Spared from Wrecking Ball

Neutra, Schindler houses find new life via restoration—and L.A. Conservancy awards
Spared from Wrecking Ball
Architect Rudolph Schindler's Van Dekker House (pictured here) and Richard Neutra's Kronish House were once destined for the wrecking ball. Today, they're award winners in the name of preservation! Photo: Jessica Hodgdon/L.A. Conservancy
Spared from Wrecking Ball
Photo: Jessica Hodgdon/L.A. Conservancy
Spared from Wrecking Ball
Richard Neutra (left) and Rudolph Schindler.

During the past decade, two homes designed by the great Austria-Los Angeles connection of modernism were candidates for the wrecking ball.

Next week, those same two houses—the Van Dekker House by Rudolph Schindler and Kronish House by Richard Neutra—located on opposite sides of the Santa Monica Mountains, will be honored as a pair of the most impressive, improbable California home restorations in recent history.

"He was very much more of a free-living guy," said Frank Gamwell, comparing his home's architect, Schindler, to Neutra. The two Vienna-born designers were among the leading lights of modern architecture in 1930s and '40s Los Angeles, so the pairing of homes they designed is a great fit as the only single-family homes to receive the 2016 Preservation Awards presented May 5 by the Los Angeles Conservancy.

Also fitting is Gamwell's observation of Schindler moving in social circles that included movie actor and leftist politician Albert Van Dekker (aka Albert Dekker). In the history of the two houses, Van Dekker and his movie friends lend a little more celebrity cachet to Schindler's building despite the Sunset Boulevard address of the Kronish House in Beverly Hills.

"He [Schindler] was known for doing small houses," said Gamwell, owner of Prudential Construction and Manufacturing Inc., which has restored numerous L.A. homes. "I call it 'Schindler on steroids.'"

Schindler designed the 1939 house, in Woodland Hills, with seven bedrooms for the Van Dekker family, but Gamwell scaled the 3,756 square feet down to four somewhat larger bedrooms. The native of Coventry, England, is a San Fernando Valley history buff, and he added décor that revives the connection to Van Dekker's movies and co-star friends, who included Clark Gable and John Wayne.

Despite being typecast as either a lunatic or a heavy in films, Van Dekker was elected to State Assembly and served a single term in Sacramento from 1945 to 1947. Although not formerly blacklisted, his liberal politics soon ran him afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee and studio heads, prompting his move back to Broadway stage work and sale of the house in 1955 to screenwriter Al 'Buzz' Bezzerides. The pair were friends and had worked together on 'Kiss Me Deadly' (1955), but Bezzerides regrettably let the house fall into severe disrepair in his half-century of living there.

"I've tried to take it back to that period," Gamwell said of his restoration, which admittedly also added a barn, salt-water pool, and grove of fruit trees to the property. "We [preservationists] all focus on the fabric...and the aesthetics. To me, the history is equally important."