The Kaufmann Desert House

Desert perfection in glass, stone, and steel

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Above: The restored Kaufmann Desert House, designed by Richard Neutra and completed in 1946. Photo:

An icon of American Modernism the Kaufmann Desert House is an instantly recognizable classic. A perfect marriage of glass, stone, and steel the house is a triumph of modernist ideals and post war exuberance.

Designed by Richard Neutra the house was commissioned by Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. as an escape from the harsh winters of his native Pittsburgh. Kaufmann was no stranger to important works of architecture as 10 years earlier he commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design another getaway home for him, the epochal Fallingwater. Completed in 1946, the Kaufman Desert House was an instant sensation with the five-bedroom, five-bathroom vacation house becoming an important catalyst that kick started the post war surge of Modernist architecture in and around Palm Springs.

In 1955 Kaufmann died and his Desert House – rather surprisingly – stood vacant for several years. During the 1960’s and 1970’s the home had several owners, including Barry Manilow and Eugene Klein, and over the course of the next few decades several ill-considered extensions and renovations were dealt to the home. These renovations included enclosing the patio, altering roof lines to accommodate/hide over-sized air conditioning units, tearing down of interior walls/built-ins and – according to many sources – flooded with large print floral wallpaper and faux Grecian columns. In a stroke of luck the Kauffman Desert House was discovered in 1992 by Brent Harris, investment banker, and Beth Edwards Harris, an architectural historian, who purchased the now rundown home. At the time of its 1992 sale the house had been on the market for more than three years and listed as a possible tear down.

Some of the many Julius Shulman photos used by architects Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner to help restore the Kaufmann Desert House to its original state. Click on image for full view. Article and a gallery of the restored Kaufmann Desert House continues after this gallery.

The Harrises set about restoring the Kaufmann house to its original design. Richard Neutra had died in 1970 and the original plans were not available so the Harrises hired Los Angeles architects Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner and tasked them with restoring the home. Without original blueprints the restoration was akin to putting a puzzle together without a referring photo. With the enormous job set before them the architectural team scoured the extensive Neutra archives at UCLA, Columbia University, and worked with photographer Julius Shulman to access some of his never-printed photos of the home’s interior and exterior taken in late 1940’s. Marmol and Radziner obtained pieces of the original suppliers paint and fixtures, and even purchased a vintage metal-crimping machine to reproduce the sheet-metal fascia that originally lined the roof and upper terrace. The pool house and viewing pavilion (torn down in the 1980’s) was also rebuilt based on Shulman’s photos.

Along with these renovations, the Harrises – rather impressively – even managed to get a long-closed Utah quarry, that supplied the home’s original stone, to re-open temporarily to mine for stone to replace that which had been removed or damaged.

The restoration of the Kaufmann Desert house was critically lauded and today, many critics place the Kaufmann House among the most important houses of the 20th Century. Many of the photos in the gallery here are among the images taken in 1947 and 1949 by Julius Shulman that were instrumental in the Kaufmann Desert House’s restoration.

The restored Kaufmann Desert House. Click on image for full view