For a century or more, Los Angeles has been an inspiration and proving ground for maverick architects who have sought to make use of innovative materials and turn traditional residential design on its ear. Sprinkled in among the sprawling California ranch houses, stately Colonials, ornate Italianate villas and ubiquitous, blandly conceived “Mediterranean” macmansions that make up so much of the housing stock in Southern California, there are a small but delicious number of architectural confections designed by trendsetting trailblazers like Rudolph Schindler, Pierre Konig, John Lautner and Richard Neutra.
Occasionally, and typically with a deluge of tongue wagging by property gossips around the globe, one of these tour-de-force properties comes for sale. Lautner’s geometric Wolff Residence, cantilevered over a steep hillside above the Sunset Strip, was recently purchased for $5.9 million by Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Rønning and entrepreneurial heiress Amanda Hearst, and Neutra’s Lovell Health House in Los Feliz has come available outside the Multiple Listing Service at an undisclosed but surely eye-popping price. Another of Neutra’s most iconic and internationally renowned masterpieces, the Bauhaus-inspired Sten-Frenke House in Santa Monica, has also come up for sale at an eye-catching and publicity assuring price of $15 million.
Completed in 1934 and situated on a double lot at the mouth of Santa Monica Canyon — it’s close enough to the beach to hear the sound of the roaring surf over the relentless drum of traffic on Pacific Coast Highway, the Sten-Frenke House was commissioned by and built for Ukrainian actor Anna Sten and her also Ukrainian husband Eugene Frenke. So the story goes, the forward-thinking couple came to Los Angeles at the behest of movie industry tycoon Samuel Goldwyn, who hoped but did not manage to turn Ms. Sten into the “Russian Garbo.” While architects sometimes get an occasionally deserved reputation as autocratic prima donnas, Neutra was famously sensitive to the unique needs and desires of his clients and, because the Sten-Frenkes expressed an appreciation for nature, the house was not only oriented to take advantage of the sea breezes and Pacific Ocean vistas but also to be in quiet harmony with the natural and landscaped areas surrounding the house.
At some point, the property came to be owned by late and, at least according to the Internet Movie Data Base, not especially successful screenwriter Berni Gould. In the early 2000s, filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko shot much of her 2002 movie “Laurel Canyon” on the property, and sometime shortly thereafter indie film producer Jeff Levy-Hinte, one of the co-producers for “Laurel Canyon,” acquired the property from Gould’s heirs for around $3 million. After an extensive and costly restoration and renovation spearheaded by New York-based architect James Biber and illustrious, L.A.-based architecture firm Marmol Radziner, Levy-Hinte put the property up for sale in early 2006 with a far too optimistic asking price of $8 million. The price eventually dropped to just under $7 million and was finally sold in 2009 for $4.7 million to it’s current owner and seller, German-born filmmaker Marc Forster. Forster, who helmed “Monster’s Ball,” “The Kite Runner” and “World War Z,” brought in celebrated designer and restoration expert Mark Haddawy to further update and restore the house in a manner that adheres closely to Neutra’s original design.
Compared to the 10,000-square-foot macmansions and behemoth megamansions nowadays favored by many richer-than-Midas homeowners, the Sten-Frenke residence is quite modest at just under 3,000 square feet. Three bedrooms and 3.5 bathrooms include a window-lined master suite that opens to a private terrace with gorgeous, tree-framed views over the ocean. A detached studio and guesthouse, added by Forster and designed by L.A. architecture firm Johnston Marklee, who dubbed it Ark House, was sympathetically conceived to be in curvilinear kinship with the main house and includes another couple of bedrooms and a bathroom, plus a library/office, a hot yoga studio and a rooftop deck.
In the main house, the living room features a massive brick fireplace and thickly cushioned built-in banquette sofas. There’s a roomy office/library just off the living room and the separate dining room looks out into a thick wall of verdant treetops through a ribbon of steel-framed windows that run around a curved wall. But for the up-to-date appliances, the not-especially-spacious eat-in galley kitchen looks much as Neutra designed it with sliding cabinet doors and hygienic stainless steel countertops. Outside just inside the front gates and below the main house in a lush glade bordered by manicured plantings, mature trees and high hedging, the rectangular white concrete swimming pool has an automatic cover.