Taking a U-Turn on Neutra

Facing lawsuits, San Francisco planners rescind order to rebuild demolished home
Fridays on the Homefront
The world of historic preservation is shocked. After ordering last December that the Richard Neutra-designed Largent House in San Francisco (above, before illegal demolition) be rebuilt with an exact replica by the owner, the San Francisco Planning Commission backed down and unanimously approved a plan for a different, much larger house to be built in its place. Photos: courtesy San Francisco Planning Department
Fridays on the Homefront
Rendering shows proposed structure to replace illegally demolished Neutra.
Fridays on the Homefront
Fridays on the Homefront
Two aerial views of the Largent House: before demo (top),
after demo (above).

With the onus of a $10 million lawsuit pending and disregarding testimony by Twin Peaks residents and housing advocates, the city of San Francisco has turned tail on its previously brave stand for historic preservation and granted the destroyer of a Richard Neutra home a fat reward for his illegal demolition.

After ordering last December that the Largent House (1936) be rebuilt with an exact replica by owner Ross Johnston, the San Francisco Planning Commission backed down and unanimously approved a plan for a different, much larger house to be built in its place.

The recent hearing lasted barely over an hour and often focused on a loophole between city planning and building codes regarding unpermitted demolition, highlighting the need for legislation currently stalled at City Hall.

"It was the latest in a series of brazen demolitions in the city which often target historic buildings," said Michael Buhler, longtime chief executive of San Francisco Heritage, who wrote a letter opposing the project's size and spoke last week of a decision he said creates "a new, very troubling precedent."

Johnston bought the house at 49 Hopkins Avenue for $1.7 million in January 2017, was granted a project to enlarge it, then exceeded that permit two years ago this month by tearing it down to the foundation with one surviving wall.

The city issued a stop-work order that was preceded last December by the commission's bold decision that it be rebuilt and fitted with a plaque celebrating its history. Johnston responded in February with two lawsuits against the city, then submitted an application this summer to construct a three-story, 4,185-square-foot building with two attached units and a garage.

"Although the extra dwelling unit may promote the goals of the General Plan, it should not provide a ticket for bad actors to build larger, more lucrative projects," Buhler wrote to the commission. "We hope the commission will not undermine its tough statement of last December by creating a new pathway for sponsors to illegally demolish, seek forgiveness, then reap more units, more square footage, and more profit."