Like many modernist buildings today, architect Richard Neutra's (1892-1970) VDL Research House in Los Angeles is in danger of falling into severe disrepair and possibly a distress sale to a private party because of a funding shortfall. It's the only Neutra-designed residence open and accessible to the public year-round. Without intervention, architecture enthusiasts may lose access to this important building.
In 1990, Neutra's wife, Dione, bequeathed the property to California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, along with a $100,000 endowment. Unfortunately, initial fundraising plans to supplement the endowment never got off the ground, and the endowment alone has been insufficient for maintaining the house's complex systems and materials.
"The university was always scrambling just to find the funds to run the house," says Raymond Richard Neutra, Richard and Dione Neutra's youngest son and the secretary of the Friends of the Neutra VDL Research Site planning committee. Then "the source of money dried up last year, and suddenly there was a [projected] $10,000 deficit per year," he adds.
In December 2007, the university announced a major fundraising campaign, spearheaded by the VDL Advisory Board and Friends of the Neutra VDL Research Site. The VDL support groups set an initial fundraising goal of $30,000 to cover maintenance through 2009, which was met in June. The group also promised to raise an additional $1 million endowment by 2009 to cover future maintenance and operating costs.
The immediate financial concerns have been eliminated, giving the groups some breathing room, Neutra says. However, if they cannot raise the $1 million endowment by December 2009, Cal Poly Pomona officials say they will have to review options for the VDL Research House. The VDL supporters' fundraising efforts also include a search for an institutional co-steward that could either share or take full responsibility for supporting the property while allowing the university to continue using it as an educational resource.
Cal Poly Pomona and the VDL groups held several fundraising events and special tours to meet its first financial goal, and additional events may be held this fall. Visit www.neutra-vdl.org for information on future events and to make online donations.
restoring a landmark
Although there are no significant structural issues, the VDL House needs several major repairs, and many of its innovative materials require restoration. Degraded and leaking roof surfaces have resulted in water damage to ceilings, walls, and floors. The original basement needs attention, and there are cracked windows, jammed sliding glass doors, nonfunctional sun louvers, and malfunctioning lighting systems elsewhere. Many of the garden's plants have died and must be replaced. According to Raymond Neutra, the list of necessary repairs may add up to $600,000.
Additionally, Sarah Lorenzen, AIA, an assistant professor of architecture at Cal Poly Pomona and the VDL Research House's resident director, estimates that the ideal annual operating budget for the property totals about $20,000, excluding the costs of repairs. "Our goal is to take an incremental approach to renovation, starting with the roof, and then fix different parts over the next few years as we raise money," says Lorenzen. "Once [the roof] is fixed, we can start to approach redoing the interior finishes, repainting, fixing the electrical system—which works, but is a kind of technological innovation [in that it uses] relays for lighting. Since those are no longer made, [the entire electrical system] needs to be redone."
Lorenzen believes that several manufacturers will be willing to donate materials to replace those in the house that cannot be restored, and furniture manufacturer Modernica (whose co-founders are Friends of the VDL members) has pledged to help refurnish the house once repairs are completed.
a house for research
Neutra built his landmark research house in 1932 on a 60-foot-by-70-foot lot facing the Silver Lake Central City Reservoir. Accepting a generous contribution from Dutch industrialist Cornelius H. Van der Leeuw, an admirer, Neutra dubbed the house "VDL" in his honor. Upon completion, it served as Neutra's studio and family residence.
Unlike many of its contemporaries, the VDL property hasn't suffered inappropriate alterations over the years, although the house was rebuilt once. According to Lorenzen, it displays three different periods of Neutra's architecture. The original VDL House, now called VDL I, was designed as a simple, geometric two-story laboratory demonstrating Neutra's ideas about the effect of space restrictions on human health and well-being, as well as a showcase of the latest technologies and innovative materials.
In 1939, Neutra added the Garden House to the main structure. Accessible from the main house only through the courtyard garden, its California Modern design expressed an intimate relationship between indoors and outdoors. Over the years it served as a play space for the three Neutra children, housed student architects, and sheltered the growing Neutra family.
A fire consumed the VDL Research House in 1963, destroying everything but the original basement and its prefabricated concrete rafters; the Garden House was undamaged. Neutra and his architect son, Dion, rebuilt the house on the existing footprint. The VDL House II paid homage to the design and aesthetic of the original, as well as to its mission of research, but incorporated 1964's innovations in technology and materials in ingenious ways.
Completed in 1966, the more complex VDL II plays with reflections and spatial relationships, incorporating mirrors, clear and reflective glass, and rooftop pools of water on all three levels. Exterior and interior mirrors, as well as Neutra's color selections, all combine to expand the perception of space. The house's abundant reflective surfaces grab and incorporate elements of the surrounding landscape and the lake waters.
an educational asset
Cal Poly Pomona's students—not just the public—stand to lose this valuable educational resource if sufficient funds can't be raised. The house has served as a teaching tool for students in the Cal Poly Pomona architectural program over the years and has hosted faculty meetings, alumni retreats, and student presentations.
The university has centered several academic courses around the VDL House, including one implemented this year in which students study the house, write talking points about its history and architecture, and then serve as docents for visitor tours. This allowed the university to maintain regular Saturday hours for tours.
"Everybody we've had come through the house is really appreciative of having these youngsters who are incredibly committed, energetic, and have a lot of personal knowledge about architecture and the house" leading these tours, says Lorenzen.
Raymond Neutra believes the house offers many lessons from the past that are still relevant today, particularly "how to accommodate people in an increasingly dense space in a way that makes them healthy and happy," he explains.
"There's still a lot of doubt about whether or not the university is committed to keeping the house," Lorenzen warns. "The faculty and students are extremely committed to keeping it, given that it's such an integral part of the program. It's a contentious issue. There's a big difference between the value the faculty and students place on the house and the value the administration places on it."
Since the student docent program started, nearly 1,500 visitors have toured the VDL Research House—between 50 and 100 each Saturday. But Lorenzen says capacity is much greater. With five guides working each Saturday, she estimates the house can handle about 200 visitors. "It's a public amenity, and people should come to see it. It has the indirect effect of [financially supporting our efforts] to fix it," she adds.
Neutra's VDL Research House is open most Saturdays year-round. The regular entrance fee is $10 per person. For more information on tours, including dates the house will be closed, visit www.neutra-vdl.org.