neutraVDL
About the Site:
Richard and Dion VDL Research House II (1965-66)
In the spring of 1963 when the Neutras were in the Midwest, a fire destroyed the VDL Research House. The unexplained fire, possibly of electrical origins, started in the office on the ground floor. About midnight of March 21, Dion received a startling phone call with the news of the fire. He rushed to the scene and was able to direct the fire department in saving many valuable documents. Dion, noting the quantities of water penetrating to the basement archive, organized the movement of hundreds of drawing rolls out into the street. When all was over, the smoking ruins told a disheartening tale: the virtual destruction of a lifetime of memorabilia, books, files, drawings, work in progress, original manuscripts, and countless other materials which were virtually irreplaceable.

Returning a week later, Richard Neutra’s first comment was, “It is all over, there will be no way to reconstruct this ruin.” It was a profound and psychological problem, which faced the 71 year-old architect and his family who had lived and practiced in this house for three decades. After the initial confusion and relocation came sobering weeks of reflection together with discussion with the Los Angeles building department. Through Dion’s efforts a special code interpretation was made which allowed for construction on the original footprint. Finally it was decided to rebuild.

Once the Neutras made this decision, they intended that the new building would honor the worldwide recognition of the first VDL Research House while reviving the original research theme with 1964 innovations and materials. They would call it VDL House II. With the senior Neutra frequently out of town on lecture assignments, major responsibility for the rebuilding came into Dion’s hands. In June of 1964 Dion was married on the roof of the building, which was in the rough framing stage. Two months later, he moved with his new family to the Garden House, which had survived the fire and which he remodeled, to supervise the project through its completion in 1966.

The city building department allowed rebuilding provided that the new structure be built on the existing foundation and conform to the original envelope. Changes had taken place over the years to the site itself: in the 1950’s Silver Lake Reservoir had been filled in front of the house, and the water was now about 600 feet away, not 100 feet as before; automobile traffic, with its acoustic and air pollution, had increased along Silver Lake Boulevard; and the dense vegetation on the west side of the house which had provided solar protection and privacy had burned, in contrast to the planting of the south patio which had become quite lush over the years.

West entrance with the vertical louvers
and penthouse, 1967.
Expanded kitchen featuring countertop
fold-away pass thru door, 1966.
Penthouse stairway and mid-level reflecting
pool before installation of louvers, 1966.
Since the office was relocated to nearby Glendale Boulevard because of the fire, the original first-floor office and drafting rooms were opened up to become the Richard J. Neutra Institute seminar room and Dione’s music recital room. Most west-facing windows were changed to fixed glass to keep out pollution and some extended down to the floor. The first-floor studio became a guest bedroom. The first-floor kitchen became a refreshment bar to serve the main room, with a breakfast balcony overlooking the rear north patio. The original maid’s room was eliminated as were the solid walls enclosing the stair.

Upstairs, the kitchen was enlarged by cantilevering out approximately three feet (one window module) to the east and a more contemporary counter-high pass-through to the dining room was developed, replacing the original two-way drawers. A balcony was added to the east of the southerly bedroom and a long sliding-glass wall and screen were added to the breakfast room for outdoor exposure. The windowsills were lowered along this side, and a bridge over to a spiral staircase along the north patio replaced the original staircase. These changes on the east side of the house took advantage of the mature landscape and refreshing patios at the rear.

To compensate for the burnt front trees, immediate sun control on the front south of the entry was effected by two-story automated vertical louvers which Neutra pioneered in 1944. Daytime bedroom privacy on this side, once assured by the now-burned trees, was restored through the use of gold-tinted window glass.

Because of extensive changes to the roof level, downstairs and the east section, the Neutras resolved to maintain in the living room the flavor of the original house for themselves and the frequent visitors who remembered it as it was before the fire. Replacement of the industrial folding-doors to the sleeping terrace by a sliding glass door, new reflecting pools for the terrace and front entry, and Formica rosewood paneling instead of the original Masonite, are among the changes made to the original design which, however, recalled the spirit of the original. The ladder to the penthouse was replaced by a slender stair and the penthouse was glazed. Surrounded by a 2-inch sheet of water on the roof recalling the once-close lake shore, the penthouse opens via a sliding glass door to a roof terrace from which the lake and mountains can be viewed.

Dion Neutra’s close supervision and proximity to the project allowed time for intense study of the effects of new design elements. He studied the best viewing height of windows during framing, and changed sill heights accordingly. Use of screens and reflective glass eliminated undesirable views of neighbors, and additional mirrors enlarged small spaces such as bedrooms, bathrooms, and outdoor spaces. Reflective and calming water elements are used at all levels. Subtle variations of color were used to articulate surfaces of fascias. Modernized indirect lighting in overhang soffits, as well as floor illumination under bookshelves, was controlled by a complicated switching system including dimmers. A one-person lift serving all four levels from garage to penthouse, originally provided for in the 1964 rebuilding but not carried out, was engineered, built, and installed by Dion Neutra in 1984.


© 1985 California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
Funded by a grant from the President's Cultural Development Fund.
History text was prepared with the generous assistance of Mrs. Dione Neutra and Dion Neutra.
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