Selling the Kaufmann House

Selling the Kaufmann House
The next owner of desert modernism’s Richard Neutra-designed crown jewel will need about $20 million and, as previous stewards attest, a passion for preservation.

The house was commissioned by Edgar J. Kaufmann, Snr, the owner of Kaufmann’s Department Store in Pittsburgh, as a desert retreat from harsh winters. It was built in 1946. It was made famous by photographs taken by Julius Shulman in 1947 and the 1970 photograph “Poolside Gossip” by Slim Aarons. In 1935, Kaufmann had commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.

After Kaufmann died in 1955, the house stood vacant for several years. It then had a series of owners, including singer Barry Manilow and San Diego Chargers owner Eugene V. Klein, and had several renovations. These renovations enclosed a patio, added floral wallpaper to the bedrooms and removed a wall for the addition of a media room; additionally, the roof lines were altered with the addition of air conditioning units. In 1992, the home was rediscovered and purchased by a married couple: Brent Harris, an investment manager, and Beth Edwards Harris, an architectural historian; at the time it had been for sale on the market three and a half years.

The Harrises purchased the house for US$1.5 million, then sought to restore the home to its original design, contracting Marmol Radziner + Associates to undertake the five-year project, which began in 1993. For clues to the original design, the Harrises looked through the extensive Neutra archives at UCLA, found additional documents through Columbia University and were able to work with Shulman to access some of his never-printed photos of the home’s interior. They were able to obtain pieces from the original suppliers of paint and fixtures; they purchased a metal-crimping machine to reproduce the sheet-metal fascia that lined the roof.

Additionally, the Harrises were able to have a long-closed section of a Utah quarry reopened to mine matching stone to replace what had been removed or damaged. To help restore the desert buffer Neutra had envisioned for the house, the Harrises also bought several adjoining plots to more than double the land around the 3,200-square-foot (300 m2) house. They rebuilt a pool house that serves as a viewing pavilion for the main house, and kept a tennis court that was built on a parcel added to the original Kaufmann property. After the Harrises divorced, the home was sold on May 13, 2008, for US$15 million at auction by Christie’s as a part of a high-profile sale of contemporary art. The house had a presale estimate of US$15 million to US$25 million. The sale later fell through, as the bidder breached terms of the purchase agreement.

In October 2008, the house was listed for sale at US$12.95 million, but it was not sold. It was again listed for sale in October 2020 at US$25 million.

The Kaufmann house was included in a list of all-time top 10 houses in Los Angeles, despite its location in Palm Springs, in a Los Angeles Times survey of experts in December 2008.