Todd Saunders might consider himself a Richard Neutra geek—or maybe more of a dork—when it comes to closely studying the designs of the Vienna-born architect. He’s toured as many of Neutra’s structures as possible, including 10 homes in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles where the architect’s design office still stands. He’s shot dozens of photos of details and measured the tolerances between, say, a wall and a door hinge. And he tracked down the FSB hardware used in Neutra homes in the required aluminum finish for his own raised ranch in Long Beach, Calif.
A producer for fashion shoots, the 38-year-old was living in a post-and-beam apartment with his wife, Ranae, a flight attendant, when they began researching the real estate market in 2009. “We had been focusing more on ZIP code than on [architectural] style,” he says. “We looked at Cliff Mays and some Eichlers in Orange. By 2011, we had decided on Long Beach for its location and rich architectural history.”
“We invited Doug Kramer over to our apartment and showed him our furniture and gave him a pretty clear idea of what we were looking for,” says Ranae, 34. “He really got it. Doug had already seen the house about five years before and was already in love with the structure.”
“I told Doug, Let’s give ourselves three or four years to find the right house,” Todd adds. “Of course it only took two weeks.”
Doug Kramer of SoCalModern.com is a Realtor specializing in Cliff Mays and other modernist homes in the area. “I first viewed the house in 2006. It was pretty much carpeted throughout, with the exception of the kitchen and bathrooms, which had what appeared to be the original linoleum floors. The walls were a pale green and the place look tired, though still sexy,” he recalls.
“When the Saunderses toured, it was a bank-owned property and, while it had been cleaned up a bit, it was far from its original luster. This was not a negative, however, as it gave Todd and Ranae the opportunity to purchase at a discount and still have resources left over to bring this gem back to life.”
Reflective of the rollercoaster housing market, the 1,700-square-foot, two-bedroom home had sold for $362,500 in 1998 and a breathtaking $891,000 in 2006. Five years later, it was much more affordable. Located in the Alamitos Heights neighborhood of well-kept postwar homes, an added cachet was the handful of Neutra houses nearby.
The bank that owned the 1959-built property had installed a new kitchen and laminate flooring, so the Saunderses found it very livable during their walk-through and only anticipated cosmetic touches. “It was the first house we looked at with Doug and we both just knew,” Ranae recalls. But once they started exploring, one thing led to another and six months later, most elements had been touched.
“A couple of layers of the unfortunate onion that had grown on the structure had been peeled back,” Todd says. “We undid a lot. The first thing was sandblasting years and years of paint off the fireplace, then we took up the Pergo flooring, followed by old linoleum and Masonite. We kept peeling back to see what we had to work with, and built back up from there. In the case of the floors, we ended up with the subfloor, then new ply, then white oak.
“We didn’t plan on doing the gas lines, rewiring the house or doing the plumbing,” he continues. “I had worked with most of our contractors previously and trusted them. They said, We can get you by or we can do it now while we’re in there and you won’t have to touch it for another 15 or 20 years. So we opted just to go for it. The hard part was redoing it correctly and installing period-correct and/or contemporary pieces and hardware that would jibe with the midcentury style.”
“We did take on more areas than we originally planned on, but it seemed necessary,” Ranae adds. “We wanted a home that we wouldn’t be working on for years, to be able to move in and actually enjoy it.”
“The sandblaster was hesitant about our job, thinking the fireplace corners might get rounded off, but Todd was confident that that’s what he wanted to do,” Ranae explains.
“For sure, a sandblasting gun in the hands of the wrong person could dig a hole right through it,” Todd concedes. “The concrete block maintained its sharp edges and, while there may be a couple of places where the grout was degraded a little, other than that, it’s very uniform and beautiful. It’s such a pleasing texture; everyone comes in and walks up and touches the fireplace.”
This couple’s dynamic places Todd in the role of tastemaker, while Ranae brings a more pragmatic approach and helped steer the budget through the shoals of ambition overreach. “I’m much more practical, and aesthetically there are some things Todd likes where I would prefer something more functional. He’s definitely the expert and I’m still learning,” she says.
This meant that when he wanted to pull out the IKEA kitchen cabinets, she lobbied that they worked well and suited the flow of house. “Restraint was my biggest challenge—what to pull back on, what to focus on,” Todd acknowledges. “I love spending time and money on the house. We went out to Orbit In in Palm Springs one weekend, and they had gorgeous new aluminum doors and windows. I got on a kick of doing research on replacement windows for a while.”
Instead, they had the tracks of the existing sliding glass doors repaired, and 3M safety film, which offers both breakage and UV protection, installed instead of changing out the windows. Bonus points for maintaining the original look and saving a bucket of money.
Whenever possible, Todd summoned up the aesthetic ghost of Neutra. “At the time this house was built, here in Long Beach you had a handful of Neutras going in, and Edward Killingsworth was designing a lot of the major structures at Cal State Long Beach. We took cues from their work, figuring that the builder of this house would have done the same. There are subtle details that are a tip of the hat to those legends.”
An example was the glass and aluminum exterior lamps Neutra used on many of the homes Todd had toured. “I had photos but couldn’t find them anywhere, not even the name or manufacturer,” he says. “Through trolling and keyword searching on eBay and Craigslist, I found a couple that came off a house in the Midwest. That was one thing I totally dorked out on. We have them now by the front door and the entryway to the kitchen. It does the house justice and, hopefully, the other way round.”
Unbeknownst to them, the local preservation group had been tipped off about the home and, as they wound up the project, they received a historic preservation award from Long Beach Heritage. “That was quite a surprise,” Todd says. “We would have worked just as hard and diligently on this house, but to receive a nod from a city that has such a number of beautiful Spanish and Craftsman homes, to have our midcentury home recognized—I was over the moon.”
“It’s very fulfilling to bring together a midcentury modern gem—especially one that has been neglected—with buyers who have the know-how, resources and will to care for it,” Realtor Doug Kramer comments. “This home has changed ownership four times in the last five years, and it’s a relief to say it’s now in very good hands.”