Case Study architect Edward Killingsworth’s masterpiece, the 1957 Opdahl House, fell into ruin, but thanks to a musician with a passion for modernism, it is celebrating its 50th anniversary in mint condition.
One afternoon Joyce Opdahl’s phone rang out of the blue. "It was so wonderful," she recalls. "Here’s this thing that’s been out of your hands for all these years and all of a sudden somebody is interested in taking it back to exactly what it was like when you were first married." The "thing" in question is the house Joyce and her husband, Richard, commissioned from a promising young architect in 1956. It was finished just in time to host their wedding reception. The somebody on the other end of the line was Andreas Stevens, the home’s present owner, and a mid-century-modernist acolyte. Clearly moved, Joyce adds, "I mean, how many times does that happen?"
Like any story that’s almost too good to be true, the 50-year-long arc traced by the Opdahl House is dotted with fateful coincidences, triumphs large and small, a maddening period of decline, and an eventual rebirth.
According to Richard Opdahl, it all started after work one day. "I was driving down Long Beach Boulevard and I saw Ed’s office." Edward Killingsworth, Jules Brady, and Waugh Smith had recently set up shop in a glass-walled, post-and-beam affair that gave prospective clients a clear indication of what they would be getting from the architects. "There was this large oak tree out in front," Richard remembers, "so I went in to talk to him about a small lot I had recently purchased. The only thing I said was that I wanted the front and back to be all glass." Although minimal, Richard’s request would provide the catalyst for a stunning design.
The Opdahls’ 30-by-80-foot lot was situated in Naples, an island just southeast of downtown Long Beach, California, and a claustrophobic building environment if there ever was one. Even in the 1950s the island was crowded with homes that ate up every available inch of space. Killingsworth’s response was to erect 18-foot-high walls that extend the entire length of the lot on either side, carving out an intimate, visually quieting space within which to situate the glass-walled home. By setting the living area 42 feet back from the street, a greater sense of remove was instilled by the intermediary spaces, all framed by post-and-beam connections. "When you walked through the gates, you left the entire world behind," recalls Joyce. "It was like being on your own private island."
Completed in 1957 and photographed with furnishings provided by Frank Brothers, an influential Long Beach–based retailer of modern designs and art, the modest home for a pair of teachers would win an unprecedented string of awards, including the 1957 Southern California AIA first honor and the prestigious 1960 national AIA first honor, and help launch Killingsworth’s highly distinguished career.
After a six-year occupancy, the Opdahls and their growing family needed more space and moved out. The house changed hands several times, and, as is the case with so many once-celebrated structures of that particular era, it fell into greater and greater levels of disrepair.
A subsequent owner with little regard for the home’s pedigree made physical alterations that only hastened the deterioration. By the 1990s Killingsworth, who once proudly toured the home with busloads of architecture students (on one occasion neglecting to inform the Opdahls, much to their surprise), couldn’t bring himself to drive by the house.
Meanwhile in La Jolla, California (not too far away from Killingsworth’s Case Study "Triad" houses), Andreas Stevens—better known as DJ Greyboy—was living in a 1960s post-and-beam modern house and was getting his first taste of mid-century design. "I went to my first vintage store, and it was all over," recounts Stevens. While music had been an early all-consuming passion, Stevens’s fondness for rare furnishings from Van Keppel Green, Alexander Girard, and George Nelson, to name a few, would soon manifest itself into a full-time occupation. In addition to furnishing his own home, Stevens started a lucrative side career flipping pieces found buried at far-flung Salvation Army stores.
His undeniable passion would eventually lead to the Opdahl House. Stevens first saw the home in a small book called Art: An Approach by Robert C. Niece, and began a search to track down the address and see if the house was still there. In 2002, he found it in a sorry state. "It was thrashed," he adds in a SoCal drawl, "but I started obsessing." Although it wasn’t for sale, Stevens contacted the owner and made an offer on the house. Without any response, he visited weekend after weekend. He even got in touch with Killingsworth to assess how open the architect would be to sharing original plans and providing a guiding hand for a restoration. Killingsworth replied, lamenting the home’s present state, but offering his assistance. Finally, the owner acquiesced, and Stevens "got every last penny and bit of energy [he] had together" to buy the house.
In January of 2003, he moved in, but that was only the beginning. "It was half-eaten by termites and dry rot. I had to deal with every inch of the house." Stevens hired a crafty friend to help with the labor and set to work, despite having only a little experience with construction. "This isn’t rocket science," Stevens reasons. "You just have to know what you’re doing."
Stevens replaced all the redwood siding, the huge beams that had rotted out, all the posts, every single piece of glass, every plaster surface ("because there were mirrors glued to everything"), and the floors, which had been covered in ceramic tile. Along the way, Killingsworth, who had closed his office in 2001, would check in and provide helpful details on the construction.
Stevens tracked down former associates of the archi-tect, previous tenants, and the original clients as part of his quest. Old family photos provided unpublished views of the home and gave Stevens the clues he needed to bring the house back to its exact original state.
"I gave up my regular life for a couple of years," Stevens admits. The project bordered on obsession. In addition to refurbishing the structure, he went to untold lengths to find original fixtures and match finished surfaces. He found the original outdoor lights on a nearby motel that was being torn down. After a year and a half of searching, he found the original electric stove, an in-wall push-button model, in a house that was being razed in Walla Walla, Washington. What he couldn’t find, such as 42 matching white Nelson pulls for the kitchen cabinets, he had made. A fragment of the original bathroom tile turned up in the backyard, and Stevens was then able to match the original color.
When it came time to furnish the house, Stevens directed a similar energy at finding the pieces with which the home was originally photographed. But the house is no museum. With the construction behind him, Stevens loves every moment he spends at home and has infused the place with his own spirit. Recently, among a tangle of cords and gear, he’s been working on a new album in the living room, pointing out that the two-story space with balconied bedrooms is similar to that in which Rudy Van Gelder recorded Blue Note’s classic albums.
Killingsworth died at age 86 in 2004, but not before he was reunited with the Opdahls, and John Nicholson, the original decorator, in the renovated space. "He was so stoked," says Stevens, emphasizing a long, drawn-out "so." "You can’t believe how stoked." Stevens sometimes still refers to "Mr. K" in the present tense, clearly awestruck by his skill as an architect and delighting in being the home’s de facto client.
Collected among the Opdahl memorabilia Stevens has amassed in a bulging three-ring binder is a prescient quote from Killingsworth: "The most flattering thing an owner can say about one of my buildings is, ‘It’s my building, I did all this myself; the architects only translated my thoughts.’ There can be no greater tribute to an architect than this. It means the owner has completely identified himself with the building, and it is his building, not the architect’s monument to himself." Despite the gap in generations, the Opdahl House truly has become Stevens’s building, and a monument to living.
To see more images of the project, please visit the slideshow.