There are moments when the symbolic aspect of architecture, a structure’s power to embody larger aspirations or fears, becomes impossible to ignore.
We are seeing one such moment in the reaction to the demolition and possible resurrection of the Largent House, architect Richard Neutra’s once-modest and much-altered house on the slopes of Twin Peaks.
It was built in 1936 as a four-room home for a teacher and artist. It was razed in the fall of 2017 by construction workers for the owner, a developer who lives in Florida. San Francisco’s City Planning Commission now insists that it be rebuilt to look as it did on day one.
As a blow for historic preservation or the city’s architectural heritage, the decree is a feeble gesture at best. Look on it instead as an act of cultural defiance. There might be better ways to make the point that builders shouldn’t be rewarded for a cavalier leveling of the landscape, but it’s hard to imagine one that would provide such visceral satisfaction.
“What it’s saying is, ‘You can’t just come in and tear down historic buildings by important architects,’” said Mitchell Schwarzer, a professor in visual studies at California College of the Arts and author of “Architecture of the San Francisco Bay Area: History and Guide.” “‘We’re going to make you rebuild.’ This is a statement for the future.”
The unlikely object of attention is one of the city’s five residential buildings designed in the 1930s by Neutra, who grew up in Vienna but made his career in Los Angeles. The now-gone Largent House at 49 Hopkins Ave. on Twin Peaks was the first. The other four, still intact, range from an easy-to-miss duplex on Russian Hill to a big, boxy, balconied duplex that hugs the crest of Telegraph Hill.
Neutra’s work was neither as photogenic as Frank Lloyd Wright’s nor as distinctive as Mies van der Rohe’s. But he was one of America’s leading modern architects, the subject of a cover profile in Time magazine in 1948 in which he proclaimed, “I want every house I build to be a stepping stone to the future.”
If so, the Largent House was a modest step: Neutra didn’t have it photographed or publicized. Plans for the house are among Neutra’s papers at UCLA, but they have not been published. The house has gone through so many changes since 1959 that the city determined in 2014 that it was not a historic resource.
“Altered beyond recognition,” was the succinct verdict in Thomas Hines’ “Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture,” published in 2005.
Barbara Lamprecht, author of 2010’s “Neutra: Complete Works,” described the Largent House as important because of the architect’s use of wood siding, and how he “harnessed the existing vernacular of San Francisco” in what then was a startling modern design.
But she has never seen images of the building in its original form. And when Lamprecht traveled to the Bay Area to research her book, her reaction to seeing the altered house at 49 Hopkins was “sadness,” she said this month. “When you take a house and add to it in a way that misunderstands the house so profoundly, that’s sad.”
So why the fuss over 49 Hopkins’ demolition?
Specific circumstances, and larger tensions.
According to the presentation by owner Ross Johnston and his team at a Planning Commission meeting Dec. 13, it was all an unfortunate mistake. Johnston had purchased the house and a set of approved expansion plans so that, supposedly, his family could relocate from Florida to San Francisco. The contractor and his crew were on-site when they discovered such hazardous conditions that an immediate demolition was required for “life-safety reasons,” according to attorney Justin Zucker.
The Planning Commission didn’t buy it — pointing out, for starters, that all the crew had to do with regard to perceived dangers was to leave the site and call the Department of Building Inspection.
Johnston, meanwhile, appeared in a recent online real estate video — since taken down — in which he happily talked development strategies but said nothing about a move to the West Coast. Quite the opposite: He said he intends to raise his family in central Florida.
Nor is this an isolated incident.
Across San Francisco, houses are dismembered in defiance of approved plans, with permit changes filed after the fact and developers insisting the prior home was in such poor condition that they had no other option. The culprits include Troon Pacific, fined $400,000 after buying a Willis Polk-designed home on Russian Hill, then tearing it down to erect what the developer claimed was a “historically accurate replica.”
Troon Pacific paid $4.5 million for the house. The redo, now a 9,500-square-foot estate complete with seven bathrooms and a two-story subterranean art gallery, went on the market in October with an asking price of $45 million.
Such dubious transformations are magnified by the legal ones seen from Glen Park to Corona Heights, and in Bay Area neighborhoods beyond San Francisco. Houses in desirable settings lacking historic protections or zoning controls are replaced by ones several times larger, at costs that regular working people cannot conceive.
In this context, Johnston’s protestations of simply wanting to build a 3,960-square-foot family home ring hollow. The crackdown by planning commissioners is seen by many as a deserved comeuppance.
“I think they’re doing the right thing — something as onerous as that (a rebuild) is what’s needed,” said Schwarzer, the California College of the Arts professor. “People in cities like San Francisco feel that we are under assault, that our cities are changing beyond recognition.”
This view is echoed by Thompson Mayes, author of “Why Old Places Matter” and senior counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“I’m a practicing attorney, and this seems like the perfect remedy for an illegal demolition,” Mayes said.
Not that Mayes expects a replica to somehow bring Neutra’s spirit back to life.
“You shouldn’t try to pretend this is a new old thing. It would be a reconstruction, but one that acknowledges older values,” Mayes said. “What’s more important than the specific work of architecture is the sense of place more generally.”
That’s assuming the Planning Commission’s strong stand doesn’t waver. Or that Johnston doesn’t fight back in court and win. The commission decision requires Johnston to rebuild the house — not as it was when he bought it, but to its 1936 dimensions. Attorneys could challenge the commission’s legal right to make such a sweeping edict.
If the house indeed was rebuilt as originally intended, it wouldn’t be a first. For instance, St. Mark’s Campanile on the Piazza San Marco in Venice collapsed in 1902 and was promptly rebuilt as if the year again was 1513.
Of course, Largent House isn’t the equal of St. Mark’s. Or Dresden’s Frauenkirche, a Baroque masterpiece completed in 1743 and reborn in 2005 after Allied bombers leveled it in 1945.
Another solution in San Francisco might be to let Johnston build his house on Hopkins Avenue however he desires. With a catch: When he sells it, all revenue above the $1.7 million he paid in 2017 would go to the city’s Historic Preservation Fund, to be spent on architectural surveys and the research of possible landmarks.
This type of penalty might deter other builders tempted to raze first and apologize later. It also would have benefits throughout the city. But let’s be honest: It wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.
John King is The San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @johnkingsfchron