Iconic Perspectives: John Lautner’s Garcia House

Though not everyone agrees on exactly how iconic architecture should be preserved, there are those who take a real shot at it, with a goal of resurfacing the original vision.
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So is the case with John Lautner’s Garcia House, which stands on stilts 60 feet above the canyon on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. When John Mcllwee and Bill Damaschke purchased the residence in 2002, they began a journey to bring the masterpiece back to life after being passed around by multiple owners since its creation in 1962. 

Watch this video for a personal tour of the house with Mcllwee, and read on to learn the house's whole life story.

In 1962, Lautner designed this home in the Hollywood Hills for Russell Garcia, a composer, arranger, and conductor who had written a number of well-known film scores. Over the course of two years, he built an arched two-part structure that would allow Garcia to do his music work on one side of the house without disturbing anyone on the other side of the house. Fast-forward five years, and the Garcias moved out and immediately embarked on a sailing trip to New Zealand. After this chapter ended, it went through five or six different owners, who all incorporated changes that made it slightly less open and free-flowing. As Mcllwee describes the revisions that had been made, he points out the silver lining: "Lots of things had been modified from different eras—but luckily, they all kept the architectural integrity of the house." 

A realtor named it "The Rainbow House" because of the colored pieces of glass on the swooping, arched structure.

Mcllwee showed us some archive photographs of the house, including this original Julius Shulman gem that shows what the interior looked like in the 1970s.

In 2002, Mcllwee, who is part of the John Lautner Foundation, saw the house for sale in the newspaper and went to check it out without any intentions of purchasing it. He remembers his surprise: "The place felt like it had some kind of magic." He points out that unlike a lot of the L.A. houses that feel chopped up and placed randomly throughout the hills, Lautner looked at the site and built a house that made sense for the location. He and Damaschke ended up buying the house and living in it for a year before embarking on their journey to revive it to its former glory.

Looking into the living space, you can see the colored stained-glass window panels and the arch of the roof. When Marmol Radziner began the renovation, they updated the cabinetry with stained walnut and replaced the existing formica countertops with honed, black granite that actually looks like the original formica.

After doing a ton of research on architects and similar houses of the area, they decided to work with architecture firm Marmol Radziner because of their experience renovating Richard Neutra’s 1946 Kaufmann House in Palm Springs. Mcllwee went into the project knowing that he wanted to do whatever he could to bring it back to its original state, while also bringing it up-to-date for the modern age. 

"Lautner believed that if there’s a better technology or material to use, then you should do it. He was a purist." - Mcllwee

The pool at the bottom of the property did not exist when Mcllwee bought the house, even though Lautner had originally planned for it to be there. Mcllwee and Marmol Radziner used Lautner’s original drawings to actually realize it.

One of the first projects Mcllwee and Damaschke embarked on with Marmol Radziner was to replace the big plated glass windows—and their large aluminum frames—for more safe, tempered glass. They also implemented a range of electronics to make the house more comfortable for the modern age, including alarms and wireless controls for the lighting and shades throughout the house. Mcllwee strongly recommends living in a house before beginning to renovate it, as he would not have realized how important certain elements were before spending time there. Lautner proved this theory as well by deciding to extend the structure by ten feet during the two years he spent building the house. This was done in order to create a natural shelter from the powerful sun rays.

One of the most iconic elements of the home is the lava rock that was brought over from Hawaii. It still stands as one of the main structural elements.

An intense challenge that was faced throughout the renovation was building the pool, which had existed only in Lautner’s original plans. Marmol Radziner worked with Mcllwee to bring it to life—which was not an easy task. Ever since a house in Laurel Canyon had slid down the hill about 15 years ago, many city codes were changed drastically, which made Lautner’s designs impossible to build the way he imagined it. The team figured out how to make it actually build-able, without changing any of the founding principles. 

"Process is the most important thing." - Mcllwee

Shown here is the guest bedroom, which is nestled at the edge of the arched structure and is lit up by a red stained-glass window panel.

Mcllwee worked with NY-based designer Darren Brown to direct the interiors. When he was looking for the right person for the job, Brown had showed him a photo of Halston and Bianca Jagger coming out of Studio 54. When Brown said, "This is what I think your house should look like," Mcllwee hired him on the spot.

Lautner designed a house that could only exist in a climate like Southern California. He played with the notion of going indoors and outdoors consistently throughout daily life. Mcllwee points out, "Almost every property Lautner designed has common elements of this indoor/outdoor feel." This seating area in the middle of the arch looks out to astounding views of the canyon.

According to Mcllwee, the house has three specific lives—a daytime stage that thrives within the surrounding nature; a twilight stage when the sun goes down and the windows on the canyon side illuminate for 15 minutes; and a night time stage when both sides of the house go completely dark, which makes it feel like an NYC apartment.

"The house should be seen as a piece of art," says Mcllwee. For iconic houses like this, every little detail represents not only the era it came from, but also the life that it’s experienced throughout its existence.

Mcllwee finished his story by explaining that Lautner’s daughters—who are also on the board of the John Lautner Foundation—have visited the house and are tremendously appreciative of the care that he’s put into it. The fact that they’ve turned it back to a living, breathing house in such a respectful way, is something to truly cherish.

Learn more about the 2016 International Iconic Houses Conference here—where we were given the chance to tour this incredible home.

The materials throughout the house are durable and are meant to make people feel genuinely relaxed. Mcllwee explains, "It’s not a tremendously big house, but it’s mesmerizing."


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