A Brief History of Palms Springs' Iconic Kaufmann House (Still for Sale)

Posted by Geoffrey Moore on Friday, May 14th, 2021 at 10:12am.

blue chair, living room of Kaufmann desert house in Palm Springs, CA

Imagine owning a venerated and historically significant art work. Now imagine owning a venerated and historically significant artwork that you can live in.

Well just such an artwork is currently for sale in Palm Springs: The Kaufmann House, also known as The Kaufmann Desert House.

Designed by renowned architect Richard Neutra, The Kaufmann House is rightly regarded as a significant feature in America’s artistic history, as well as a highly desirable luxury home in one of California’s most sought after property markets.

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A Piece of Palm Springs Architectural History

Designed and built through 1946 and 1947, The Kaufmann House was commissioned by Edgar J. Kaufmann, a man who made his fortune in the department store business, but has gone down in architectural history as a patron to some of the most significant works in the American Modern tradition.

Roughly ten years prior to the development of The Kaufmann House, Edgar Kaufmann commissioned the now legendary “Fallingwater” residence from equally legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

In fact, Kaufmann tapping the former colleague of Wright, Austrian émigré Richard Neutra, for the design of his holiday home, was said to have caused no small amount of tension between Wright and Kaufmann, especially since Wright had made his disdain for Neutra’s work known.

This rivalry almost came to an interesting head when Edgar Kaufmann’s then estranged wife, Liliane Kaufmann, commissioned Wright to design and build another home on the same property. This was in the early 1950s, and Liliane died before her and Wright’s rival project could come to fruition.

By contrast, Kaufmann and Neutra reportedly got on very well, both sharing Austrian heritage as well as an interest in the psychoanalytical theories of Freud and Jung.

Subsequent Owners

Unlike many of the famous homes in Palm Springs, The Kaufmann House only has some star names to boast of in its roster of past owners. Perhaps the most famous is Barry Manilow, but even his name pales against the artistic and cultural significance of the structure itself.

This significance was recognized by later owners, Brent and Beth Edward Harris, who purchased the home in 1992. Both had an eye for architectural preservation, and Beth Harris in particular, as an architectural historian, had the skills and knowledge for it.

Together they pursued a long and arduous restoration project that has come to form part of the fabled history of the building, just as much as its creation. Archives were sifted through (at both UCLA and Columbia University), architects and craftsman of long-defunct methods were hired, a quarry in Utah was reopened (in order to faithfully replace some hand-hewn sandstone), and an obsolete aluminium fabrication machine was brought back to life, all in service of capturing the authenticity of the original.

New features were also added, including a pool house pavilion (complete with bar and TV lounge) and a hidden air conditioning system, making the building habitable year round (it was originally conceived as a short term winter getaway).

Iconic Mid-Century Modern Design

When Kaufmann chose Neutra over Wright to build his new home, his intention was to find a lighter alternative to Wright’s heavy organicism.

As such, the Kaufmann house wasn’t intended to blend in naturally with its surroundings. It was intended to highlight it by way of contrast.

In this, The Kaufmann House exhibits many of the features that we associated with Mid-Century Modern design today. The understated vertical lines and glass walls, making for horizontal masses which appear to float, and an open interior consisting of clean angles and shapes.

The overall layout is of four separate wings radiating from a central living area, accented with sand stone and sheet metal surfaces. Of particular interest is the “gloriette” - a term invoked by Neutra and used to refer to an open, covered structure on top of the house. This was meant as a kind of deck, circumventing local regulations against structures extending above a single story.

Today it is somewhat of a cliche to talk about Mid-Century Modern homes blending or blurring the division between inside and out. But it is to pioneers like The Kaufmann House that we owe this cliche. The glass walls, and seamless extension of exterior surfaces into interior spaces achieves this sense of unity between the home, the yard, and the mountains beyond.

A Lasting Legacy

The Kaufmann House first came to national prominence with the publication of photos by Julius Shulman in 1947, and later again with the publication of “Poolside Gossip” by photographer Slim Aarons in 1970.

Throughout this time, The Kaufmann House came to define the Palm Springs architectural aesthetic; the favoring of clean horizontal lines, open interiors, glass walls, and private outdoor spaces.

Since then, the building has been categorized as a Class 1 Historic Site by the Palm Springs City Council, as one of the top 10 houses in Los Angeles by the LA Times, and is generally regarded as one of the most significant architectural works in American history.

It's for Sale!

Today, the home is being sold by Brent Harris, at a price tag that would put it head and shoulders above any property sold thus far in Palm Springs.

But, considering its historic significance, modern restoration, and utter beauty, it’s easy to see why The Kaufmann House is worth every penny.

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Photo of Listing #SB20208166

470 W Vista Chino, Palm Springs

$16,950,000 - 5 Beds, 6 Baths, 3,162 Sf, Fee Land

MLS® # SB20208166

Want to learn more about the Kaufmann Desert House or Palm Springs' iconic mid-century modern homes? Get in touch with me and I'll be your local guide to everything that's related to the Palm Springs real estate market.

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Based on information from California Regional Multiple Listing Service, Inc. as of June 12th, 2021 at 7:11pm PDT. This information is for your personal, non-commercial use and may not be used for any purpose other than to identify prospective properties you may be interested in purchasing. Display of MLS data is usually deemed reliable but is NOT guaranteed accurate by the MLS. Buyers are responsible for verifying the accuracy of all information and should investigate the data themselves or retain appropriate professionals. Information from sources other than the Listing Agent may have been included in the MLS data. Unless otherwise specified in writing, Broker/Agent has not and will not verify any information obtained from other sources. The Broker/Agent providing the information contained herein may or may not have been the Listing and/or Selling Agent.