San Francisco planners said this man illegally demolished his historic home. Now, he has to rebuild an exact replica
Richard Neutra’s legacy of modernist architecture, marbled throughout southern California, has a quieter history in San Francisco.
The Austrian-born architect designed just five homes in the city, including a Victorian rowhouse for refugees from Nazi Germany, his first redwood building, along with his first local project, the Largent House — named for the modest family who moved into 49 Hopkins Ave. in 1936.
The stark white house with crisp lines, first occupied by a schoolteacher and an artist, joined a body of work that some have mentioned in the same breath as Frank Lloyd Wright — whom Neutra briefly worked under and admired so much that he named a son after the renowned architect.
‘‘Their beauty, like that of any sea shell, is more than skin-deep — practical, not pretentious,’’ Time magazine wrote about Neutra’s designs in 1949, when he graced the cover.
Seven decades later, in October 2017, the business end of a backhoe scoop tore into the redwood-and-brick house in the leafy Twin Peaks foothills, leveling nearly everything except a garage door and frame in what city planners have called ‘‘an illegal demolition.’’
Ross Johnston, the owner who bought the 1,312-square foot house for $1.7 million last year, had permission to remodel if the first floor of the home remained intact, city planning commissioner Dennis Richards told The Washington Post.
On Thursday, Johnston sought retroactive approval of the demolition, along with permission to build a much larger, nearly 4,000-square-foot home in the footprint of the Largent House. (Johnston’s attorney Justin Zucker did not respond to a request for comment).
Johnston was denied. In a 5-0 vote, the San Francisco Planning Commission ordered Johnston to build the exterior of the Largent House exactly as it stood in 1936, using the same material and methods.
Johnston must also install a sidewalk plaque telling its 81-year-old history, from construction to destruction, and finally, some semblance of rebirth for Neutra’s modernist vision.
The plaque doubles as a ‘‘scarlet letter’’ for any developer looking to flip starter homes into mega-mansions, and a signal to any architecture buffs looking to see the real home that what will eventually stand there is a replica, Richards said.
The home has undergone several modifications over the years, Richards said, enough to make it ineligible for the most stringent landmark protections.
Johnston had argued that the building therefore had lost most of its historic value. He said he wanted to move his family into the new home.
But the destruction of the Largent House followed a pattern of what Richards called ‘‘mansioning’’ — buyers and developers sucking up relatively modest homes (for San Francisco, anyway) built for starting families and turning them into multimillion-dollar monsters. The phenomenon has pushed already pricey homes to the brink of affordability.
‘‘We’re experiencing an epidemic of cannibalizing housing stock,’’ Richards said. ‘‘I’m saddened by what our city has become.’’
A similar incident occurred in 2016, when a Russian Hill home designed by master architect Willis Polk and designated a historical resource was demolished despite limits to remodeling, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
The developer, Troon Pacific, was ordered to pay a $400,000 fine, the largest in city history for such a violation, but did not have to admit fault and reportedly increased the value sevenfold to $30.2 million.
The Largent House was built for a different era of functionality and modesty of its first owners. It was designed to fit the narrow Twin Peaks hillside and ‘‘combined older memories of clapboarded, vertically attenuated Victorian San Francisco with typically Neutra fenestration and detailing,’’ Thomas Hines wrote in a biography of Neutra.
Johnston conceded he eclipsed approvals for remodeling. Zucker, his attorney, has said the home was in dangerous condition, which necessitated demolition — a claim Richards rebuffed as a falsehood to sidestep regulations.
Neighbor Cheryl Traverce filed a complaint when she discovered the home was razed and the debris spirited away in dump trucks.
‘‘I went to New York for about a week and half and came back, the house was gone, totally gone,’’ she told KPIX 5. ‘‘I was shocked.’’
She called the city’s decision ‘‘a victory for the neighbors and the little people.’’
Historic preservationists also celebrated the move. San Francisco Heritage, a nonprofit group, said that approving Johnston’s demolition would have ‘‘sent a strong message that existing planning and building laws can be ignored and there will be no repercussions,’’ the Chronicle reported.
‘‘The question before you once again is whether a person can demolish existing housing stock with impunity and then be rewarded,’’ said Michael Buhler, the group’s chief executive.
Johnston can appeal the decision to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. But Richards is confident that he won’t find any sympathetic ears.
‘‘They would probably vote 11-0 and tell him to go to hell,’’ he said.
If the Planning Commission’s decision is upheld, Johnston would be forced to build the replica or face fines or even a lawsuit from the city. And if the plot were then sold, Richards said, the construction mandate would carry over for any owner afterward.
And for Neutra, the order reverses the erasure of a home designed in his early years, Richards said, likening the forthcoming project to the reproduction of forts from the Revolutionary War. It’s not the same timber, he explained, but it helps transport you.
‘‘It’s a replica of history that tells history,’’ Richards said of the Largent House to come. ‘‘It will preserve his legacy.’’