Important houses designed by the likes of Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright are increasingly being sold in ways akin to fine art. Crosby Doe, a real estate agent specializing in architectural homes, discusses the market.
Iconic modernist houses designed by mid-century architects such as Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright are increasingly being treated – and sold – in the same manner as fine art. Crosby Doe, the Los Angeles-based uber-agent for architectural homes, discusses the market for residential masterpieces.
Even in these uncertain financial times, the market for architecturally important houses is thriving like never before. Last year’s sale of Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House – by auction at Christie’s New York – confirmed that residences designed by blue-chip architects are being treated more like fine art than generic real estate. For a certain style-conscious demographic, Lloyd Wright, Lautner and Neutra are the new Lichtenstein, Léger and Matisse.
California, with its plentiful stock of glass box homes and houses designed for indoor-outdoor living, is the epicentre of this niche market. But where to go if you are looking for an iconic mid-century house or a contemporary classic residence? Crosby Doe is the real estate agent to know. Far more than simply a power player in the Los Angeles-area property market, Doe is a local architecture expert bordering on historian.
From his Beverly Hills office, Doe deals in what he describes as homes with “design integrity” which range from Spanish-style villas to avant-garde contemporary estates. But it is his work with cult mid-century architects that has secured his position as one of the leading advisors on architectural houses. Doe sold his first Neutra residence in 1973 and is currently negotiating the sale of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Millard House, as well as Neutra’s Kaufmann House which made a surprise return to the market at the end of 2008.
Julius Shulman, the legendary architectural photographer and long-time friend of Doe, offered the ultimate accolade in an interview with the LA Times in 2006, “I think Crosby has a rather unique understanding of good architecture. The others are salespeople. They’re serious and good to their clients, but he’s a real specialist.”
As we take a tour of some of the most important houses that he has represented, Crosby Doe talks to us about the ability of good design to enhance our lives and the importance of preserving architectural history.
What is the current temperature of the market for architectural houses? What has been the effect of the interest in so-called “starchitects”?
The market for important architecture has really begun to move into a new level of valuation more akin to fine art in recent years. However, as with almost everything else since the financial debacle of last September, buyers as a generalization have been holding off. Now, when so many people are afraid to make a commitment, is the best time I have seen in years for someone to be able to negotiate an excellent buy on a property that will inevitability give back to the owner much more than they have ever invested. In terms of contemporary “starchitects”, even though they have produced an important body of new work, their work is not generally realizing the same premiums being obtained for the classics produced by Gropius, Neutra and Wright. Perhaps it is just like art in that sense…the importance of the work grows over generations.
You are currently handling the sale of Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann house, which was auctioned at Christie’s last year. Why is the house back on the market?
My understanding is that the auction hammer fell on the Kaufmann house with a total price of over $19 million including the extra orchard and buyer’s premium added on. This fell within the Christie’s estimate of $15 to $25 million. No one has disclosed to me precisely why the sale did not consummate. However, there are many technicalities to selling real property in California, and my guess is that perhaps the auction process is not really a proper vehicle for effectively moving a transaction through the complexities of a sale to a closing in California.
It is interesting that the Kaufmann house was sold at auction. What comparisons can be made between the market for architectural houses and the market for fine art?
The debate rages on as to whether architecture is art, and its ultimate value to an individual as well as society. Nevertheless, when we consider what the Whitney Museum of American Art identifies as key properties in the country, the value is clear not only in terms of their societal “iconic value”, but also their utility in an owner’s life enhancement. That’s also not to mention the prestige of owning an important piece of history. The recognized treasures of architecture that have maintained their historic integrity are vastly under-priced in relation to art of the same relative importance. Over the years I expect that this imbalance in monetary evaluations of art versus architecture will diminish.
Do buyers purchase architectural houses solely to live in them? Or do some buyers collect houses as they might collect art?
We really see both types of buyers. Although most of our buyers come to us looking for a property to live in, in recent years there has grown to be a number of very sophisticated investors who have not only had a passion for the built environment, but also have wanted to leave their mark on it by restoring important buildings that have suffered over the years. These buyers have recognized the glaring disparity in prices between, say, an Andy Warhol painting versus an internationally celebrated work of architecture and have decided that, rather than in the stock market or in art, this market is an excellent place to park some of their capital.
Which architects are most popular amongst buyers of this sort of architecture?
Modernist architects beginning with Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, John Lautner, and the Case Study House architects seem to be getting the most attention in the marketplace today, but there is still a growing appreciation for the architects in California’s Romantic Style such as Wallace Neff, Roland Coate, and Paul Williams, to name a few.
Who are the buyers of these houses?
The buyers of architecture today really transcend professional classification, but they all have a passion for design. Some like Leon Max and Tom Ford understand that design transcends not only their work but also their life. Pioneers in collecting like producer Joel Silver and actress Diane Keaton have inspired many in the appreciation of architecture within the film industry. We are seeing CEO’s of manufacturing companies, and heads of foundations taking a serious interest in architecture and, I would say from my perspective that art and design goes to the very fabric of their perceptions of self. It is reflected not only in the clothes and jewelry they wear, but also the cars they drive, the art they collect, and most importantly of all, the space they choose to live in.
The people who originally commissioned these houses came to the architects in the same way that haute couture clients approach fashion designers. To what extent were these clients avant-garde visionaries?
It is a custom that a residence designed by an architect is named after the individual that commissions the work. It is undisputed that many of these individuals were visionaries as you mention. A key example, of course, is the department store owner Edgar Kaufmann who with his commissions of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, and Neutra’s Desert House has left us with a legacy of living within nature which in both cases are unsurpassed even today more than a half a century later.
To what extent can buyers of architectural houses be described as “patrons of the arts”? How much importance is placed on restoration, supporting history, and giving back to the community?
Whether they think of it in those terms or not, buyers of architecture are patrons of the arts. In the past, many mistakes were made by owners who looked to put their personal stamp on an important work of architecture. This often damaged the timeless aspect of the property. Our buyers today recognize that it is important to find a piece that maintains, or can be restored to, its historic integrity. The historic integrity of a property is more important to the value of iconic architectural properties than ever. Who would ever think of repainting the sky in a Picasso because the colors in the sky did not suit them? The most sophisticated owners today are sharing their architecture with the public in discrete ways that not only enhance the general awareness of the importance of our architectural treasures but also increase the demand for good design in the lives of all who share the experience.
Are all of the houses as beautifully designed inside are they are externally? Is the work of some architects easier to live in?
In terms of what architecture really means to us relative to enhancing our lives, it is important to always think of the enclosed space, not only the external form that we see in the pictures, but the actual space as we live within it. Here I am continually reminded of Rudolph Schindler’s manifesto that: “Space is the true and sole medium of architecture.” In reality there are always some compromises one makes when living in a great work of architecture but, invariably, those compromises are overwhelmed by what the architecture gives back in terms of life enhancement.
Frank Lloyd Wright designed some of the world’s most iconic houses. How often do his houses come up for sale and what is the reaction from buyers?
With a body of work as large as Wright’s, there always seems to be a number of his houses for sale around the country. The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy (www.savewright.org) is a good source for checking out the national inventory. Wright’s most famous works rarely, if ever, come on the market and with the best being acquired by foundations as well as the current museum interest many of the most significant works will no longer exist within the private domain. The California body of work ranks at the top of Wright’s creative genius, and as such is garnering international attention. A number of Frank Lloyd Wright’s more simple Usonian houses have had more of a difficult time in finding buyers, often because of their less popular locations around the country.
Please tell us about the Millard House by Frank Lloyd Wright that you are currently selling?
I would really like your readers to check out our web site for the Millard House (www.millardhouse.com). The site really conveys why we are so excited to be representing this internationally important residence. For now, let me just leave you with Mr. Wright’s quote concerning the house: “I would rather have designed that little house than Saint Peter’s in Rome.” I think Wright knew that Michelangelo had designed Saint Peter’s Basilica, and wanted with the Millard house to place himself on that level. In terms of creativity in architecture I would be in full agreement with Wright.
Which are your all time favorite houses?
My grandparents lived right in front of the Millard House, and looking back I guess I could say that it was that house, and several houses by the architects Greene and Greene that had a profound influence on me, and led to my career. Still, I guess my all time personal favorite is the English House above Beverly Hills designed by a disciple of Wright’s who worked for Neutra. His name was Harwell Hamilton Harris. Next to that, you could count me in for Hearst Castle.
Do you live in an architectural house?
My house was built in the 1920s by a locally significant architect by the name of J.J. Blick. The importance of the man who commissioned the home, Frederick Burnham, comes into play here because he was an early military scout. He picked one of the best sites in all of Los Angeles for views, and made sure that each room was oriented to a spectacular long view.
Which are the best houses in the vicinity of the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Bel Air Hotel? Can any of these be glimpsed from the road or visited by appointment?
Unfortunately, most of the important architecture in Beverly Hills has been torn down, demolished, and replaced with what has come to be known as McMansions. I am often reminded of the Ivo Redlich House by Lloyd Wright (Frank Lloyd Wright’s son) on Arden in Beverly Hills. It was a little gem, and Mr. Redlich had kept it original from when it was built in the 1940s all the way up to the early 1980s. After he passed away we lost it. At the time it sold it was only $550,000. It would have been a priceless treasure to Beverly Hills today. If your readers are really interested in architecture, I would suggest that they purchase Gebhard and Winter’s Guide to Architecture in Los Angeles, and that they hop in a car venturing a little further out into the city.
What is your definition of luxury?
Luxury is a state of mind, not a thing.
If luxury were an object?
The Kaufmann Desert House, as it is today, is as good an example of responsible luxury as I could think of.
If luxury were a place?
If luxury were a person?
I cannot define a person in terms of luxury, only their tastes.
If luxury were a moment?
Here, now is the only time we have to experience what would be considered luxury.
Crosby Doe Associates
An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles by Robert Winter and David Gebhard
Buy online: http://www.amazon.com/Architectural-Guidebook-Los-Angeles/dp/1586853082/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1235485716&sr=1-1
The Millard House by Frank Lloyd Wright
More info: www.millardhouse.com
The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy
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