A box condo on the beach in Santa Monica with an earthquake crack that ran diagonally across the floor.
A gated two-story stucco palace in the heart of Rampart that looked like a giant pink aquarium castle, where the Polynesian ex-showgirl landlord spent her disability checks on limos every night out to the casinos in Gardena.
A Craftsman cottage up in Laurel Canyon, only 600 yards off the Sunset Strip, where it was so quiet at night that any sound at all was met by a furtive panic that the Manson family had returned.
For the last too many years, I’ve been in one of those endless ’60s-era tract apartments on what might kindly be referred to as the Beachwood Flats. “Below the gates” — the stone arches of Mack Sennett’s original Hollywoodland real estate development, for which the Hollywood sign was a mere billboard, and which served as our own private class division — it was the kind of place where, had the Black Dahlia lived, she might have drunk away the last fading years of her pathetic existence.
Such is the writer’s life.
Which is why it surprises no one more than me that, for a confluence of reasons I still can’t quite successfully diagram on paper, I recently had the opportunity to move to a Neutra apartment. And not just any Neutra apartment, but one of three built by Dion Neutra to append the Reunion House, Richard Neutra’s consensus masterpiece on the shores of the Silver Lake reservoir.
Richard Neutra is arguably the definitive purveyor of regional architecture in Southern California. When he arrived in 1923, it was an environment where sudden and emphatic money gave rise to the instant realization of lifelong dreams. This paradigm is best set down in Nathanael West’s DayoftheLocust— where “only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon[s],” where “plaster and paper know no law, not even that of gravity” and where the “houses were comic” but one “didn’t laugh. Their desire to startle was so eager and so guileless.” Figures like Neutra, his one-time friend Rudolf Schindler and Frank Lloyd Wright offered a stabilizing influence on this fecund aesthetic, even as their high ceilings, open spaces and abundant natural light maximized the area’s bounteous natural resources.
The Reunion House anchors a complex of four houses, just off Silver Lake Boulevard, which in the early ’90s inspired the city to rechristen the cul-de-sac on which they’re located Neutra Place. The home was commissioned in 1950 by a Chicago builder named Arthur Johnson looking to construct a spec house from a pedigreed design. He initially approached Frank Lloyd Wright in Spring Green, Wisconsin, who told him he didn’t supervise buildings in the winter. Neutra, then in his late 50s, accepted the commission, autobiographically envisioning it as a home for a retirement-age couple with a bedroom suite at one end and guest rooms for visiting children at the other — hence the name.
“These were to be far enough from the oldsters so they wouldn’t bother them,” says Dion Neutra, Richard Neutra’s son and business partner, who presided over the inspection process his first year out of USC architecture school, and ultimately returned to occupy the house for the last 40 years. In 1963, when a fire destroyed the nearby Research House, the family home since 1932, a realtor noticed that the Reunion House was back on the market. Richard Neutra lived there for two years and then sold it to Dion, just then entering his second marriage. (Richard Neutra died in 1970.)
“I was married for 24 years,” says Dion. “We would have split much earlier except for this house.” After a protracted War of the Roses, they reached what Dion terms an “inordinate cash settlement.” Looking to add a cantilevered pool to the odd-shaped lot on his doctor’s advice, he chose to maximize the space with two — later three — rental units (currently the subject of a zoning dispute with the city). My apartment is the bottom half of a duplex built literally up in the trees — the complex is formally named “Treetops.” A stairwell to the apartment above is built around a eucalyptus tree, and the foundation spans its roots. Sliding glass doors lead to a small deck that provides a view of the lake — due west, if you duck and squint — and the San Gabriel Mountains to the north. Terraced steps lead down to the pool and Jacuzzi. My favorite feature is a bank of light switches to the left of the push-button fireplace — the first marked “Deck Light” and the second “Pine Tree.” Further investigation reveals a 40-foot pine tree just off the deck with footlights nestled at the base for instant dramatic effect. At night, an enormous pack of wild coyotes jump the fence of the reservoir, which functions as a nature preserve for them, to run riot through the quiet streets — I often spot a flash of silver under the occasional streetlight and hear an otherworldly thrum of high-pitched whelps, pitched like feral tenors between the frogs and crickets.
“It’s a very odd and exclusive experience,” says actress Ann Magnuson, owner of another Neutra property. (Her husband restores Neutra houses professionally.) “On the one hand, living in a Neutra house is a privilege — you’re surrounded by this beautiful, idealized setting; your environment is a constant source of beauty and wonder. But in another way, depending on how much of a design Nazi you are, it can be like a prison. If you aren’t careful, you can fall into the trap of thinking you need to have the ‘right’ lamps, the ‘right’ furniture, etc. Which can create an anxiety that conflicts with the original vision. You have to fight for your freedom to live comfortably and not in fear of some interior designer tsk-tsking your choice of carpet color. Fortunately, the style is so minimal, which dovetails nicely into my aversion to shopping.”
In fact, the floor-to-ceiling windows aside, there is a certain glass-house quality to life there. It seems not a week goes by that I don’t see some driven enthusiast, flush with the evangelism of style over fashion, standing on the street below, guidebook in hand, trying to gauge the actual layout against the accretion of detail in their permanent memory. I’ve spoken to many of these people — fans and acolytes — and on occasion I invite them inside. They come from every corner of the globe: Tokyo; Seoul; Amsterdam; Lillehammer, Norway. Often they speak only the most rudimentary English. But they consistently exhibit awe in the presence of what they feel is greatness, or at least the rarefied heights of accomplished beauty.