Carmel Home Tour Plays Up the Modern

Walker house
The best-known modern home on the House & Garden show is Frank Lloyd Wright's dramatically sited Della Walker house. Photo by Dave Weinstein

They aren’t always easy to spot, the modernist architectural gems of Carmel-by-the Sea, a compact village known for its seaside views, lack of streetlights and residential sidewalks, and cottages and storefronts apparently designed by and for elves.

That’s why Carmel Heritage Society and the American Institute of Architects Monterey Bay chapter are teaming this year on a home tour – real, not via Zoom – that will range from the early and quaint to mid-century modern and beyond.

The 2021 House & Garden Tour takes place Saturday, Sept. 25, from 1 to 5. This is one of the first such events since the pandemic. Eric Dyar, one of the organizers, says it was not hard to line up homeowners, despite Covid. Attendees are expected to be vaccinated against Covid and will be required to wear masks. The tour will be followed by a reception.

  Henry Hill house
A trio of homes created by Berkeley architect Henry Hill for himself, his partner, and a friend will be a highlight of the Carmel tour. Photos of the Hill house by Dave Weinstein were shot before the renovation.

“The general impression we want to give is the diverse nature of the architecture in Carmel,” says Dyar, a Carmel architect and president of the AiA chapter. “People think it’s all storybook, cutesy houses. But there has always been a diverse, eclectic mix of everything, and that’s what gives Carmel its character.”

On the tour, he says, “You’ll find these little gems that people are unaware of.”

The tour starts (and ends, with the reception) at one of Carmel’s better known tiny, Arts & Crafts  treasures, the First Murphy House. It was built in 1902 by a 17-year-old who would go on to build dozens of character-defining homes and other structures throughout town.

Still, while cottages by Murphy, and quaint cottages by Hugh Comstock are among the city’s best-known landmarks, so is a modern home by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is a home that is not much bigger than some of the city’s older cottages.

Thodos house
John Thodos, one of Carmel-by-the-Sea's best known modernists, designed this remarkable home for himself. Photo by Patrick Tregenza

The Della Walker house, built at the start of the 1950s, occupies one of Carmel’s most prominent locations, jutting out into Carmel Bay. Thousands of people walk, jog, bike, or drive slowly by (speed limit 15 mph) every day. It is one of only a handful of houses along Scenic Road that sits on the seaside, not inland, side of the road.

The house has also  been on past Carmel Heritage Tours.

New to the tour will be other, lesser-known modern homes, including a trio of 1960s homes by Berkeley architect Henry Hill, who retired to Carmel. The homes, called the Sisters, were designed for Hill himself, for his partner Henry Kruse, and for an associate. The Henry Hill house has recently been renovated.

They are in a corner of Carmel that tourists rarely stumble upon, and exemplify a particularly, perhaps uniquely, whimsical aspect of modernism. When the homes were new Progresive Architecture magazine dubbed them “three weekend houses” in its write-up.

  Henry Hill mural
Henry Hill created murals for his own house and employed lively colors, art glass, and other oddball touches. Photo by Dave Weinstein

The homes are a joy in the way they occupy their sites and play with space. As always, but even more so here with these amusing vacation homes, Hill indulged in a love for varied textures, colors, even fairytale murals.

(In retirement he designed sets for Carmel’s famed Forest Theater.)

Hill (1913-1984) loved Carmel’s whimsical charms, building a weekend home for himself and family before the World War II, then later this trio of homes.

Dyar is particularly pleased to have on the tour a 2007 house designed for himself by the late John Thodos, one of Carmel’s best-known modernists. Dyar worked for many years with Thodos.

Dyar writes: “Thodos reincarnated a simple board-and-batten cottage with warren-like interiors and ill-advised additions into an open and serene modernist home, rich with material and architectural expression that belies its modest 1,300 square feet.”

Brook-Kothlow house
George Brook-Kothlow's Arch house is also on the tour, a late work by a legendary devotee of the rustic wooden tradition of modernism. Courtesy of Jacquelyn Smith

Also on the tour is the Arch House by George Brook-Kothlow, “principal author of the Bohemian Modern…design vocabulary, an idiom that found its energy source first in the Beat scene and then in the 1960s/'70s back-to-the-land movement and its ad-hoc handmade house phenomenon,” writes Richard Olsen, author of ‘Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design.’

Brook-Kothlow (1935-2012) designed amazing wooden houses, often of redwood recycled from bridges, throughout Big Sur, Carmel, and the Coast.

In addition to the tour, the AiA chapter has been sponsoring a lecture series about Monterey area modernism. On Thursday, Sept. 23, Dyar will speak about John Thodos at 6 p.m. at Hidden Valley Music Seminars, 104 West Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley. It will be streamed online via the website.

George Brook-Kothlow will be the subject of a talk by Richard Olsen on Oct. 14. Past lectures, including one by author and architect Pierluigi Serraino on Henry Hill, can be viewed on the AiA’s website.

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