How Neutra’s Kaufmann House Got its Groove Back

Marmol Radziner and homeowner Brent Harris shed light on the exhaustive, five-year process of unearthing the plans for Richard Neutra’s iconic Kaufmann House in Palm Springs—and the meticulous work it took to recreate its design.

After much research, the original buff stone pictured was discovered at a quarry in Utah, which had since closed but reopened for the material sourcing for this project, the restoration of Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House. A mason worked there for a year and a half to accurately restore stone, chiseling and cutting blocks precisely in place to create a pleasing mosaic. Tops and bottoms of the stones were cut smooth to sit in horizontal position, allowing the sides and faces to be more organic as Richard Neutra intended.

It would begin with one full year of research. Every day, for four of those months, the architectural restoration team donned gloves and combed through the archives at the UCLA Research Library to solve the puzzle of Richard Neutra’s famed Kauffman House, completed in 1946 and since fallen into disrepair. Floors were cracked, casework had been removed, portions of the land had been sold, and the square footage had nearly doubled through additions over the years. 

Sans original plans, they visited the archives daily, redrawing everything original they could capture by hand as part of an intensive, five-year restoration project taken on by the new homeowners. “There are truly iconic, important pieces of architecture, and this is one of those,” says Ron Radziner, design partner at Marmol Radziner. “This is one of the 20 best homes in this country, and it deserved that level of restoration.” 

Vienna–born architect Richard Neutra designed the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs in 1947 for Edgar Kaufmann, Sr., the Jewish owner of a trendsetting Pittsburgh department store. Jewish architectural photographer Julius Schulman captured the striking home in this image.

Vienna–born architect Richard Neutra designed the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs in 1947 for Edgar Kaufmann, Sr., the Jewish owner of a trendsetting Pittsburgh department store. Jewish architectural photographer Julius Schulman captured the striking home in this image.

Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust.

The year was 1993, and the internet was not what it is today, but they kept on. In addition to the work at UCLA, research also included time spent on-site, unearthing years of additions and modifications to the home in search of any clues they could find, such as the original mica plaster hidden behind an electrical box, identified through microscopic evaluation. 

It would also include sifting through the archives of Julius Shulman, the world-renowned photographer who documented the home in its heyday and shared never-before-seen photos with the restoration team. Those photos would drive the entire restoration. 

“This is one of the 20 best homes in this country, and it deserved that level of restoration.”

—Ron Radziner

“After looking at the archives of Julius Shulman, it led us to better understand that it was quite a work of sculpture and much richer than really anyone knew, because nobody had seen Julius’ archives,” says homeowner Brent Harris, who undertook the restoration with his former wife, Beth Harris. “The decision was made when we saw the famous Shulman photo from 1947, the twilight photo. It was taken in one snap—a one-time exposure. It seemed like right place to take the home back to.”

“Neutra didn’t create the mountain. And the client bought wonderful land. If it didn’t have mountains and the step down, it wouldn’t be what it is,” says owner of the Kaufmann House Brent Harris.

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The research team also discovered letters from Neutra to the original owner, Edgar Kaufmann, a wealthy department store owner who sought this property as a vacation home. He passed away in 1955, when the home was sold to a series of owners, including Barry Manilow. The letters helped solve what Harris describes as “a gigantic, national scavenger hunt for the pieces that were gone.” They contained specs, sketches, and material details, which led to the team to identify the original buff stone. It originated from a quarry in Utah—but it had since closed. Conquering all obstacles in pursuit of authentic restoration, the team had the quarry reopened to procure the original stone. 

Slight modernization was thoughtfully incorporated into the restoration, including a cooling solution. "We wanted to lengthen the life of the home and make it more enduring," says Ron Radziner of Marmol Radziner. Air conditioning was added in a concealed fashion. Above, where the wood meets the plaster at the ceiling, an air return is carefully hidden, and ducting runs beneath the floor.

Slight modernization was thoughtfully incorporated into the restoration, including a cooling solution. “We wanted to lengthen the life of the home and make it more enduring,” says Ron Radziner of Marmol Radziner. Air conditioning was added in a concealed fashion. Above, where the wood meets the plaster at the ceiling, an air return is carefully hidden, and ducting runs beneath the floor.

Photo:

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