Architecturally Prized Homes Gain Popularity

Like most real estate, it's all about appreciation.

But for Noam Murro, living in R.M. Schindler's Roth House in Studio City isn't about doubling or tripling his money, it's also about art.

"It is a fantastic investment, because they are going to keep building those horrible boxes over and over again," said the Israeli-born commercial director. "What is better spent money than a piece of art that you can live in? This is a magical treehouse. To actually move from here would be a very tough thing."

Murro and his family moved into the 1,750-square-foot house on Buena Park Drive two years ago, and though he believes that with the burgeoning popularity of the architect's work he could sell the boxy white house with the curved porch for twice what he paid, he's staying put. "Once you live in architectural, you can't really do anything else," he said. "It is away of life. You go away from quantity and toward quality."

So it is with the glamour houses of the moment, those mid-century moderns that have recently returned to favor.

While New York boasts its brownstones and San Francisco prides its painted ladies, home buying Angelenos are embracing a style all their own: the mid-century modern.

And those looking to sell these gems are reaping the benefits.

Recent events such as the 3 1/2-month Schindler exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the release of the massive 360-page "Neutra Complete Works," (Taschen Books) have helped raise the level of exposure, and ultimately, the value of these once-overlooked homes.

The focus is largely on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright disciples like Schindler, Richard Neutra and John Lautner.

"Mid-century modern is very hot right now," said Jan Eric Horn, founder and Executive Director of Coldwell Banker's Architectural Division.

The attention generated for these homes has not only helped drive up prices, it's helped boost foot traffic for agents like Horn and others who specialize in the market.

Popularity drives pricing

The premium placed on architecturally significant homes depends on the architect's popularity, the home's location and the condition of the property, according to Crosby Doe, whose firm Mossler, Deasy & Doe Realtors specializes in what he terms as "homes of exceptional integrity."

Doe hesitated to set a premium price on one of his firm's 30 listings, relative to a house of comparable size in the same neighborhood. But, he offered, "Some will say 15 to 20 percent on a Neutra, but some (of Neutra's work) will have brought 50 to 100 percent."

Horn, whose division currently lists about 100 homes throughout Los Angeles County, gave a premium range of 15 to 40 percent for architecturally recognized work, compared to as little as 5 percent 15 years ago. About half of his division's clients are looking specifically for contemporary work.

It's no accident that many of the mid-century moderns are concentrated in Silver Lake, Studio City and the Hollywood Hills. The relative affordability of land in these properties east of Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Brentwood, particularly in the '30s and '40s, attracted the up-and-coming.

The views helped. "The views were part of the design process," said Doe. "The horizontal focus of the work stretches out to the view."

Though Low contends that buyers of Silver Lake-area modernist homes run the gamut, Doe said most of his clients are in the entertainment industry. "Film and TV directors, people who are visually oriented," is how Doe classifies his clientele.

Richard Guy Wilson, chair of Architectural History at University of Virginia who was raised in a Schindler-designed house in Los Angeles, said homes with architectural significance began to show substantial appreciation in the early 1980s.

By then, the work of Southern California-based contemporary architects Frank O. Gehry and Richard Meier was garnering both local and national attention. This caused home buyers and architectural buffs alike to reevaluate the work of both current architects and past masters like Neutra and Schindler.

Sacrificing contemporary features

Buyers continue to trade amenities and personal preferences for architectural pedigree. "It constantly impresses me what people will do to live in an artwork," said Wilson.

"Oftentimes, the bedrooms were really considered sleeping compartments," said Doe, adding that architects "sacrificed the size for living space." Buyers also often have to contend with lack of air conditioning and all-electric, no gas kitchens.

Bob Weatherford, Estates Director at DBL, believes that, above status and cache, the ultimate draw to these houses lie in the quality of the work. "People really love the lines in these houses," said Weatherford. "These architects didn't become famous by accident."

Horn and Wilson single out Frank Lloyd Wright and Schindler, respectively, as architects whose work falls in a different price range from other top names such as Neutra, Lautner, Wright and Paul Williams.

Horn estimated that Frank Lloyd Wright's work will fetch two to five times the price of a comparable house. And Wilson pointed out that Schindler's was often on a smaller scale than the work of the others. "Schindler never had clients with big checkbooks," said Wilson. "He couldn't go hog wild like Neutra and Wright."

Doe says that premiums for these architects' work are still restricted by mortgage lenders' unwillingness to factor in architectural pedigree into these homes' appraisals. He cites Neutra's Flavin House in Silver Lake, which is currently on the market for $849,000.

"Three months ago, we had a buyer for $860,000," said Doe. "But she got scared off because the bank appraised the property in the 600,000's."

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