Articles

Richard Neutra’s Little-Known Modernist House on the Prairie

In 1951, Richard Neutra, the mid-century architect who virtually embodied the California Dream in his sleek, low-slung homes, built an unlikely house in Sioux City, Iowa.

Neutra’s Everist residence in 1952 (photo by Julius Shulman, © J. Paul Getty Trust, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — The intersection of Southern California and western Iowa may be difficult to pinpoint on a map, but on a sunny day it can be experienced on a hill in Sioux City. There, in 1951, a young couple, Mildred and Hubert H. Everist Jr., and their dreams of beauty and innovation met with Richard Neutra, the mid-century architect who virtually embodied the California Dream in his sleek, low-slung homes, with their huge windows framing the lush growth of the hills and glamorous lifestyles of his clients with cinematic virtuosity. Together the three hiked through 50 acres of tall grass, assessing the views and envisioning the sort of structure that spoke not only to their needs but to their faith in the future.

In the ’50s, LA was a mecca of modern design. Sioux City, best known for its terracotta-bedecked Prairie style, preferred traditional architecture. The future, however, would be modern, at least according to the Everists. Hubert (who will celebrate his 100th birthday this June) is a very successful civil engineer who, together with his father and brothers, built massive infrastructure projects, including highways and dams, around the world. But when it came down to design, it was Mildred who took over, writing to a list of 50 well-known architects, then winnowing the list down to the most positive and interesting proposals. Hubert’s reputation as an ambitious, forward-looking builder attracted a modernist A-list. Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe made proposals, but Mildred was “dead set” on Richard Neutra.

Luxurious Murano tile in the entryway. Neutra’s signature font identifies the house number. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic

Neutra built more than 300 residences in Southern California but few elsewhere. This would be his first of only two in the Midwest and that posed a challenge. A leader in green design, his books, Building with Nature and Mystery and Realities of the Site (the latter published the same year he first came to Sioux City) argued passionately for “inherent and inseparable relationship between man and nature.” He studied the land, the skies, and his clients closely, eventually selecting the highest point of what he referred to as a “Nordic, windswept landscape.”

In March I visited the grounds, and met with Hubert to hear about his memories of the home’s construction. The south end of the house was designed to nestle into the hill, while the remainder of the rooms offer commanding views of the prairie countryside and, below, the growing Country Club neighborhood. Few trees then existed to cut off the view of Neutra’s construction site. Everist recalled to me the unbridled horror his neighbors expressed as the first trucks carrying steel beams and plate glass windows rumbled up the street. “They were sure we were building a factory or a store,” he smiled. “We were destroying their view and ruining the neighborhood!”

Richard Neutra’s Everist residence in 1952 (photo by Julius Shulman, © J. Paul Getty Trust, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)

Neutra would see his plans proceed according to his exacting vision. It’s a striking home. The architect’s signature “spider legs” add support to the roof and allow for an almost seamless continuation of glass across the front of the house to its north side. The warm sheen of redwood ceiling reflects daylight into the room and extends past the windows to the underside of the eaves, melting the distinction between interior and exterior. A reflecting pool adds a shimmer of movement to the mix, extending under a window and inside, further dissolving the walls. Structure and nature blend with mesmerizing effect.

The legendary architect visited often to examine the progress, either tapping his cane or thumping it loudly in expressions of delight or displeasure. Slowly, the grumbling of doubting neighbors was replaced by the exclamations of fans of modernism and curiosity seekers. Always a very private individual, Everist installed a cable to close off the entrance. Trees were planted and the couple raised four children, thriving in the home’s tranquil beauty. Mildred’s only complaint was its lack of wall space. Unable to display paintings, she commissioned Pablo Picasso to create three ceramic-topped tables for the dining area.

Richard Neutra’s structure blends with nature to mesmerizing effect. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Around 1959, it was decided that a pool was needed. Neutra returned and drew up plans for a rectangular one, impeccably extending the streamlined forms of the house to the south. But it was too close to the children’s rooms for cocktail parties, his clients pointed out. Neutra wouldn’t budge. Completely undaunted, the Everists hired another firm to design an indoor pool underneath Neutra’s existing deck — a reasonable solution, given Iowa’s short swimming season. It was still the ’50s, when kidney-shaped pools were the rage, and soon, one curved enticingly around an L-shaped glass enclosure. Neutra showed up not long afterwards. The architect slowly circled the offending pool, muttering darkly, and striking its edge repeatedly with his cane. It would be his last trip to Sioux City.

In 1976, Mildred died, and eventually Hubert married a woman who preferred to build her own house, so he moved out of the Neutra, leaving it to other family members to enjoy. In 2003, she passed away and he moved back into the house, alone. Eventually, he decided to sell it. An advertisement was placed and Hubert’s daughter, Hilleary, spent the following months fielding an onslaught of calls from excited Neutra fans but no offers. That would come in 2006 when another ambitious couple discovered the house during a visit from their home in LA.

Dining area at the Richard Neutra house in Sioux City (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

At the time, Gia Emory, an artist and set designer, and her husband Ron, a restoration carpenter and lead guitarist for the LA-based punk band T.S.O.L., needed a new project — they had just devoted three-and-a-half years to restoring a 1932 Rudolf Shindler residence. With two young children, more space (the residence is one of Neutra’s largest), and Gia’s family nearby, the Everist house proved irresistible.

Heeding the advice of Dion Neutra, the architect’s son, Ron is almost singlehandedly preserving the home. “It’s quite a bit of work to maintain in this climate. Matching the original materials is sometimes impossible, but visits with Dion, plus the fact that we bought from the original owner makes it almost easy.” And as for Neutra getting the site right, “the way the house is placed is brilliant for Sioux City, very well thought out. Bedrooms on the east for morning light and the living spaces facing west for ‘solar gain’ and amazing sunsets.”

Neutra’s Everist residence in 1952 (photo by Julius Shulman, © J. Paul Getty Trust, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)

Today, surrounded by mature trees, the house is largely forgotten by its neighbors. But Neutra’s residences have reached sufficient cultural status that Christie’s once auctioned one off between paintings by Lucien Freud and Damien Hirst. Gia deeply appreciates its artistic value, confirming, “We feel very fortunate to be the caretakers of this masterpiece and to call it home.” Considering some of Neutra’s residences have been demolished by unappreciative owners, making way for behemoths more fitting to their colossal egos, this architectural gem, in Sioux City of all places, is in good hands.

comments (0)