Mad for Midcentury: John Bertram
Previews Inside Out Did you do any restorations?
John Bertram Fortunately, most of the house is largely intact, including, incredibly, all of the Philippine mahogany built-ins, so restoration has been mostly limited to occasional small repairs such as the rebuilding of a window frame or the replacement of a few boards of redwood siding. However, we are tempted to restore the original interior colors, including the cobalt blue and chocolate-brown walls, and the blue Formica countertops in the kitchen. And although the main flooring material is and has always been carpet, there is lovely Douglas fir underneath that we are considering liberating. Lastly, and most ambitiously, we’ve been envisioning a small, complementary guest structure/retreat in the backyard that would be an homage in miniature to the master.
We are extremely fortunate to maintain a living link with the past through Harrison McIntosh (the noted ceramicist and son of the original owners), who turned 100 last year, and his daughter, who have given us many photographs of the house and have answered many questions. At some point, we plan to acquire one of his pieces to place in an appropriately important location.
Previews Inside Out If you were looking to purchase another landmark architectural home, what elements would you look for?
John Bertram Several years ago, I had the opportunity (that I passed up) to purchase a lovely house on Wonderland Park Avenue that I had remodeled and restored for a wonderful client. On a full acre, it was designed by Leland Evison in 1950 for Oscar and Audrey Fuss and retained all of the original landscaping by Garrett Eckbo. The entire house was constructed of redwood, cedar and glass, with absolutely no drywall and only a single plaster wall dividing the carport from the living spaces. I created an interior constructed entirely of vertical grain Douglas fir, including all the walls, doors and cabinetry. All that wood gave the house a warmth and intimacy that was incredibly special. A house like that is a dream of mine.
Oakley. Photo by Richard Horn.
Previews Inside Out Looking beyond LA, why do you think modernism took off in Palm Springs?
John Bertram A number of locations within a 100-mile radius of Los Angeles were retreats and recreational outlets for the entertainment community seeking to escape from Hollywood, including Santa Barbara, Ojai, Rancho Santa Fe and even Apple Valley, but Palm Springs was a clean slate, architecturally speaking, and afforded opportunities of invention and reinvention not present in other locations. Ample credit must be given to the qualities of the place itself: the extreme summer heat, the near constant sunshine, and the relentless flatness of the area beneath the mountains that influenced to a great degree the low-slung horizontality of the architecture that flourished where there was no view and nothing to look at and therefore no reason to build upward. Also, there was the predominance of reflective and low-maintenance white plaster, which suited a relatively transient community in a climate that was utterly hostile to wood.
Previews Inside Out Out of all the examples of modernism in Palm Springs, which historic house stands out to you most and why?
John Bertram Different houses stand out for different reasons, from the misplaced but unassailable genius of Crombie Taylor’s late-modern Rosenbaum House to the scene-stealing celebrity and near-ubiquity of Neutra’s Kaufmann House, but it’s difficult not to look to Albert Frey’s first house as utterly paradigmatic of modernism. Built in 1941 (not to be confused with Frey’s later 1953 addition to it, or his second house built among the rocks), it is astonishing in its rigor, simplicity and economy. In particular, the photograph of Frey reclining in front of his newly completed house on its dead-flat and scrappy lot, all 320 square feet of it built for a cost of $3,500, exemplifies and sustains the seemingly impossible dream that architectural genius and a very small budget can coexist in a single structure. The optimism and promise present in that photograph are the reasons I became an architect.
Previews Inside Out Why do you think contemporary architects return to midcentury architecture repeatedly?
John Bertram To those willing to devote time to careful study, midcentury modern architecture offers a multitude of practical lessons and interesting choices that are pertinent to life today. But I think what is most often lost in the translation is that, with many notable exceptions, of course (like, for instance, Sunnylands), the work of the period was smaller, simpler, cheaper and humbler than it appears to us now. The unfortunate irony is that to emulate it today can be very expensive, which is another reason why slavish devotion to modernism can be a bit absurd. Also, at a remove of 50 years, nostalgia is undoubtedly a factor. Ultimately, however, the best modernism is arguably architecture’s high-water mark, and it represents a time of great promise and opportunity.
John Bertram founded Bertram Architects in 1999. He has been designing and restoring midcentury homes in and around the Greater Los Angeles area since 1997.
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