At 49 Hopkins Avenue in San Francisco, one would expect to find a white, modern house that today looks fairly typical of 20th century modern architecture. The house was built in 1936 by Richard Neutra, one of the defining architects of the modernist movement and a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright. Named the Largent House for the family that commissioned it, the house stood out against the Victorian homes that typified the San Fran Twin Peaks neighbourhood. Amongst the gables, ornate gingerbread-ing, occasional stained glass, and steeply pitched roofs, the Largent House’s clean lines, flat room, and whitewashed exterior – hallmarks of Neutra – raised eyebrows.
For more than 80 years, the two-story home stood as a modernist landmark at its Hopkins Ave. location. It was one of a handful of houses designed by Neutra in the Bay Area. In the fall of 2017, however, the structure was demolished to make way for renovations to the property by its new owners. What remained were the bare-bones of the house.
On December 13th, though, San Francisco’s Planning Commission essentially told the new owner ‘put it back.’ The Planning Commission voted unanimously that if Ross Johnston, the man who bought the house for his family of six for $1.7 million, wanted to finish the project, he would need to ‘reconstruct the structure to its original footprint and massing.’ Moreover, contractors would need to use methods and materials akin to the originals used by Neutra in 1936. Patrick O’Riordan, San Fran’s chief building inspector, reiterated that Johnston had the approval for major renovations to the site but not to tear it down completely.
Johnston attended last week’s meeting in an effort to gain approval to move forward with the construction of a three-story, almost 4,000-square-foot home on the site. During his statement to the commission, Johnston sited the contractor and construction crew for the demo of the house saying that over the past year, he and his family have ‘been stuck in limbo.’
The commission has ordered the building be reconstructed with help from the city’s historic preservation staff to ensure its exterior stays true to the original. Johnston and his architect, though, will be free to redesign the interior of the house as they wish. Johnston must also include a sidewalk plaque with the history of the house.
Some disagree with the commission’s decision, though. Architect and friend of the Neutra family Jonathan Perlman told the San Francisco Chronicle ‘[Neutra’s] approach to design was extremely client-focused, producing his unique and masterful homes that reflect both his own vision married to the direct needs and desires of his client and to the natural environment of the site.’ ‘To rebuild this house, designed specifically for the Largents over 80 years ago, to represent a current political issue hardly seems like something Neutra would endorse,’ Pearlman continued.