TRAPPED BY MIDCENTURY MORES: Mary Roberts teaches Richard Neutra a Painful Life Lesson

Photo by Cameron Carothers, used with kind permission. A beautiful expression of the Neutra’s trademark, the spider leg, a Modern way of creating the canopy of a tree: interstial space. The opposing planes feel DeStijlian.

There are lots of great stories about how a house came to be. Architect and client so very pleased at the handsome outcome. Beautiful photographs. Big smiles.

And then there are the other stories.  

One such project haunted its architect, Richard Neutra … yet looking at the house in question, you’d swear it was a good story, happy ending. Consider its perfection: crowning a wooded hilltop, a flawlessly proportioned mid-century house stands amidst broad meadows. The air is soft and clear. Except for the sound of birds, it is very still, serene, a world apart from the nearby 10 Freeway.[1] Of course, being a Neutra, the view is breathtaking, looking out to snow-capped Mt. Baldy and the dusky gray-green San Gabriel Mountains.

In 2021, it is difficult to believe that 67 years ago a profound anguish washed through every step of its making, a suffering imprinted on page after fading, yellowed page of letters between architect and client.

Designed by Neutra with his architect son Dion, the story of the 1955 Roberts House goes far beyond your standard-issue tales of architect-client ups and downs. It revolves around a young wife struggling against mid-century gender expectations, embodied on one side by the successful husband intent on his dream house and on the other, the famous architect determined to deliver just that. It was that young wife, however, who shocked Richard Neutra into a life lesson on listening. After all, he prided himself—loudly and often—on his special ability for “fellow-feeling,” for “empathy,” with his client. Anonymizing the couple as Mr. and Mrs. O in his 1962 autobiography, Life and Shape, he gave them a starring role, spending a whole nine pages to analyzing what went so terribly wrong.[2] The writing is imbued with sadness. He did not see that “Mrs. O” felt herself to be a fly trapped in the web of someone else’s making, someone else’s design. That he had so utterly failed to correctly interpret the woman’s increasing signals of distress shook Neutra deeply.

The irony is that despite all that suffering (or perhaps because of it), the result is one of Neutra’s most beautiful expressions of his fabled “Golden Era” of 1950s residential architecture, a time when he fused sleek Modernist glass-and-wood post-and-beam lines with an unintimidating, relaxed air. And even among Neutra’s so-called “glass pavilions,” this very long L-shaped house is especially transparent. It is a quality only possible with a site this private, with its long shady driveway up to the house, surrounded by meadows and trees such as coast live oak, cork, eucalyptus, avocado trees, and a giant pine tree whose massive limbs preside over all. Yet despite all that transparency the structure is firmly rooted to the earth by ten “spider legs,” the Neutra trademark of a beam that extend beyond the roof line to be caught and held by a post. The structure is further integrated with the land by the unusual cladding of Texas shell stone, a light-colored limestone deeply textured by the remains of creatures in prehistoric seas. Contrasting nicely with crisp planes of sand-finished white stucco, the same shell stone is used for the long, low banks of retaining walls near the house and the double fireplace inside.

Photo by Cameron Carothers, used with kind permission. Rear of house, camera facing west.

Starting and Stopping

Mary and Maurie Roberts, Long Beach. Undated.
Photo Courtesy of the Roberts Family

The tale begins in summer 1953. Neutra was at the top of his game. Books and magazine covers, international fame, two offices, honorary degrees bestowed. For J.M. Roberts and his wife Mary – or perhaps for only J.M – a house by Neutra fulfilled a dream realized after the couple built a successful metal products business. It was to be their version of the American dream: according to grandchild Linda Roberts, Mary was born in a mud hut in the Badlands of South Dakota. The couple bought a 15-acre property in the hills of Covina hills, now part of West Covina. The site was isolated: back then there were few neighboring houses. At night, few lights were to be seen out in the blackness.  Silence was broken only by the sounds of the birds (indeed, the setting is still a haven for many bird species.) Still, those spectacular views. Paradise.

Like so many others before them, and as any architect or contractor knows too well, the new commission for their dream house began easily enough. “We have proceeded full blast in developing preliminary studies … we are going over your requirements with a fine tooth comb,” Neutra writes confidently on August 14, 1953, as ever making his client feel like they’re the only game in town. Two months later, everything abruptly changed: “I want you to stop work on all the plans for our home,” J.M. ordered in a letter dated Sept. 18, 1953.

The news stunned Neutra. All in all, the site promised a full repertoire of attributes that any architect might lust to exploit. And far more than the Roberts themselves, Neutra already envisioned the shape of the life he wanted his architecture to provide to the family. Now that one letter put it all in jeopardy.

“Stop Work!” Letter, 18 September 1953, from the Roberts to the Neutra Office. Richard and Dion Neutra Papers, Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA, Box 101, Folder 4.

The frosty tone continued: “After seeing your houses in San Bernardino, Running Springs, and Redlands, we are firmly convinced that your ‘style’ of architecture is of a nature we do not like.[3] If you recall our first conversation, we stated we wanted a Ranch style. We specifically mentioned a sloping or gable roof.” A Neutra office call record added that Mrs. Roberts hated “large glass windows,” a strange remark given that presumably anyone who commissioned Neutra would know that copious amounts of glass and flat rooflines were standard.   

Mary Takes the Blame. Richard and Dion Neutra Papers …

The correspondence in the archives could have ended right there, but Neutra did not give up. The very next letter indicates things got back on track. “I do believe we have made great progress in absorbing all the newly developed thoughts …” He did indeed introduce a shallow gable roof in the north end of the house, where the kitchen and outdoor play areas were located. By October 9, 1953, the Roberts had requested and received three sets of plans that corresponded to a steep, gentle, and flat roof—at great cost to the architect. “I may add,” Neutra writes, “that in trying our very best in this respect we must telescope every time a great deal of structural and framing consideration, so floor plans, appearance, and construction [are] one integrated whole … everything must be in harmony.” In one of many times where he painstakingly shared the reason behind a strategy, he explained that in order to achieve “a completely flush appearance” in the wall separating kitchen and living room, a swinging door (in plane with the wall) was preferable to a sliding door (inset into the wall.) That way a “conflict of line” that confused the eye was avoided, a conflict that in turn compromised well-being by introducing stress.[4]

Seven months later, an almost-crisis erupted again. In June 1954 (when the correspondence should have trickled down to details such as outlet locations), the Roberts abruptly changed direction, now returning to a flat roof. Furthermore, they were going to work not with Neutra on the reversal but to instigate changes themselves with the new contractor. Both ideas dismayed the architect. “Mr. O. deliberately made it impossible for me to become acquainted with the contractor,” Neutra wrote. Now the “very thoroughly documented detailed plans” that Richard and son Dion, project architect on the job, invariably wanted to review with contractors were suddenly “in the hands of someone entirely unknown to me, which of course caused me no end of anxiety.” Hoping to retain some sort of influence, the Neutra office rushed sketches to the Roberts, not even knowing whether they still had the job.

Throughout the correspondence, J.M. emerges as a self-reliant man quite used to delegating work or doing it himself, including surveying the property and hiring his own general contractor, a Mr. Litch. But to the surprise and relief of the Neutras, the survey was quite accurate. Litch’s work proved so fine that Neutra called his work “splendid, with a heart for the care which we have wrought into the visible detail of design.”[5] In fact, contractor and architect became collaborators because both were intent on realizing their best on this building. “Almost secretly, and with practically the air of a conspirator, I managed to get to know the man [Litch] … Without permission of the owner, he tipped me off on all the delaying changes that were now being made during the actual construction,” Neutra wrote.[6],[7] Sixty years later, lead restoration craftsman Eric Lamers and his crew, Joe Carroll and Otto Carr, were taken aback by the quality of the original construction. “When we opened walls [where no one sees] the framing was tight, plumb and level, with every spacing for every connector precise. On the exterior posts, even the slots for the (flat head) screws were level. So we felt like we were kindred spirits, that these guys were doing the same things in 1955 that we would do today,” said carpenter Carr.[8] Lamers and master German roofer, Gunnar Kirchhoff, worked tirelessly to not only replace but to seamlessly insulate the huge roof without affecting the roof’s long, low horizontal line.

“Mrs. O’s” Revelation

But the story of the house, Mrs. O, and Richard Neutra isn’t over. Mary upended the procedure yet again. To Neutra’s disbelief, she now wanted to swap the location of the kitchen and the master bedroom. The idea of “tearing out structural walls and plumbing installations, rough and finished, was fantastic … This poor woman appeared almost raving.”[9] He writes, again shocked, that the contractor, Mr. Litch, had actually been in a sanatorium, recovering from a nervous breakdown after the home’s completion. Earnestly seeking to make peace with Mrs. Roberts, as he addressed her, he decided to go to see her one last time, seeking her out in the newly finished but still raw building. He found her alone in the house. Mary was not pleased to see him: she “practically closed her eyes and ears, and again showed the utmost resentment.” And then, in a torrent, all her frustrations came flooding out: the garden and house were too big, the constant dust from uncompleted excavation covered everything, one maid after the other left her because movies and dates were so far away. And on and on. Neutra was silent. “Then I meekly responded that her husband had wanted all this and had often lauded me for my plans. And then she broke into a real rage … and spoke as a woman against un-understanding men. ‘Yes, yes, this is how you men are! He lauds you for your plans, but he drives off to his business in the morning and leaves me in the lurch, alone every day – every day,’” she said, turning away.

Here one can see Neutra’s intense wish to resolve horizontality and a sloping line, and its subsequent impact on first the eye and then one’s emotional response.

As Neutra now knew, J.M.’s dream of being a gentleman farmer commanding an orchard on a piece of choice property was not shared by his young wife, mother to four little children. She felt incapable at being left to handle everything alone in this isolated place. The closer the move-in date came, the greater her desperate delaying tactics. Meanwhile, Neutra had been consumed with avoiding failure as an architect. “Suddenly it overcame me. I saw that she was right. For a year Mrs. O. had tried to halt her fate. She could not do it.” The problem, he realized was “not that Mr. O had failed, but because he had succeeded! I completely missed the human issue; I should have heeded the woman’s subconscious but obviously rising anxiousness,” he recounts. Mary Roberts’ demeanor mellowed when she saw how upset Neutra was. She cried, and he almost did, too, he wrote.[10]

At the end of construction, Neutra was pleased with the outcome. The correspondence ends on a high note with a four-page discussion on the critical west corner, probably one of the finest ensembles of trademark Neutra features anywhere. (It is first thing one sees after the journey up the driveway, hence the concern for its impact.) “I should report to you, standing here with Dion,” Neutra wrote to J.M., “that the house looks even more promising than during all our stewing and studying in the office here,” adding that it looked as good or even better than another design that had just won “the 1954 supreme prize for any residence in the Nation.”

Part of Neutra’s comment may well rest on the unusual synthesis of shallow and flat roofs and ceilings complemented by white-painted stucco planes and overhangs that slide past natural-finish wood ceilings and beams (now painted brown to conceal beam end repairs.) The north section has open beam framing at a subtle pitch; the living room’s white-painted plaster ceiling is level and slightly lowered; while the south, private end of the house returns to open wood framing.[11] Neutra’s urgent dispatches of “suggestions” for the colors of finishes reflect his concern to manipulate visual perception through the use of what he termed “neutral” tones against splashes of color. On April 12, 1955, he wrote, “Even if you do not like the brown color at the present moment, we would strongly urge you to try it out for a little while because it is the richness and darkness of this color that brings out the true beauty of wood that is adjacent. There is no color that will achieve this except perhaps white …”

White and brown-painted plaster were also used to flank windows, so that the texture and greenery of the landscape could have pride of place in providing color and ornament. Other colors were used more sparingly, on one or two planes, always separated from other bright tones by a “neutralizing” color. Another time, Neutra suggests planting a yellow-blooming vine on the pergola posts near the kitchen “so that such foreground framing makes the view onto the distant blueish mountains especially beautiful.”[12] Bright colors were also used for bathroom tiles: pink (Mary’s favorite) in the master bedroom, yellow and blue for the two bathrooms for the four boys.

Eventually, the Covina Hills were built up. Life was not so lonely. As the children grew, Neutra’s repertoire of tough finishes proved their mettle. Here, the blood-red stain of the original concrete floors, the warmth of the Douglas Fir tongue-and-groove ceiling, and half-inch-thick solid birch paneling on key walls were beautiful, yes, but equally importantly could stand any test by the high-spirited family of boys, dogs, horses (such as Thunder, a shiny black stallion kept down the hill in the family stable), golf (Mary’s game), etc. Years later those children brought their own children, and for some of them the house became a trusted and beloved family member. Deep overhangs provided shade and protection even in the rain, and radiant floor heating extended play areas into the landscape. Decades later, Linda Roberts recalled that sense of openness and freedom contrasting with shelter and protection that the house conveyed. And of course, these dual qualities—openness to the landscape and the feeling of safety— were precisely what Neutra designed. A house was to be a “soul anchorage” that manifested his philosophy of biorealism, which celebrated how a body and all its senses engages space. That kind of subtle artistry is in fact an act of generosity that is knit right into the Roberts House.

By 1973, the house had been sold. The second owner decided to make the house more “Spanish,” beginning with staining the light birch wall paneling a walnut brown. (Why do people do this? Why not buy a “Spanish” house to begin with, and leave a masterpiece alone?) The beams and ceilings were sandblasted for a more rústico appearance. The outdoor shower and exterior entrance to the north bathroom—a thoughtful gesture given four boys and a pool— were enclosed. The master dressing room, once neatly providing functional privacy, was demolished. Mexican tiles overlaid the polished blood-red concrete or replaced carpet. The kitchen was “updated” with decorative ash veneer cabinetry. Overall, it was an uncomfortable conversion, exacerbated by deferred maintenance, as Chumi Paul and John-Mark Horton saw when they bought the house in 2014. The business partners had already restored the 1952 Schlessinger House designed by R.M. Schindler, so knew the special challenges involved with working with pedigreed houses. Horton was impressed at Neutra’s masterful siting but applauds Paul’s role in the effort. The house was “so beautiful, so livable, [that] someone had to save it,” she said.

I took the photo, can’t remember who this is among craftsman Eric Lamer’s team, possibly Otto Carr or Joe Carroll.

Making judicious choices was key to meet the budget. The team focused first on structural repairs. For example, at the carport, three of four supporting beams had to be completely replaced and rebuilt in order to restore the 54-foot-long beam run from the high point of the ridge line. (Combined with the other north side, where the roof is 24 feet long, the overall width of the roof is 78 feet, while the house’s length is 108 feet. These grand sweeps are what imbues the house with its sense of largesse.) Unsightly air-conditioning systems were put below grade, which meant cutting into the concrete floor, already marred by a long-broken radiant heating system. Cork, that beloved mid-century material, was used instead, providing comfort underfoot a little like the radiant heating once did. A new roof was installed and insulated. The long-missing opening in the roof above the large outdoor terrace off the kitchen was also restored, providing shelter along with a slice of light to brighten the terrace. Much of the kitchen cabinetry was reconstructed according to Neutra’s specifications.

After all the work, the house looks, and feels, itself again, and better. Neutra never forgot his hard-won lesson in “remembering that we are complexly built and are not simply ‘reasonable’ creatures. ‘ ” And however painful its genesis, the house went on to become Mary and J.M.’s home for many years, and the sanctuary that some of the children and grandchildren found and recall with love and no little wistfulness. Litch’s craftsmanship of 1955 and that of 2016, when contemporary craftsmen saluted the care of so many years before, lives there still … as do the woods, the meadows, the pool, and the mountains.

And all those birds.  

[1] The bird species include the Band-tailed Pigeon, Hermit Thrush, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco, Cedar Waxwing, Bushtit, Plain Titmouse, Bewick’s Wren, Red-tailed hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Black Phoebe, Acorn Woodpecker, Rufous Hummingbird, Anna’s Hummingbird, Lesser Goldfinch, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Song Sparrow, and the White-crowned Sparrow. Source: restoration carpenter Otto Carr, who worked on the Roberts House with Eric Lamers and Joe Carroll.

[2] For comparison, iconic peers Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, for example, get mere mentions.

[3] The Goodman House, San Bernardino, 1952; the Auerbacher Lodge, Running Springs, 1952; the Auerbacher House, Redlands, 1953.

[4] Neutra, letter to Roberts, 23 August 1954. Richard and Dion Neutra Papers, Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA, Collection 1179, Box 101.

[5] Ibid., letter to Roberts, 4 August 1954.

[6] Richard Neutra, Life and Shape, 1962. Reprint, Los Angeles: Atara Press, 2009, 295.

[7] Sixty years later, lead restoration craftsman Eric Lamers and his talented crew were taken aback by the quality of the construction. “When we opened walls [where no one sees] the framing was tight, plumb and level, with every spacing for every connector precise. On the exterior posts, even the slots for the (flat head) screws were level. So we felt like we were kindred spirits, that these guys were doing the same things in 1955 that we would do today,” said carpenter Otto Carr. Carpenter Joe Carroll is also a member of Lamer’s team.

[8] Neutra sought to achieve the quality of horizontality at every scale; even the outlet plates for light switches also had level incised lines top and bottom. Eric Lamers’ team includes Joe Carroll.

[9] Life and Shape, 298.

[10] Ibid, 301.

[11] In an August 3, 1954 letter to Roberts, Neutra applauded his client’s idea to have a living room ceiling that was partly level, reflecting the major unobstructed area of the rectangular living room and clad with flat, white-painted plaster, intersecting with the sloping roof beam.

[12] Letter to Roberts, 4 August 1954. Yellow and blue are opposites on the color wheel, complementing each other well.

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