In a city with no shortage of noteworthy Midcentury Modern homes, Erik Amir and Dora Chi were surprised when they stumbled upon a listing for a little-known Los Angeles house by Richard Neutra.
The husband-and-wife architects were renting in Studio City while designing their dream home when they received an invitation to tour what the Realtor described as “a lost Neutra in very bad condition.”
The agent wasn’t exaggerating.
As architects, they couldn’t resist the opportunity to tour a project by one of Southern California’s first starchitects. But when they entered the 3,800-square-foot house in Sherman Oaks, they found it gutted and uninhabitable.
“We walked in and thought, ‘Wow, what a mess,’” Amir says of the three-bedroom residence on a private drive. “There was no electrical. No water. The only thing that was nice was a table with sketches by Neutra along with a piano belonging to the home’s original owner, Stephen Lord. That was it.”
According to Lord’s daughter Jennifer Pihlquist, 48, the sleek International Style home suffered extensive water damage after her mother, Joan, hired contractors in 2019 to improve the property.
“They did not finish the roof properly, and it didn’t hold up during a huge L.A. storm,” Pihlquist explains. “The rain demolished the interiors and ruined the integrity of the house.”
Less than six months later, Joan died unexpectedly in 2020, and her and Lord’s three daughters, who grew up in the home and lived out of state, reluctantly listed the house for sale “as is.”
Despite its damaged state, Neutra’s trademark geometry of glass and wooden beams, open interiors and an easy connection to the outdoors were apparent. “Neutra is all about orientation,” says Amir of the home’s north-facing walls of glass. “It’s a very comfortable home.”
Adds Chi: “The house has a seamless integration to nature. Standing in the living room, you feel like you’re outside, even though you are inside.”
The architects made an offer immediately, and it was accepted after they promised to restore the home to its original glory. According to public records, the couple paid $1.95 million for the house in October 2021. (They declined to say how much they spent on renovations.)
“Any other buyer or developer would have demolished the home,” Pihlquist says. “They told us, ‘We are going to restore it to the early Neutra glory and we’re going to move in and live in it with our boys.’ That is why we sold it to them.”
Pihlquist remembers growing up in a home filled with guests. “My parents loved to have people over and hosted parties four to five times a year,” she says. “Everyone used to call it the ‘Brady Bunch’ house.”
Ironically, Neutra, who was known for his interest in building simple homes, did not design the house as a family home.
In 1962, Lord, a prolific TV writer, commissioned Neutra to design a one-bedroom bachelor pad on a 26,500-square-foot bluff overlooking the San Fernando Valley. With a built-in bar in one corner and his baby grand piano in the other, the spare 2,600-square-foot house was the perfect place for the writer of “CHiPs,” “Fantasy Island” and “Johnny Ringo” to entertain his Hollywood friends.
Lord’s confirmed bachelor status wouldn’t last forever. In 1972, he met Joan Hurlow, a secretary on “Here’s Lucy,” at a Hollywood party, and six months later they were married.
Over the years, the couple had three daughters in quick succession and added two bedrooms and a closet in the master bedroom. “We shared one bedroom with three beds,” Pihlquist says, laughing. The carport was converted into a family room, and Lord moved to an office in the backyard where he wrote scripts instead of sitting at the sleek built-in desk that Neutra had designed overlooking the pool.
Touched by the family’s strong ties to the house, Chi and Amir developed a relationship with Lord’s daughters, who shared many stories about the house as well as the original collection of blueprints and photographs, including Neutra’s hand-sketched perspectives, elevations and plans.
The relationship between Lord, whom Pihlquist recalls as a “Sicilian Irish alpha male,” and Neutra didn’t appear to be amiable. “We understand that our father and Richard had differences of design aesthetic when it came to certain aspects of the original house,” she says. For example, when Lord repeatedly tripped on the floating hearth that was positioned in between the open living room and the dining room, he shortened it.
Chi and Amir, who are partners in the architecture firm Spatial Practice, brought their professional experience to the project during the renovation process, which started Nov. 21, 2021, and took 16 months.
Before the project began, they did extensive research on Neutra. “We went to the USC library and read a lot of material and dove into his world for a few months,” Chi says. “The main idea was to keep as much as possible.”
They restored the floating fireplace as designed by Neutra and they also toured several Neutra homes in Los Angeles, including the Chuey and Lew houses in the Hollywood Hills and Neutra’s personal residence, the VDL House in Silver Lake.
Amir compares the renovation process and updates in the Sherman Oaks home to “eliminating the noise and focusing on the views.” “It was about adding but opening up the space and reimagining what was there,” he says. “We would be living in a home designed by a master. We wanted to use the same logic and language of simplicity.”
The floors have been covered with white oak, the windows have been replaced with contemporary clear double-glazed Fleetwood windows, and the bathrooms and kitchen have all been updated in a minimal and timeless fashion. Outdoors, a new contemporary pavilion was added along with a guesthouse and a deck, which appears to float over the hillside.
“We wanted to created two abstract volumes yet each has its own identity,” Amir says.
Today, the home is furnished sparely with Midcentury Modern furnishings. Chi and Amir kept Lord’s baroque-style statues outdoors, and when Lord’s daughters bequeathed their father’s baby grand piano to them, they graciously accepted.
Just 11 years after Lord’s death, family gatherings continue in the home.
“Neutra’s design and orientation of the house creates a very hospitable place to host,” Amir says. “We host often with our family, friends and fellow architecture lovers.”
Ethan Amir, 8, says the house is a big change from the 700-square-foot apartment his family previously inhabited in Hong Kong. “There’s more space for games and for playing tag,” he says. “We have birthday parties here. It’s really cool to have a pool. My parents have good taste in things.”
Asked what it’s like to live in a home designed by another architect, Amir is philosophical. “Each day, we are reminded of how the basics of good spatial architecture is essential, from the way the house is oriented, the spatial planning, the scale and proportions of each space and the relationship to nature,” he says. “We often have conversations with clients where we explain that good architecture is about going back to the essence of architecture, and it is so clearly in this house.”
Last October, while she was visiting Los Angeles, Pihlquist, who lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C., asked the couple if she could stop by to see the house.
It was a bittersweet experience, she says, for all the right reasons.
“I didn’t cry when I saw the renovation because they kept the integrity of the pool, the front of the house and the backyard,” she says. “Erik sent me a picture of him and his sons playing on the floor, and it made me so happy. When I saw my father’s piano in the old family room — he was a jazz musician in New Orleans and music was his passion — I was so touched. I said a prayer when I walked into the backyard. What Erik and Dora did honored my parents. My mom and dad’s legacy lives on.”
This story originally appeared on LATimes