Not all buildings are revered as landmarks, but that doesn’t mean they don’t leave a seemingly unfillable hole behind in their absence. Such is the case of a San Francisco home designed by famous California architect Richard Neutra — the man who’s also responsible for the creation of several modernist houses in the hills of California. The property in question was realized in 1936, immediately standing in stark contrast to the Victorian residences the city is famous for.
The Largent House at 49 Hopkins Avenue was designed specifically for the clients, as was commonly the case with Neutra’s projects. Although it had been deemed by the city not to be architecturally significant enough to warrant preservation, the house, which was recently demolished by a new owner, has already been ordered to be rebuilt.
Ross Johnston bought the two-story property for $1.7 million in 2017, at which time he was given permission to alter the house as long as the first floor was retained —presumably so that the house’s signature white flat roofs and staggered volumes would still be visible. Nonetheless, Johnston all but completely leveled the house, leaving only an internal stairway and door frame intact.
After the demolition was reported to the relevant authorities, the city of San Francisco’s Planning Commission ordered Johnston to “reconstruct the structure to its original footprint and massing,” and to use the same materials that were used in the initial building (in this case, white shingles and a lot of timber).
As is turns out, Johnston demolished the existing property to make way for a three-story, 4,000-square-foot house on the site that would better accommodate his six-person family. He tried to receive retroactive approval for the demolition but was eventually denied. Lucky for him, he will be allowed to continue his work as long as he recreates the Largent House’s original exterior in full — the interiors can be remodeled entirely at his own discretion. He’s also been ordered to erect a plaque outside the house upon its completion to give passers-by a chance to learn a little more about its original construction.
The San Francisco Planning Commission’s decision is as much about deterring other property owners from carrying out such illegal demolitions as it is to preserve the city’s architectural history. This type of “mansioning,” in which people purchase small plots and then redevelop them into extortionately expensive homes, is something that has increasingly been seen in San Francisco as of late. This phenomenon directly contributes to the city’s rising property values.
This is not the first time a San Francisco house of historic architectural significance has been demolished. It also happened in 2016, that time with a house by Willis Polk in Russian Hill. City Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards says: “We’re experiencing an epidemic of cannibalizing housing stock. I’m saddened by what our city has become.”