Owner Who Illegally Demolished Neutra House Told: Rebuild an Exact Replica

The debacle provides a lesson in the sensitivity required when renovating historic buildings.

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

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The San Francisco Planning Commission has ruled that a buyer must rebuild an exact replica of a historic house they demolished illegally in the city. Ross Johnston must also put up a plaque explaining what happened — providing a lesson to all in the sensitivity required when buying and renovating special buildings.

“If a developer has even a thought of demolishing a house illegally, I’d like them to go up to 49 Hopkins and take a look at the plaque, because this is what’s going to happen in the future,” said commissioner Dennis Richards.

The site before and after demolition; images from Google Streetview

According to a report by the BBC, Largent House — one of just five designed by renowned architect Richard Neutra in San Francisco — was a protected property, though minor alterations were permitted. However, Johnston razed the building to the ground, prompting a complaint from neighbors to the Commission.

“I went to New York for about a week and a half and came back — the house was gone, totally gone,” Cheryl Traverce told a local TV station.

Johnston had planned to build a larger property in its place to provide space for his family of six. According to his lawyers, Johnston had been “stuck in limbo for over a year” due to unreasonable levels of bureaucracy by the Commission.

Defending the owner’s actions, Johnston’s lawyers also argued that recent alterations meant the house should not be protected. The Commission disagreed, and if the property is sold, the new buyer will also be obliged to honor the ruling.

Aerial view of the demolition site; via the San Francisco Chronicle

Aerial view of the demolition site; via the San Francisco Chronicle

Largent House was a two-story building with an indoor swimming pool, and painted a shade of white characteristic of numerous Neutra residences. As described by Curbed SF, the house “may well have once been unpainted cement block and redwood siding, and above [Neutra’s] typical shifting planes is a large glass block space with later greenhouse additions”.

Ms Traverce called the decision to force a reconstruction “a victory for the neighbors and the little people”. What do you think of the ruling? Let us know over on Facebook.

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