A 'New' Modernist Landmark

Richard Neutra's son Raymond wins federal recognition for his Los Angeles family home
A New Modernist Landmark
National Historic Landmark status was recently bestowed upon famed modernist architect Richard Neutra’s VDL Studio and Residence in Los Angeles (pictured above). Photo: courtesy Raymond Neutra
A New Modernist Landmark
Photo: Julius Shulman - © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles
A New Modernist Landmark
Richard and wife Dione Neutra. Photo: courtesy Raymond Neutra

Helen of Troy was famously portrayed by playwright Christopher Marlowe as the face that launched a thousand ships.

Well, a curiously named construction that can be said to have launched a thousand modern designs and a half-dozen careers was finally recognized this year as the landmark it truly always has been.

This honor was bestowed upon famed modernist architect Richard Neutra's VDL Studio and Residence in Los Angeles—recently named a National Historic Landmark.

"The house actually went through quite a few transformations," concedes its current resident Sarah Lorenzen, who continues the house's longstanding role as a home for architectural exploration. "I've been here eight years, and my main goal is to, one, raise the money to restore the house, and increase programming."

In the early 1930s, fledgling architect Richard Neutra sought to build a home in Los Angeles that would showcase his philosophy of designing environments "in which his clients' health would flourish," explains Raymond Neutra, the modern master's youngest son.

That house was one of two Neutra structures that made the final round of National Historic Landmarks designated last month by outgoing President Barack Obama, along with the visitor center at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona (co-designed with Robert Alexander). The house's name and, especially, its etymology are not widely known to the casual modernist.

Richard Neutra anointed the property with the 'VDL' to commemorate a benefactor, Dr. C.H. Van Der Leeuw. Neutra wanted to build his vision, his son recalls, and Leeuw, a Dutch philanthropist, made him a no-interest loan "when no bank would conceivably, in [Depression-era] 1932, have lent him the money to do that."

"I was convinced that high-density design could succeed in a fully human way, and I saw my new house as a concrete pilot project," the elder Neutra wrote later. "I wanted to demonstrate that human beings, brought together in close proximity, can be accommodated in very satisfying circumstances, taking in that precious amenity called privacy."

"I was aware that I lived in an unusual house," Raymond said when asked about the parade of well-known visitors, like Frank Lloyd Wright, Igor Stravinsky, and Hubert Humphrey to the house, which was seven years old when he was born. In the early '50s, Raymond said, "It was part of my [chores] to give people tours of the house."