The Kaufmann Desert House, A Modernist Masterpiece, Is For Sale For $25 Million

Real Estate

At its best, modernism produced poetically beautiful buildings whose spare simplicity belied their sophisticated design. A stellar example is Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann Desert House. 

Located in modernism’s spiritual epicenter, Palm Beach, California, it is considered to be among the most important and iconic houses of the 20th century. Now it is on the market for $25 million.

Neutra, who was born in Austria, designed it in 1945 for Pennsylvania department store entrepreneur Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. as a winter vacation getaway from his Pittsburgh home. Completed in 1946, the 3,162 square foot house is a symphony of steel, glass, sandstone and stucco, with terrazzo flooring. Its cruciform design organizes around a central swimming pool made famous by a series of photographs by Julius Shulman in 1947 and again by Slim Aarons in 1970.

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“After Mr. Kaufmann died in 1955, the house passed through several owners, including musician Barry Manilow and an owner of the San Diego Chargers,” says listing agent Gerard Bisignano of Vista Sotheby’s International Realty. “They added to the house, pushing out walls, enclosing the patio and adding roof air-conditioning. Surfaces of the house were repainted or covered up.”

In 1993, Brent and Beth Harris purchased the house. He, a financial executive and she, an architectural historian, had the vision, the means, and the determination to restore the house to its original pristine condition. They launched a five-year restoration headed up by the Los Angeles design-build firm Marmol Radziner. Known for their innovative architecture and the restoration of historic modern buildings, they used Julius Shulman’s 1947 photographs to guide them. In the process, they persuaded a Utah mine to reopen an abandoned section used in the 1940s in order to quarry sandstone in the original “sunset” pinkish buff hue to match sections that were damaged or had been removed. Crimped aluminum trim was produced in Kansas on a machine that had been out of use for nearly 50 years. Window frames, door handles, and Fresnel lenses for ceiling lights were meticulously reproduced, some by the original manufacturers. Interior walls were reconstructed in the old way, using an inch-and-a-half of plaster, and the special floors of concrete mixed with silica sand, as chosen and specified by Richard Neutra and Edgar Kaufmann, were discreetly patched. 

Today the five-bedroom, six-bath house looks again as its designer and owner envisioned it, set on 2.18 acres against the dramatic backdrop of Mount San Jacinto.

Lauded for its unique and trendsetting modern restoration, the Kaufmann House has garnered recognition from the American Institute of Architects California and has been the subject of over 275 articles, as well as numerous prizes and awards.

Bisignano points out that Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. commissioned another iconic 20th century American house, Fallingwater, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and completed in 1937. Thus, one person was responsible for two of the greatest examples of modern design, built just ten years apart. Whether he intended to or not, Mr. Kaufmann left an incomparable architectural legacy.

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