For the last 30 years classic LA modernist houses by the likes of Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler, Pierre Koenig, John Lautner and others have been bought, lovingly restored and have soared in value.
But one of the most iconic of LA’s early twentieth century homes has not gotten this treatment: the Lovell Health House. It was built at the edge of Griffith Park in the still wild hills of Los Feliz in 1929, and designed by Austrian immigrant architect Richard Neutra for a physician and naturopath named Dr. Philip Lovell.
“It’s a full, almost machine for healthy living. Every single bedroom has a outdoors to its own sleeping porch. There were private areas where you could do your nude sunbathing, which was essentially akin to like taking your vitamins every day,” said Lyra Kilston, author of Sun Seekers: The Cure of California.
You may have seen the house when it served as the scarily spartan home of drug and porn king Pierce Patchett in the movie LA Confidential.
It has a machine-made aesthetic reinforced by details like two Ford Model-A headlights in the main stairwell.
But the sleek international style white stucco and metal frame building has lost its sheen. So a group of Neutra devotees gathered there recently to figure out how to generate support for the house -- maybe through tours, maybe through luring in the right buyer.
“I mean this was one of the early Californian modernist houses that kicked off several crazes,” said George Smart, co-host of the party. And the voice of the podcast “US Modernist Radio.”
“One was modernist architecture. The other was health; the idea that being outdoors was better for you and paying attention to what you eat was better for you and getting some exercise was better for you. Those were novel concepts at the time. People didn't think about that very much.”
But the house needs some TLC. The outdoor swimming pool is no longer aquamarine; it’s empty and dried out. The white stucco wall alongside it is faded and paint is peeling on its window frames.
Betty Topper* lives here with her son Ken. Her late husband bought the house in 1960.
“As I've gotten older and come back through, I hear people in awe of it and I begin to recognize you know features and people telling me why it's so special, why it's so important to keep it in its original condition,” Ken Topper said. “That's always been what my mom has tried to do in the 60 years we've been here. She's really changed almost nothing.”
But there were some changes made before 1960: large spaces were enclosed, windows were added, different woods were used.
“To me it's like someone took a Picasso painting and painted an area that's red, yellow, so it could match their dining room,” said preservationist Josh Gorrell. “So my first thought is, let's bring this back to 1929. Let's not think about it. Let's just do what the master did because I really don't feel like anybody's actually seen this house that's still alive or has a photograph of it.”
So is Ken Topper looking for a buyer?
“There's been no knock on the door. We're always open to someone knocking on the door but no one knocks on the door with a number, so I can't say,” Topper said.
Lovell House fans feel as much of a sense of ownership of the house as the actual owners -- and they’re trying to intervene to save the home from further degradation.
“It would be truly horrific if someone with a lot of money comes in and makes it a comfortable place to live. The spaces are small. It's not as big as people think. It just isn't,” Gorrell said.
“If you want a Spanish villa, don't buy this house and turn it into one,” Smart added.
Tomorrow is Betty Topper’s birthday, and it will be marked by the arrival of Josh Gorrell.
He is going to become a resident of the Lovell Health House. He is taking a room by the pool deck, which will give him a great vantage point to monitor any changes to the house.
*Since the publication of this article, Betty Topper passed, on August 13, 2019, at age 92.