Celebrating Phoenix in a Los Angeles Home

When Joyce Poulson was awakened by her fire alarm early in the morning of November 12, 2018, she saw no flames or smelled smoke. She went upstairs to her butterfly house in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles to try to turn off the alarm, and otherwise she called the alarm company.

“While I was talking on the phone, a tornado of fire came up the stairs,” she said. “I had to run past it to get to the door. I do not know how my nightgown did not catch fire.”

At sunrise, it was clear that her 1,640-square-foot wooden frame house had burned down to the rivets due to a stray glow that had been trapped, invisible, between the fireplace and the wall. Her insurance company would soon call the historically important building a total loss.

The cleaned house after the fire, started by a hidden fireplace glow.

The cleaned house after the fire, started by a hidden fireplace glow. Its resurrection required archival research and forensic reconstruction of the plans because the original drawings of the home were lost in the fire.

(Tessa Watson / Escher GuneWardena Architecture)

Today, the 69-year-old house, originally designed by Gregory Ain, Joseph Johnson and Alfred Day for Marjorie M. Greene, an artist and educator, looks as fresh as it did in 1952. It has been carefully restored by Escher GuneWardena Architecture, thanks to archival research, preservation of the remaining structure and forensic reconstruction of the plans, as even the original drawings, stored in a closet on the lower floor, were burned to char.

A week or two after the fire, Poulson, 78, contacted the company’s partners, Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena, following suggestions from a neighbor who knew GuneWardena from studying abroad and asked them to rebuild it.

She could not have selected more avid and experienced architects. The 25-year-old firm had also worked on the preservation of Eames House and the restoration and remodeling of John Lautner’s Chemosphere House. While less well known than Lautner or Charles and Ray Eames, Gregory Ain (1908-1988), a chief designer of the house, was an integral part of Los Angeles ‘modernist movement and American architects’ search for affordable, innovative, and flexible housing for the masses.

His Mar Vista Tract, also designed with Johnson and Day and completed in 1948, was designated Los Angeles’ first modernist historic district in 2003. It showed how even identical houses, their plans mirrored or rotated and oriented toward lush common green spaces, could create a neighborhood with variety and charm.

The 69-year-old house designed by Gregory Ain is located on a hillside overlooking the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.

The 69-year-old house designed by Gregory Ain is built on a hillside overlooking the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Having traced its history, it is now listed as a “sibling” to a 1950 showroom Ain designed to serve as an example of a subdivision-ready home with high-quality modern design.

(Janna Ireland)

Ain’s company followed it up with Community Homes, a race-integrated cooperative designed for 280 families, including landscape architect Garrett Eckbo (a friend and frequent collaborator) and singer and actress Lena Horne, but was unable to obtain state funding. Ain and Eckbo, both socialists, decided to let the project die instead of implementing it as a suburb that is only for whites. The Senate Committee of Inquiry into un-American activities would later declare Ain “among the committee’s more notorious critics.”

Poulson, a retired computer software saleswoman, began a love affair with modern architecture long before 1988, when she bought the Greene House, of which she was only the third owner. In the early 1960s, she rented one of the apartments behind the studio of architect Richard Neutra. (Ain worked for Neutra in the 1930s.) In the 1980s, she lived in the guest house at Neutra VDL House, where she attended classical music concerts with the architect’s widow, musician Dione Neutra.

Joyce Poulson, in the restored living room, was already a fan of modern architecture before she bought the house in 1988.

Joyce Poulson, in the restored living room, was already a fan of modern architecture before she bought the house in 1988.

(Janna Ireland)

“Every time she started describing something, she was very emotional,” GuneWardena said of her first conversations with Poulson. “She said it was a Gregory Ain house, it was in a magazine she had, but it was in the house. Several times she said, ‘I have to show you the pictures,’ then she remembered the pictures were burned. “

They agreed to meet at the skeleton of the house. The designers “immediately realized that this was an important house and said, ‘Do not tear anything down,'” GuneWardena recalled.

Among their first tasks was to prove that the Greene house was actually by Ain, a necessary step if they wanted to add the house to the inventory of HistoricPlacesLA, a conservation database, and apply the town’s conservation codes to the restoration. The building permit only named Johnson and Day, Ain’s former partners, as did the plans in the Eckbo Archive at the University of California, Berkeley.

But the Ain Archive at the University of California Santa Barbara had a folder of unidentified projects, and there, laughing and looking, found the two presentation drawings marked “Marjorie Greene, 1952.” By rereading a chapter on Ain in Esther McCoy’s “Second Generation,” a 1984 book on California architects, Escher and GuneWardena noted a reference to a unique, unimaginative Ain house with a butterfly roof like the Greene House.

The bedroom in the restored home has floor to ceiling windows.

The bedroom in the restored home has floor to ceiling windows. Half of the home’s original materials remain after the fire, including the roof frame and sections of floors and subfloors.

(Janna Ireland)

Sasha Plotnikova, project manager for the research phase of the house, also noted that the plan was very similar to one of Ain’s most famous works, the 1950 Exhibition House for the Museum of Modern Art, intended as a demonstration of a subdivision clear house of high quality modern design – a corrective to the traditional, box-shaped forms of beginning Levittowns.

(Until recently, the AIN house for MoMA had long been considered a lost design. Christiane Robbins and Katherine Lambert, a filmmaker and architect who has been researching Ain for more than a decade and shared parts of their documentary-i – progress, had asked MoMA for documentation for the house and received only a slim file.In early 2021, George Smart, a North Carolina-based historian who founded and runs the conservative nonprofit USModernist, discovered, however, that the house had survived, was auctioned off and reassembled in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, where a family named Kelly has lived in it since 1979.)

The Los Angeles version is now registered as siblings. “This house is super site-specific,” located on a hillside instead of in one of the flat suburban areas Ain wanted to reform, said Anthony S. Denzer, professor of architectural engineering at the University of Wyoming and author of “Gregory Ain: The modern home as a social commentary ”(2008).” It seems to me that Marjorie Greene probably came to Ain because she had seen the MoMA house and said, ‘I really like that’, but then he adapted it to the place . “Greene herself had an architectural pedigree: She was the niece of the prolific Pasadena architects Greene & Greene.

“If it was just a remodeling task of a non-historic house, they would have to bring it up to new seismic codes and new energy codes,” Denzer said. This would probably have required the addition of solid sliding walls within the two-story glass wall toward Silver Lake, radically changing the open look and feel of the house. (A new code that applies: sprinklers.)

“I can confidently say he designed the house,” Denzer said, but he does not know why Ain did not include it in his own archive. Ain’s preference for perfecting a detail and then using it in project after project came in handy as the designers could look to his other buildings from the same era for window or cabinet details.

Poulson likes the efficiency of the home's kitchen design, which allows range of sink, stove and pantry with minimal steps.

Poulson likes the efficiency of the home’s kitchen design, which allows range of sink, stove and pantry with minimal steps.

(Janna Ireland)

Escher and GuneWardena estimated that in the end, 50 percent of the house’s original materials were retained, including the framing of the butterfly roof, sections of the subfloor and floor construction, the masonry fireplaces, and almost all the concrete. Most are under cover, with new birch plywood cabinets, new cork tiles and new plaster over wooden frame, sometimes original, sometimes replaced and sometimes sister – new elements tied to the old with nails or screws for strength.

The reconstruction took 18 months and was completed in April. Poulson’s favorite room in the house remains the same: the nook where she can read in her Eames lounge chair and look over the length of Silver Lakes; and the high-efficiency kitchen, where she can reach the sink, stove and pantry with a minimum of steps.

“It’s beautiful to be in the living room and be able to look into that kitchen area – it’s like a long extension of itself,” she said. “Even though there are houses on either side of me, I do not hear or see a single thing except the lake and my garden.”

The brand marks are only visible in two places. You can see it outdoors where the charcoal on a built-in Eckbo-designed pentagonal table was scraped off and its newly irregular ends sealed. “Now it looks like something George Nakashima would have designed,” with a free edge, “because of the burning,” GuneWardena said. Delia Hitz, a garden designer, updated Eckbo’s beds, their edges intact, with all native plants that should require less water.

And inside, damage is (barely) visible at the crash site: “I suppose if you looked really carefully at the fireplaces, you could see,” Poulson said. “They had to clean them to get the brick back to the brick, but there is smoke damage inside the fireplace where it is black.” She said she would never light a flame there again.

Aside from those leftovers, the house looks and feels exactly like it did when she moved in, she said. “I do not know how they did it.” She is grateful to be back.

Poulson also appreciates how the rebuilding process taught her so much about the house, “about Gregory Ain and other architects, too,” she said. “I love my house more now than before the fire – it means so much more to me now.”

Lange is a freelance writer. This article was originally published in The New York Times.
Copyright: © 2021 The New York Times Company

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