The Kaufmann house is one of perhaps 25 in the country that deserves such painstaking restoration, says Ron Radziner, one of the firm's principals. "Looking at it from every angle, every piece of the house was really considered and designed so thoroughly," he says. "That house does not have a bad side. Every angle is beautifully executed. The proportions of all the spaces, from the interior to the exterior, are amazing."
When it was through, all was worth it, Beth Harris says. "The house looks exactly as it did in 1946. It became more and more beautiful over the restoration, as we pulled the layers off. We realized it was the icon we believed it was.
"All the cliché things people say about the oriental qualities, the open space, the use of wood, it really does work; the use of natural stone, the juxtaposition of the metal against the natural materials. It creates a really beautiful environment, with the least amount of distractions. There's a tremendous amount of detail here, but it's a very simple space." Beth Harris, whose Ph.D. thesis was 'Phoebe Apperson Hearst and the Changing Nature of 19th Century Architectural Patronage,' never thought she'd become a patron herself. "I see the role of the architectural patron today to educate a wider community," she says.
Beth and Brent used the Kaufmann house as an educational tool, and an argument for the beauty and value of modern architecture. Almost anyone who wanted to see the house was allowed to visit, by prior arrangement.
The project did more than restore one of America's most important 20th century houses. It gave Beth Harris a new calling, and helped the city of Palm Springs recover its love for all things modern.
After restoring the Kaufmann house, Beth Harris says, she and her husband bought and restored two other historically important modern houses--a 1946 William Lescaze house in New York City, and a house in Hermosa Beach designed by the firm Morphosis. Neither restoration was nearly as profound as the Kaufmann houses, and both of the other houses were purchased to live in, not primarily to restore.
Beth Harris switched her career from scholar and teacher to preservation advocate. She helped found the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, serves on the board of the California Preservation Foundation, and has focused her writing on such endangered modernist buildings as the Salk Institute in La Jolla. "That's my focus now," she says of historic preservation. "It's all I have time for now."
Palm Springs preservationists say the restoration of the Kaufmann house inspired other owners of mid-century modern houses to restore their own houses in town. Preservationist and architectural guide Robert Imber credits the Kaufmann house restoration, along with Jim Moore's earlier restoration of a steel house designed by Donald Wexler, and the successful fight to preserve Albert Frey's Tramway Gas Station, with spurring the renewed interest in the town's modernist heritage.
Nickie McLaughlin, vice president of the preservation organization PS ModCom, agrees. The Kaufmann restoration, she says, "let people know, we should really value these treasures that we have."
"They just went the whole gamut," McLaughlin says of the Harrisses. "I have enormous respect for people who take on this kind of project. It just devours your attention and your bank account."
The Harrises, who have divorced, plan to sell the Kaufmann house in part because opening it to the public had become "a mini-business," she says. She's not worried about the new owner turning the house into a hacienda.
The only people who show interest in this house are people who want it for exactly what it is," she says. "It's done now and people want it for a work of art."
Photos: David Glomb, Barry Sturgill