Case Study House #21: Stylish Innovation in Steel-Framed Design

Next up in the series, let’s take a look at architect Pierre Koenig’s “Bailey House,” built as Case Study House #21 and completed in 1959. Although Koenig’s Stahl House (Case Study House #22) received the most publicity, this house, its immediate predecessor, is widely considered as the highest point in the Case Study House Program’s success. It represents a culmination of development in steel-framed construction, and showcases the versatility of steel in meticulously elegant residential design.

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Koenig first became acquainted with the Case Study House Program while working in the office of Raphael Soriano on Case Study House 1950. But, it was his work on a steel house in San Mateo for property developer Joseph Eichler that caught the attention of Arts & Architecture editor John Entenza in 1956. Koenig’s mastery of the new arc-welding process made him the perfect candidate to explore the potential of lightweight steel construction, and Entenza offered him a tentative invitation to participate in the Program when he “found the right house and the right client.”

That ideal candidate came along in 1957, when psychologist Walter Bailey and his wife Mary commissioned Koenig to design a 1,200 – 1,300 square-foot house on an empty lot in a Hollywood Hills canyon. The couple was hip, wealthy and childfree, and they welcomed the idea of an open floor plan that capitalized upon the wide spans made possible with steel design.

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Koenig completed his blueprints by May 1958, and immediately started collaboration with the factories producing the prefabricated steel. The bulk of construction took place from August to November of the same year, and by January 1959, the house was officially complete.

In describing his concept for the house, Koenig said, “I was trying to develop [1,300 square feet] in an efficient, social and exciting plan that people could afford… I had thrown out all conventional thought because I had no patience with anything that had been done before.” The result was a mass-producible prototype for modern housing, perfectly in line with the goals set forth by the Case Study Program.

Koenig oriented the house on a North-South axis in order to maximize sunlight in the winter and screen it out during the summer, and arranged the layout in a compressed “L” shaped plan to establish a linear progression from the entry and carport through the living space and out to the gardens. Opaque, steel decking walls block the house from the street, while floor-to-ceiling glass walls along the front and back exterior play up the open, airy floor plan.

The main living space is a 30’ x 44’ rectangular plan with a central core comprised of two full bathrooms and an exposed courtyard with a fountain. Beyond the core, two efficiently arranged bedrooms are separated by a closet mass, which provides both privacy and extra storage. Each bedroom includes its own sliding glass wall opening to a terrace with views of the gardens beyond.

By designing a central service core, Koenig reduced the materials used in the perimeter to either sliding glass doors or opaque steel walls. Editor John Entenza just couldn’t get over the simplicity of building components. When he first visited the house, he described it as “a very pristine, clean design. Two details, one north-south, one east-west. One material for the roof, same one for the walls. Minimal house, maximum space.”

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Koenig emphasized the structural framework by painting the walls and ceiling white, installing monochromatic flooring throughout the house, and keeping the charcoal Perma-Bar sealer coating on the steel. He often stated, “Steel is only as good as it’s detailing. In order to make exposed steel acceptable in the living room it must be so well detailed that the joining connections are imperceptible.”

The use of water as both a visual and practical element became one of the most distinguishing features of Koenig’s design. Water is hydraulically pumped to the roof from the pool surrounding the house, caught in five reflecting pools with scuppers, and then sent back to the pool below. This created a stunning fountain effect, and helped provide natural ventilation during hot LA summers.

Koenig blurred the lines between indoor and outdoor living through the use of brick terraces, almost 950 square feet of reflecting ponds, and glass walls. Almost every vantage point in the house offers an unimpeded view of the gardens beyond, creating a natural extension of living space beyond the walls into the landscape.

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When Arts & Architecture published the completed design in February 1959, the house was praised as “some of the cleanest and most immaculate thinking in the development of the small contemporary house.” A year later, the eminent architectural photographer Julius Shulman was invited to take photos the Bailey house. The photos he took went on to become some of the most well-known images of California Modernism.

In 1969, Dr. and Mrs. Bailey relocated to the East Coast, and put Case Study House #21 on the market. Over the next thirty years, a succession of owners wreaked havoc on the original design with a number of tacky renovations. Wide-ground ceramic tiles replaced the white vinyl-tiled floors that Koenig originally specified, and the installation of a center-island cooking station destroyed the original kitchen.

Years later, Koenig described his impressions of the altered house by stating, “Even though I knew what had been going on in this house it was a great shock to see it. My houses are like children to me.”

In 1997, film producer Dan Cracchiolo bought the property for $1.5 million after seeing some of Julius Shulman’s photographs. He immediately commissioned Koenig to help with restoring the original design.

The rehabilitation that followed took twice as long as the initial construction, and finding modern appliances that maintained the original look and feel proved to be somewhat difficult. Koenig replaced the original wall-hung General Electric refrigerator no longer in production with three under-counter Sub-Zero refrigerators modified to work with the floor plan. He also installed state-of-the-art mechanical elements including a new water heater and furnace in the utility core. In 2001, Koenig received the City of Los Angeles historic Preservation 2000 Award of excellence for his restoration.

Shortly after Architectural Digest published an article describing the restoration process in 1999, film producer Michael LaFetra came across the article and resolved to buy the property. When it came on the market not long thereafter, he jumped at the chance to buy it. Within a week of the purchase, LaFetra received a telephone message from Koenig stating, “Hello, this is Pierre, your architect, and I want to talk.” Koenig followed up by telling him that “he ought not have to change anything in the house but, if needed to, he should get in touch.”

LaFetra and Koenig began a friendship from then on, and LaFetra commissioned Koenig to design him a new home on a beachfront property in Malibu. After protecting Case Study House #21 by registering it as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, he listed the house for sale in 2002 to finance the new construction.

In 2006, Julius Shulman, at age 95, was invited to photograph the house once again. This time, the photos were for inclusion in a catalog of an upcoming auction at the Chicago-based auction house Wright20, which specializes in 20th century furniture, art and design. Later that year, the house sold to a female art collector from South Korea for $3,185,600. The sale marked the second highest price realized for a Modern home at auction, just behind Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, which sold for $8 million. Reports of the sale described it as a “watershed moment” in the acceptance of Modernist architecture as art, rather than real estate.

Today, the house is owned by Seomi International, a contemporary art and design gallery which uses the space as its showroom. Visitors are welcome to tour the Bailey House and view the artwork Monday through Friday, by appointment only.

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