Pretty as a Picture
Growing up in Los Angeles, Tyler Lemkin never dreamed he might one day own a Richard Neutra house. So when he and his wife, Margaret, stumbled upon a listing for a home by the legendary Southern California modernist, he jumped at the opportunity to view it. "I’d never actually been inside a Neutra," he recalls. "I figured the open house might be my only chance."
As soon as the couple saw the interior, Tyler considered their real estate search over. Built in 1956 for physicist Dr. Fred Adler and his wife, Alicia, the 1,925-square-foot house is perched high in the Crestwood Hills enclave of Brentwood, offering views that stretch from Downtown L.A. to the coast.
Margaret, known as Marge, was less enthusiastic. She loved the neighborhood, but the home’s interior was dark, and nearly every surface was covered in pink: pink carpet, pink paint, pink wallpaper, pink draperies—even a pink ceiling. Obscuring the back patio was an A-frame structure that enclosed the pool—itself a later addition—while a pergola over the front door also blocked the light. "It was hard for me to envision what the house could look like," she says. "But then we saw those photos and we could imagine what you could do to bring it back to its original style."
Those photos were five images that Julius Shulman had shot soon after the house was completed. Studying them gave the couple a roadmap for how to proceed. "All it needed was a clean-up, really," Tyler says. "We just needed to pare things back a bit."
Once the house was theirs, the couple delved into Neutra’s work in earnest, a search that took them to the Shulman archive at the nearby Getty Research Institute. There they discovered nine more black-and-white photos of the home from 1956.
Their first task was to eliminate all that pink, a move that immediately made the house feel more open and expansive. Stripping away the dated decor also heightened the interior’s transparency—from room to room as well as to the panorama just outside.
While most of the previous renovations—an extra bedroom and the expanded living room—didn’t disrupt the home’s original lines, the pool enclosure posed a thornier challenge and added months to the project. "It was constructed way better than we’d thought," Tyler explains. "I remember calling Marge at work—she was ready to cry, because we thought we were going to be stuck with the roof or the steel supports in our backyard." But contractor Roderick McGrew came up with a plan to demolish the massive structure and remove the supports to give the couple a welcoming outdoor pool and deck.
The Lemkins then turned their attention to the interior woodwork. The built-ins in the master bedroom were in good condition, but the cabinetry in the dining area had all been pickled. Allan Luster, a friend and cabinetmaker, set about reskinning every surface. "We thought it would take about ten days, and it ended up taking three weeks," Tyler remembers. "It wasn’t so much about taking the veneer off and putting new veneer on; it was about making the cabinets straight. I think Allan took each door on and off two or three times." Luster also restored the living room’s built-in bench and constructed a clean-lined dining table.
Whenever the couple hit a snag during the renovation, they turned to color photos of Neutra’s Staller House—which was built just a year before the Adler House, though on a far grander scale. "It was important to us not to go incredibly extreme with the restoration," Tyler notes. "We didn’t want it to feel sterile." Livability also guided their sensitive update of the bathrooms as well as the kitchen, where blue Formica counters were replaced with crisp white quartz and a skylight was added.
Now joined by their baby daughter, Lucille, the Lemkins are learning to live in a house with so many windows. As Tyler explains, "We realized after having my in-laws come to stay that we probably needed to get some blinds, because you can see from the dining table right into the master bedroom."
The airy interiors feature a growing collection of midcentury furnishings, along with a revolving array of works by established and up-and-coming artists such as Raymond Pettibon, Hannah Perry, Alex Weinstein, and Petra Cortright. "We wanted the art to be the dominant source of color in the home," says Tyler, an art advisor. Once a year he hosts a cocktail party at the house, during which he exhibits new works. But no pieces are more precious than the quintet of black-and-white Shulman photos hanging outside the guest bedroom—a reminder of Richard Neutra’s original vision for a landmark that has once again become a home.