furniture at thrift stores as graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"It was not chic then," Hines explains.

Including a settle, a Morris chair and a stunning sideboard, the collection initially bewildered Neutra when he visited the Hineses' Strathmore apartment two months before his death in 1970.

"He kind of came around when I explained that this was the American version of the kind of early modernist furnishings that he first experienced in Vienna," Hines says.

In the dining room hangs a trio of Neutra's earliest existing drawings: a 1910 sketch of a dancing couple drawn when he was a student at Vienna's Technical Institute, a stylized drawing of a nasturtium drawn when he served as an artillery officer in World War I, and one of the first drawings that he made in America — a 1923 sketch of the Brooklyn Bridge.

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A lamp Neutra designed and built as a housewarming gift for his in-laws.

In the bedroom hangs a 1924 job offer from Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as a hand-lettered invitation to Wright's third wedding. Tucked in a cabinet is a topaz tie pin that once belonged to the game-changing Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, Wright's mentor, whom Neutra met as an admiring young architect. The executor of Sullivan's will saw that Neutra got the pin.

Most of these treasures were gifts from Neutra's widow, Dione, who often dined with Hines and his family after her husband's death. "I would see her coming up the driving with a Manila envelope under her arm, and I knew there was something good inside," Hines says.

Elsewhere in the apartment hang four studies for a house that Neutra designed in Brownsville, Texas, for a Pan Am pilot who gave Hines the drawings when he interviewed him for his book. After years of neglect, the restored George Kraigher house now serves as a conference center for the University of Texas at Brownsville.

Here and there beckon discoveries of less refined pedigrees, including a vintage three-dimensional wooden model apparently designed to teach carpenters how to frame houses. Indeed, with so many treasures in such a compact setting, Hines has had to establish a policy for deciding what to keep and what to let go.

"I try to live by William Morris' motto," says the historian-renter. "'Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.'"

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