The Russian Garbo
Pentagram Paper 38

After a remarkable, actually life-changing, trip in 1997 throughout Los Angeles and Palm Springs to study more than 25 California modern houses, we were lucky enough to have a chance to restore a genuine original; The 1934 Sten-Frenke House by Richard Neutra.

The story of its original creation, and the story of the restoration and photography by legendary chronicler of moder California architecture, Julius Shulman, is the subject of this small booklet produced as a Pentagram Paper.

Anna Sten, the Ukrainian film actress, and her producer husband Dr. Eugene Frenke, came to Hollywood under the aegis of Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn though he had found his “Russian Garbo” but had failed to reconcile that hope with Sten’s lack of command of English in the age of talking pictures. Just after their arrival they hired fellow emigre Richard Neutra to design a house for them in the hill of Santa Monica.

Neutra had, a few years earlier, finished the Lowell Health House which cemented his reputation as the most important modern architect west of the Mississippi. He was featured in the 1932 International Style exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and had surpassed his elder colleague Rudolph Schindler in fame.

The house Neutra built for Sten and Frenke was a simple European-style modern house. Sited on a double lot, but occupying only one, the house was surrounded by a wall of rough cast ‘California’ blocks and was washed a light grey cement color. The house is remarkable for the amount of continuous ribbons of glass in a ‘balloon frame’ wooden house, giving it the look of modern concrete houses in France and Germany.

The restriction to the one site compressed Neutra’s original design and truncated the pergola’s frame intended to extend to the ocean view. The pool sat in a less than ideal position and the interior was compromised (he might have said) by the actress’s insistence on purple bathroom tile and unimaginative landscaping.

When Biber Architect’s clients found the house it has been owned by only 2 families in nearly 70 years; the Sten-Frenkes and Bernie Gould, an aging Hollywood writer. The new owners undertook an extensive restoration and renovation of the house, replacing nearly every element while maintaining the form, patina and sense of age of this remarkable house.

James Biber, acting as both client and architect, teamed up with Los Angeles architects Marmol + Radziner (experts in Neutra house restorations) to surgically repair the house while at the same time realizing some of Neutra’s original ideas. The pergola was extended to its full length, the pool was relocated to the more gracious original conception and the site was landscaped (by Jay Griffith, Landscape designer) to fill out the newly occupied double lot. In every case the materials, details and integrity of the original was maintained and reinforced. Event the rough block perimeter wall was rebuilt of custom cast blocks to accurately recreate the original

Inside the bathrooms were restored, leaving the original tile, using vintage faucets and fixtures. The tile, where it could not be repaired, was recreated in a local custom tile workshop. Glass for the stairwell ‘lantern’ was remade in Vancouver to simulate the original glass. Lighting fixtures not realized in the original were fabricated from Neutra’s original sketches and details. The kitchen was enlarged (the only change to the building’s volume) and was fitted with a vintage sink and stove. The wood paneling was replaced with an upgraded veneer (figured redwood and mahogany) to replace the original ‘tobacco stained plywood’ walls.

There were three ‘clients’ for the restoration: the original clients, the original architect and the new owners. Every decision was based on a consideration of all three points of view, and changes to the original were only made where a case could be established that Neutra himself preferred an alternative, or where a change would not affect the integrity of the original design. Decisions to leave such obvious areas of conflict (between Sten and Neutra) as the purple bathroom tile were to allow the quirkiness of the original to remain. There is nothing worse than a restoration that ‘over corrects’ unless it is one that ‘under corrects’. Biber Architects tried to act as the arbiter of the three clients to allow the house to inhabit the present while restoring the past.

Since the renovation the house has been sold and altered yet again. The pergola extension has been removed to allow the addition of a rear yard office/studio, and the interior has been ‘distressed’ to mimic a patina of age.