October 26, 2016

Photo Essay: A Mid-Century Case for Idyllic Living (Updated for 2019)

[Last updated 7/25/19 9:43 PM PT]

LA may not be known for its downtown skyline, but it sure has some famous houses.

Most notably, there are the Case Study houses—part of a program to create prototypes of simple, modern homes made from basic building materials.

The Case Study houses were supposed to be examples of homes that the "average American" could afford in the decades after World War II. But between the eventual celebrity of the architects who designed them (Neutra, Eames, etc.) and the skyrocketing value of real estate in the Hollywood Hills, these small domiciles are no longer affordable for the middle class.

Nor are their prices commensurate with their size: A mere 1280 square feet can run you upwards of $4 or $5 million.

The prototypes were also meant to be duplicated—in fact, mass produced—but that never happened. The houses each ended up becoming, more or less, one-of-a-kind.

Out of the 36 prototype designs that sprung out of the Case Study program, only 25 were ever built. Of those that still exist in the LA area (about 20), you usually only get to see most of them in photos. In fact, most of them are photo-famous, but rarely visited by anyone other than their owners and guests.

But when one of them is on the market, you get to walk right through the front door and see it with your own eyes (even if you couldn't afford to become its new owner).

Such is the case with Case Study House #21, famous for its steel frame, which architect Pierre Koenig had constructed from prefabricated steel bents.

The house was designed at the behest of psychologist Walter Bailey and his wife Mary, who—without any children—were said to live an "informal" lifestyle.

So, from the carport... the shallow reflecting pools that surround the house...

...and the glass walls that allow you to gaze out upon them...

...Koenig was able to really explore what a steel construction house could be, without limitation.

He even dared to place corrugated steel ceilings nine feet above his open plan design.

At some point after the Case Study house program ended in the 1960s, this type of living was no longer considered "idyllic"—and so some things were modernized, like the kitchen...

...and the bathroom.

Amazingly, the fountains still run, circulating water out to the reflecting pools outside and back into the house.

But while the original furnishings were removed at one point, a subsequent owner of the Bailey House brought Koenig on in 1997 to painstakingly restore the house—and its furnishings—back to its original condition.

That included a black Naugahyde couch. It's not the same one as in the famous Julius Shulman photograph, but it's close.

Julius Shulman photography archive. The Getty Research Institute, 2004.R.10

This isn't the house that made Koenig famous, though. It was the architect's next project after the Bailey House: Case Study House #22, better-known as the Stahl House.

Update 7/25/19: CurbedLA reports that the property was purchased in February 2019 and has begun a restoration to keep it from sliding down the hillside. Photos, however, appear alarming as nothing seems to be left other than a steel skeleton.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Stahl House, from Dusk to Night
Photo Essay: A Real Fixer-Upper
Photo Essay: California Dream Homes

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