Neutra House opening Sunday

A public opening for Neutra House on Hillview Avenue in Los Altos is set for 11 a.m. The opening culminates months of planning, construction – and controversy – for the small structure, which leaders of the Los Altos Community Foundation envision as a place where local groups can rent space for meetings The structure is named for famed architect Richard Neutra, who designed it.

More on this recent story of the house here:
The Neutra House: Adaptive Reuse and Relocation of One of “Three Small Houses in an Orchard”
by Tom Horan, AIA

Summary: A team effort saves two of Richard Neutra’s “Three Small Houses in an Orchard” in Los Altos, Calif.

In 1935, Richard Neutra began designing, on one plot of land, what he called “Three Small Houses in an Orchard” in Los Altos, Calif., with the two main residences for two Bay Area poets, Jacqueline Johnson and Clayton Stafford. The project was completed in 1939. Stafford and his wife occupied one house, Johnson occupied an identical 750-square-foot house, and the third, smaller house was intended for guests. The houses represented a distinctive phase in the evolution of Neutra’s ever-experimental approach to the residence, both for their size, their co-location, and their use of redwood siding. The plot of land was located about a third of a mile from the Los Altos Civic Center.

In 2005, the Johnson House and guest house remained, but development pressures threatened them. The City Historical Commission proposed that the Johnson House was relatively unchanged and should be moved to city land and saved. Former Commissioner Mark Sandoval, AIA, was a key player in generating this proposal. The City Council concurred that it could be done if it did not require city funds.

At this point, the Los Altos Community Foundation got involved. A piece of city land near the civic center and next to the Los Altos Community Foundation building was allocated by the city for this project on the condition that the Los Altos Community Foundation would raise the funds necessary to move the house and adapt it for reuse. Citizens who saw the value and potential of the Neutra House committed the initial funding for the urgent task of moving the house before an impending demolition. This meant an overall site plan had to be developed for the city parcel and a foundation designed and poured. The house arrived in two pieces in November 2005 and was set on its new foundation in January 2006.

A new foundation for Modern architecture
With the immediate danger over, the Community Foundation established a designated fund, called “The Neutra House Project,” to establish a vision for the self-sustaining community use of the Johnson House. They now are using that vision to develop plans and raise funds for its implementation. When it is completed, the house will be a self-supporting community conference resource and retreat center with advanced audio/video and digital capabilities. It will also be the locus of a developing and rotating series of high definition video exhibits on Modern architectural history, with a particular focus on the residential work of Neutra and Bay Area architects of the mid-20th century.

A former Los Altos mayor with the hard-to-turn-down name of King Lear volunteered to raise funds to do this project and is now also the project director. With help from Sandoval, volunteers from the Los Altos Community Foundation, Executive Director Roy Lave, and site manager Dave Knudson, the task began. Through Lear’s persuasions, several design professionals with longstanding interest in the community, including architects and landscape architects, have donated their services. In addition, Lear established an Architecture History Committee consisting of a half-dozen local architects and landscape architects to guide the development of the content of the exhibits to be presented in the facility.

Neutra draws crowds, funds
The adapted and relocated house is nearing completion, and the fundraising efforts are trying mightily to stay ahead of construction. The commitment to restore the exterior as much as possible to its original condition has not come without cost: custom steel casement windows (adapted for double glazing) and rehabilitated redwood siding are two important but not inexpensive features of the project.

As a shot-in-the-arm for these efforts, a fundraising reception at the house in mid-September featured a panel discussion led by some of the members of the Architecture History Committee and other noted local design professionals. The discussion was lively, and the interest of the general public in Modern architecture was evident. The connection was clearly drawn and clearly appreciated between current concerns about resources, energy use, and the sustainability of our way of life, on the one hand, and the simple, efficient, thoughtful Modern design of this pioneer of Modernism, Richard Neutra, on the other.

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