Fred A. Bernstein

That Tear-Down Could Become a Haul-Away

Saving modernist houses

Published in The New York Times, January 5, 2006

IF housing prices in your neighborhood are too high, how about something for a dollar?

When Kingman Ho, a physician, bought a 1,000-square-foot 1960's house in Seattle's Mount Baker neighborhood in May, the sellers figured he would tear it down. But Dr. Ho was so intrigued by some of the house's quirky features, like a child's playpen that converts to a grown-up's conversation pit, that he devised a way to try to save it.

Dr. Ho is offering the house for $1 to anyone who is willing to remove it by February. The new owner would be expected to reconstruct the house on another site.

Just a few years ago the same house might have been torn down without a second thought. But today owners who admire midcentury architecture, or those who want to avoid confrontations with preservationists who do, are finding ways to save the buildings.

Earlier this year John Gusto, a retiree, gave his 1939 house by Richard Neutra in Los Altos, Calif., to that city after nobody else would take it. In Florida, a house by Paul Rudolph was offered with a $50,000 bonus to anyone who would move it. In Quantico, Va., the Marine Corps, as part of a redevelopment of its base, is offering a group of metal Lustron houses from the 1940's for the cost of transporting them.

At a time when furniture by prominent 20th-century designers is selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, these houses appear to be bargains. But even not-so-old houses come with problems. Moving a house can be costly, because any structure wider than a flatbed truck has to be cut into pieces before it can be transported. And midcentury houses are often tiny by today's standards. Dr. Ho, who is married with two children, said the house was just not big enough for his family.

"If I were younger, and single, I might have decided to live in it," Dr. Ho said. Mr. Gusto called his 940-square-foot Neutra house "a great bachelor pad."

To be sure, historic houses that stood in the way of development have been offered free for years. Ads for these giveaways often appear in Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But they are usually antiques.

What happened to Mr. Gusto's house illustrates a new-found appreciation for 20th-century buildings. His was one of three Neutra houses in Los Altos built in a former orchard; one was torn down in the 1980's and another was altered beyond recognition. City officials did not protest on those occasions, said Miltiades Mandros, an expert on Neutra architecture based in Oakland, Calif.

But six years ago, when Mr. Gusto wanted to enlarge his house, the town said no. And when he tried to sell it, officials insisted it be preserved. Finally, after Mr. Gusto failed to find a taker for his house, the city decided to spend its own money to preserve the Neutra building, which will become a meeting and architecture exhibition space.

The Lustron houses in Quantico are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Marines required the developer of the new housing, Clark Realty, to find a way to save the buildings, which form a surreal neighborhood of candy-colored structures amid the base's red-brick barracks.

At the Web site, the 1,000-square-foot houses are offered free, provided they are gone by May. Christine Madrid French, a preservationist in Charlottesville, Va., said she was optimistic that the houses would find new owners. "Unlike so many of the modernist buildings I try to save," Ms. Madrid said, "these buildings are actually cute."

Still, not all modernist houses can be saved as giveaways.

Last year preservationists in Sarasota, Fla., sought a reprieve for Paul Rudolph's Coward residence, a collection of tentlike structures built around a grove of oak trees. But on its flier the Sarasota County History Center estimated that moving and reassembling the 1951 house, garage and other buildings would cost more than $400,000. The center's candor apparently discouraged buyers.

Even with the owner offering to kick in $50,000, nobody came forward, and the house was razed early last year.

The future of the Neutra house is more secure. "What had all the original earmarks of architectural disaster has turned into a success story," Mr. Mandros wrote in an e-mail, noting that by the end of November the Neutra house was situated in its new home at the Los Altos Civic Center.