Celebrate a phoenix from a house in Los Angeles


When Joyce Poulson was awakened by her fire alarm in the early morning hours of November 12, 2018, she saw no flames or the smell of smoke. She went upstairs to her butterfly-roofed house in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood to try to turn off the alarm and, failing that, called the alarm company.

“While I was on the phone, a tornado of fire came up the stairs,” she said. “I had to run alongside to get to the door. I don’t know how my nightgown didn’t catch on fire.

By sunrise, it was clear that his 1,640-square-foot wood-frame house had burned down to the posts from stray embers that had been trapped, invisible, between the chimney and the wall. His insurance company would soon classify the historically significant building as a total loss.

The house ripped open after the fire, triggered by a hidden fireplace embers. His resurrection required archival research and forensic reconstruction of the plans, as the original plans for the house were lost in the fire.

(Tessa Watson / Escher Gune Wardena Architecture)

Today, the 69-year-old home, originally designed by Gregory Ain, Joseph Johnson, and Alfred Day for artist and early childhood educator Marjorie M. Greene, looks as fresh as it did in 1952. It has been painstakingly restored by Escher GuneWardena Architecture, through archival research, preservation of the remaining structure, and forensic reconstruction of the plans, as even the original plans, stored in a closet on the lower level, were reduced to ashes.

A week or two after the fire, Poulson, 78, contacted company partners Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena, at the suggestion of a neighbor who knew GuneWardena from studying abroad, and told them asked to rebuild it.

She couldn’t have chosen more enthusiastic and experienced architects. The 25-year-old company had also worked on the conservation of the Eames House and the restoration and remodeling of John Lautner’s Chemosphere House. Although less known than Lautner or Charles and Ray Eames, Gregory Ain (1908-1988), one of the main designers of the house, was an integral part of the modernist movement in Los Angeles and the search for American architects for low products. -cost, innovative and flexible. housing for the masses.

His Mar Vista Tract, also designed with Johnson and Day and completed in 1948, was designated Los Angeles’ first Modernist Historic District in 2003. It showed how even identical houses, their plans mirrored or turned and oriented towards a lush common green space , could create a district of variety and charm.

The 69-year-old home designed by Gregory Ain sits on a hillside overlooking Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood.

The 69-year-old home designed by Gregory Ain is built on a hillside overlooking Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood. Having retraced its history, it is now registered as a “brother” of a 1950 Ain exhibition house designed to serve as an example of a ready-for-subdivision house with high-quality modern design.

(Janna Ireland)

Ain’s company followed that with Community Homes, a racially integrated cooperative designed for 280 families, including those of landscape architect Garrett Eckbo (a frequent friend and collaborator) and singer and actress Lena Horne, but did could not obtain government funding. Ain and Eckbo, both socialists, decided to let the project die rather than undertake it as a suburb reserved for whites. The California Senate’s Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities would later declare Ain “among the committee’s most notorious critics.”

Poulson, a retired software vendor, embarked on a love affair with modern architecture long before 1988, when she purchased the Greene House, of which she was only the third owner. In the early 1960s, she rented one of the apartments behind architect Richard Neutra’s studio. (Ain worked for Neutra in the 1930s.) In the 1980s, she lived in the guesthouse of the Neutra VDL House, where she attended classical music concerts featuring the widow of the architect, musician Dione Neutra.

Joyce Poulson, in the restored living room, was already a fan of modern architecture before purchasing the house in 1988.

Joyce Poulson, in the restored living room, was already a fan of modern architecture before purchasing the house in 1988.

(Janna Ireland)

“Whenever she started to describe anything she was very emotional,” said GuneWardena, of her first conversations with Poulson. “She said it was a Gregory Ain house, it was in a magazine she had, but it was in the house. Several times she said, “I’ll show you the photos,” then she remembered that the photos had been burnt. “

They made an appointment at the skeleton of the house. The designers “immediately realized this was an important house and said, ‘Don’t tear anything down,’ GuneWardena recalls.

One of their first jobs was to prove that the Greene House was, in fact, a necessary step if they were to add the house to HistoricPlacesLA’s inventory, a preservation database, and enforce the preservation codes of the city for restoration. The building permit only named Johnson and Day, Ain’s former partners, as did the plans for the Eckbo archives at the University of California at Berkeley.

But the Ain archives at the University of California at Santa Barbara had a file of unidentified projects, and there, voila, they found two presentation drawings marked “Marjorie Greene, 1952”. Rereading a chapter on Ain in Esther McCoy’s “Second Generation”, a 1984 book on Californian architects, Escher and GuneWardena noticed a reference to a singular and unrepresented Ain house with a butterfly roof. , just like the Greene house.

The bedroom in the restored house has floor-to-ceiling windows.

The bedroom in the restored house has floor-to-ceiling windows. Half of the home’s original materials remain after the fire, including the roof framing and sections of floors and sub-floors.

(Janna Ireland)

Sasha Plotnikova, the project manager for the house research phase, also noticed that the plan was very similar to one of Ain’s most famous works, the 1950 Exhibition House for the Museum of modern art, designed as a demonstration of a high quality modern designed home loan subdivision – a fix to the traditional, square shapes of the emerging Levittowns.

(Until recently, the Ain House for MoMA has long been considered a lost design. Christiane Robbins and Katherine Lambert, filmmaker and architect, who have studied Ain for over a decade and share parts of their documentary in progress, had requested MoMA for documents on the house and received only a slim dossier. In early 2021, however, George Smart, a North Carolina-based historian who founded and runs the organization conservative nonprofit USModernist, discovered the home had survived, auctioned off, and reassembled in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, where a family named Kelly has lived there since 1979.)

The Los Angeles version is now registered as a sibling. “This house is super site specific,” located on a hillside rather than in one of the flat suburbs the Ain wanted to reform, said Anthony S. Denzer, professor of architectural engineering at the University of Wyoming and author of “Gregory Ain: The Modern House as a Social Commentary” (2008). “It seems to me that Marjorie Greene probably came to Ain because she saw the MoMA house and said:“ J ‘really like it, “but then he adapted it to the site.” Greene herself had an architectural pedigree: she was the niece of the prolific architects of Pasadena Greene & Greene.

“If it was just a job of renovating a non-historic house, they would have to adapt it to new seismic codes and new energy codes,” Denzer said. This would likely have required the addition of solid shear walls inside the two story glass wall facing Silver Lake, drastically changing the open look and feel of the house. (A new code that applies: sprinklers.)

“I can say for sure that he designed the house,” Denzer said, but he’s not sure why Ain didn’t include it in his own records. Ain’s preference to perfect a detail and then use it project after project proved useful, as designers could look to his other buildings from the same era for window or cabinet details.

Poulson enjoys the efficiency of the home's kitchen design, reaching the sink, stove, and pantry with minimal steps.

Poulson enjoys the efficiency of the home’s kitchen design, reaching the sink, stove, and pantry with minimal steps.

(Janna Ireland)

Escher and GuneWardena estimated that ultimately 50 percent of the home’s original materials were retained, including the butterfly roof framing, sections of the sub-floor and floor structure, and the chimneys. brick and most of the concrete. Most of it is sheltered, with new birch plywood cabinetry, new cork tile and new plaster over a wooden frame that is sometimes original, sometimes replaced and sometimes twinned – new elements related to the old one with nails or screws for added strength.

The reconstruction took 18 months and was completed in April. Poulson’s favorite spaces in the house remain the same: the corner where she can read in her Eames lounge chair and gaze across the length of Silver Lake; and the very efficient kitchen, in which she can reach the sink, stove and pantry with a minimum of steps.

“It’s lovely to be in the living room and being able to look into that kitchen – it’s like a long extension of herself,” she said. “Even though there are houses on either side of me, I can’t hear or see anything other than the lake and my garden.”

The fire marks are only visible in two places. You can see it outside, where the chariot on an integrated pentagonal table designed by Eckbo has been scraped and its newly irregular ends sealed. “Now it’s similar to something George Nakashima would have designed,” with a free edge, “because of the burning,” GuneWardena said. Delia Hitz, a gardener, updated Eckbo’s flowerbeds, their edges intact, with all the native plants that should require less water.

And inside, damage is visible (barely) at the crash scene: “I guess if you looked very carefully at the chimneys you could tell,” Poulson said. “They had to clean them to put the brick back in brick, but there is smoke damage inside the chimneys where it is black.” She said she would never light a flame there again.

Aside from these remains, the house looks and feels exactly like when it moved in, she said. “I don’t know how they did it.” She is grateful to be back.

Poulson also cherishes how the rebuilding process taught her a lot about the house, “about Gregory Ain and other architects as well,” she said. “I love my house now more than before the fire – it means so much more to me now.”

Lange is a freelance writer. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Copyright: © 2021 The New York Times Company


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