Neutra revisited

A restoration of a modern gem
Ann Bertelsen

Writing in Sunset in 1943, Neutra explained that the success or "livability" of a house could be measured by how much living could be enjoyed in every part of it each hour of the day. It's a concept that remains significant even now.

It's hard to tell that this two-unit row house in San Francisco's Marina District was built in 1938. With its elegant lines, open plan, and floor-to-ceiling steel-framed windows, the look is strikingly clean and contemporary. And no wonder: The house was designed by Richard Neutra, one of America's foremost modern architects and the creator of some of the most iconic residences in the West. Architect Chad Overway, who purchased the building from original owner Ilse Schiff in 1993, has spent the past decade restoring the two-story upper unit where he and his wife now live.

Overway's restoration was executed with remarkable care and precision. He removed various non-Neutra-designed elements that had been added over the years, such as wall-to-wall carpeting and dated-looking tiles. He installed new appliances in the kitchen but kept to a streamlined, minimalist aesthetic. The most dramatic change came in the living room, where, after extensive research, he installed a stainless steel fireplace modeled on a design from Neutra's Nesbitt House in Southern California. "There was no fireplace in our unit or the one downstairs, and the toughest part was cutting a hole in the floor," says Overway. "But we took care not to move any structural members, so the units could be restored to their original shape."

To enhance the spaciousness of the floor plan, Overway replaced sliding doors between the dining and living areas with a long cotton-rayon curtain. His philosophy when choosing furnishings was to seamlessly integrate Neutra originals with those from other modernist architects and a few of his own designs. His extensive Neutra collection, which includes a 1939 issue of Architectural Record magazine featuring the house, was an important aid in the restoration. "After years of research and remodeling, I feel I've captured the essence of Neutra's design," Overway says. "And I've come to realize how much he has influenced my whole life."

 

 

Finishing touches

During his research, Overway came across a historical photo of the living room and spotted two Neutra-designed chairs that never went into production. "I loved their simple, classic shape," he says. He had the chrome frames replicated in Italy with seats and backs upholstered in fabric from the Saarinen Collection.

But he's most proud of the floor-to-ceiling curtain ― a replica of the original visible in the 1939 Architectural Record article ― that delineates the living and dining areas. "When closed at night, it lends a cozy intimacy to our dinners," he says.

While he wanted the house to express the spirit of Neutra, he also included pieces by other renowned architects of the era, such as Mies van der Rohe, whose 1927 tubular-frame chairs with laced leather backs are in the dining room. Overway designed and built the dining table himself.

A Neutra library

For more information about Richard Neutra and his work, visit the website of the Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design ( www.neutra.org). The site has a comprehensive list of readily available books on the architect, along with rare and out-of-print editions. Our best bets are Neutra: The Complete Works (Taschen America, 2000; $149), edited by Barbara Lamprecht and Peter Gössel; Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture (University of California Press, 1994; $35), by Thomas S. Hines; and Richard Neutra: Promise and Fulfillment, 1919-1932 (Southern Illinois University Press, 1986; $40), edited by wife Dione Neutra.

 

 

Get the look

Few of us are fortunate enough to own a Richard Neutra –designed house. But you can still evoke the spirit of this remarkable architect in your own home. A number of design companies are making Neutra products under license, ranging from eye-catching geometric pillows to his famous boomerang chair. More options are at the online Neutra Gift Store.

Research primer

  • Do your homework. Use libraries and other local sources to find historical records. "I started with [former owner] Mrs. Schiff for stories of the house and her own experience with Neutra," says Chad Overway. "Then I went to our local historical society. I delved into books and looked at everything ever published on Neutra. I even spoke to Thomas Hines [professor of history and architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of a book on Neutra]. He directed me to Dion Neutra, one of Richard's sons ― also an architect ― who worked in his father's office."
  • Add new elements with care. "The goal was to glean as much historical information as possible and use that in the preservation process and the selection of new materials consistent with the original design," says Overway. Case in point: Overway's new fireplace and chair, both reproduced from Neutra designs, are perfectly paired with a 1927 Eileen Gray side table.
  • Check building codes. Consult local building authorities before considering structural changes. Most cities have strict historic building codes.