Olan G. & Aida T. Hafley House
Design Award of Excellence | Residential
The Olan & Aida Hafley House designed by Richard Neutra, 1953. Photo Credit: Johnellisphoto.com, 2014
Restoration of the 1953 Olan G. and Aida T. Hafley House, Designed by Richard Neutra
by Kelly Sutherlin McLeod, FAIA & Thomas Aujero Small
[The restoration architect] and contractor […] have been successful in returning the house to my father's original intention…have lovingly brought back to life a house that has a special place in the work of the Neutra office.
-Raymond Richard Neutra, MD
[There was] a Time Magazine article on a young, up-and-coming, Los Angeles architect who designed ‘the only homes fit for man to live in.’ In 1951, when we decided to build a house, my husband decided we should talk to Mr. Neutra as well as other architects. We got only as far as Mr. Neutra. His personality was so dynamic and his interest in our needs and wants so intense that thoughts of anyone else faded and we commissioned him on the spot.
- Mrs. Aida T. Hafley [owner]
Richard J. Neutra designed the split-level Hafley house, and the adjacent one-story Moore house, as an integrated architectural composition. These structures are modern and characteristically “Neutra,” yet harmonious with the neighborhood’s more traditional architectural character. The open-plan interiors are striking. The range of features that exploit the potential of a sloped roof reflects a command of complexity rare in Neutra’s comparable mid-century American designs.
The Hafley House is not “typical Neutra,” usually experienced as an isolated flat-roofed example of the International or post-and-beam styles, standing amidst other homes less radically inclined. In contrast, this pair of houses combines aesthetic artistry and acumen with proscriptive rules, while furthering Neutra’s convictions about houses in a larger setting. Retaining a high degree of integrity, the Hafely house contributes a superb expression of modernist architecture to California’s cultural heritage.
Exterior Street Elevation photograph by Julius Shulman, 1953. The varnished solid pigmented wood stain, specified by Neutra, was recreated with a customized multi-stepped finish treatment. Photo Credit: Julius Shulman, 1953. Curtesy of J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)
The specific goal for the Hafley house restoration project was to restore this mid-century landmark with a value-based approach, honoring the original design intent and aesthetic, while respecting authenticity. The restoration team benefitted from having detailed original construction documents, plus extensive communications recorded between the architect, contractor and client confirming Neutra’s personal oversight of the project. Though modest in size, Neutra was extremely committed to this project. Archival materials also included the Hafley’s personal photo album that provided the only known color documentation of the original built conditions along with the lifestyle enjoyed in this Neutra-designed house.
These connections with the recent past could have facilitated the reconstruction of building elements using new, contemporary materials. While that approach would have restored the pristine quality of the 1953 building, it would have done little to maintain the authenticity of the original historic materials and finishes – as installed under Neutra himself. Though rich in design, the Hafley house, like many mid-century homes, was constructed using newly mass-produced materials of the time. Materials as readily available and familiar as Masonite, Homosote, plywood, and plastic were carefully evaluated and retained during the restoration process. With time these common materials can lose their original immaculate appearance. The project team was committed to honestly reflecting the age of the building while fully respecting the original design intent for purity of form, materials and finishes. The challenge was to develop a best preservation practice approach for this modern treasure, balancing authenticity with Neutra’s intended pristine aesthetic.
Conditions found at the house required significant restoration due to age, lack of maintenance and incompatible modifications. Neutra’s original palette of vivid colors, both outside and inside the house, had been covered; golden birch veneer had been recoated with dark stain. Tack strips from wall-to-wall carpet had damaged the rich, integrally colored concrete floor. Stone tile was installed over original concrete and brick floors.
Conservator analysis of existing conditions used to support conservation-based restoration approach. Photo Credit: Griswold Conservation Associates, LLC. (2) and Johnellisphoto.com, 2014
Absorbent Homosote ceiling panels were saturated with tobacco smoke and water stained. Neutra’s flexible curtain partitions had been replaced with solid walls and doors. Original built-in cabinetry, furnishings and light fixtures were missing. Aluminum windows were corroded. Original tempered Masonite wall panels and steel-framed sliding doors had also suffered from corrosion and non-original finishes.
The project team carefully investigated all exterior and interior surfaces of the building to determine original materials, textures, and finishes. Contemporary paint and wall coverings were successfully removed, revealing the precisely matched birch wood veneer paneling. The removal of contemporary dark stain presented challenges due to the damage caused by heavy belt sanding that allowed the stain to deeply permeate the grain of the thin wood veneer. Many of the Masonite panels suffered from a chalky appearance after the removal of contemporary paint. Wherever possible, the original birch veneer and Masonite were successfully retained. Corrosion was carefully removed from zinc-plated steel doorframes, aluminum windows and hardware.
Original light soffits and their prismatic glass panels were repaired; light fixtures were restored and missing fixtures replaced with matching reproductions. The damaged integrally-colored concrete floor was repaired and blended with the surrounding field.
(Image Left) Living Room looking south prior to restoration. (Image Right) Living Room looking south after restoration of all architectural elements, materials, and finishes, 2014. Photo Credit: Johnellisphoto.com, 2010 and 2014
The 1953 plastic laminate, where discovered still intact under more recent finish materials, was retained. Remaining original cabinetry was restored while missing components were reconstructed, and vintage appliances and plumbing fixtures sourced and installed. Neutra specified a varnished solid-pigmented stain for the exterior redwood siding and the project team recreated this unique finish using a customized multi-stepped process. Compositions of vibrantly colored plaster, dark tempered Masonite, and golden birch veneer accented by silver painted window frames are once again in place on the exterior of the Hafley house.
Another key objective for this project was to embrace Neutra’s own interest in sustainability through good design. In pairing the Hafley and Moore houses Neutra confidently expressed his long-held belief that a single architectural language could serve multiple properties within close proximity, while still meeting the unique needs of different clients. Neutra’s concept for these two homes demonstrates a thoughtful, innovative, and highly developed approach to the conservation of space and materials.
First Floor Bedroom before restoration. Photo Credit: Johnellisphoto.com, 2014
Neutra’s original design for efficient lifestyle bedroom suite with building elements, original material and finish palette, light soffit, and missing window restored. Photo Credit: Johnellisphoto.com, 2014
The Hafley and Moore houses were designed as an integrated composition for a modern lifestyle, sharing space and resources yet providing privacy for the two families. The communal living characteristic of the shared backyard and entry has remained intact, indicating that the original design is still valid today. Behind the unified façade, Neutra created two distinct dwellings with unique footprints and massing that are perpendicular to, shielded from, and oriented away from one another. The flexible spaces have been maintained and proven timelessly comfortable and accommodating for the occupants, as opposed to being modified for contemporary expectations. This conservation-based restoration of a classic, mid-century residence sets a new standard for the sustainable preservation of 20th century architecture.
The simple living principals of Neutra’s original design are unchanged, including daylight harvesting and natural ventilation (still comfortable today without air conditioning). For example, all the large expanses of glass are strategically placed in quantities and locations to maximize year round daylighting, with operable windows and a large 9’ wide x 8’ tall sliding door for ventilation, all restored to once again operate as designed. The project succeeds in restoring Neutra’s original design intent, which brilliantly allocated floor space and volume, creating an exquisite, modest architecture for modern life, while conserving space, resources and capital.
Living Room looking north, 1953. Photo Credit: Julius Shulman, 1953. Curtesy of J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)
Living Room looking north in 2015 after restoration and installation of landscape. Photo Credit: Johnellisphoto.com, 2014
Each intervention was designed to reflect best practices in preservation, as well as in sustainable design. When plaster needed to be removed, recycled cotton denim insulation was added to exterior walls. The original existing return air intake for the furnace was upgraded from 100% outside air to 80% interior air and 20% exterior air. The deteriorated ducts embedded in the concrete slab were lined with a product that inhibits bacteria, mold and allergens, delivering clean air and meeting new State Energy standards. Original light soffits and their prismatic glass panels were repaired and fitted with LED lamps.
Any new plywood and veneers needed were acquired from readily available, domestic sources. The same 1930s organic production method provided tempered Masonite, as per Neutra’s original specification where replacement material was necessary. All paints and wood finishes are California Air Resources Board compliant and low VOC. The new landscape design is also state of the art, using a high efficiency water system and light fixtures, and non-invasive and drought tolerant plants and succulents that enhance pollination by appealing to hummingbirds and honey bees.
The conservation of modern buildings is challenging, as it often tests the application of current preservation standards and methodologies. Modernism’s essential characteristics contribute to its vulnerabilities, as the conservation of modern building materials is often complex. Material conservation issues encountered in the field require innovative solutions for both practitioners and the building industry. These efforts and many others yielded not only a beautifully restored home but valuable lessons and best practices for conserving Mid-Century Modern buildings while bringing them into the 21st century.
Endnote: For the architectural descriptions of the Hafley House in this article, the authors are deeply indebted to Dr. Barbara Lamprecht, the project team’s Historic Consultant who authored the successful Nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.