Architecture: This Old Modernist House

The subprime mortgage crisis hasn't bruised one chunk of the real-estate market: top vintage modern houses. This week, two midcentury classics hit the auction block. The stunning Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, Calif., designed by Richard Neutra in 1946, is selling at Christie's on May 13 as part of an auction of postwar art. Impeccably restored, the glass-and-sandstone modernist icon is estimated to fetch $15 million to $25 million. The more modest 1960 Esherick House—one of the few private residences designed by the influential Louis Kahn—is part of a contemporary-design auction on May 18 at Richard Wright in Chicago. Estimated to bring $2 million to $3 million, the stucco house in Chestnut Hill, Pa., is a small jewel full of Kahn's big ideas, with its heavy walls in counterpoint to the rich wood details and the beautiful play of light.

Preservationists lose sleep when great modern houses go on the market. Many Neutra houses, for example, have been radically altered or even bulldozed after they were sold. Such midcentury dwellings often don't fit contemporary family life; the Esherick House has only one bedroom and the kitchen, with its sculptural copper details, is "challenging," says Wright. But that may not matter to the potential buyers who are targeted by these auctions: they treat these houses as works of art. And just in case, the Kaufmann House comes with strings attached, barring its new owner from making structural changes. Christy MacLear, director of Philip Johnson's Glass House, now a museum, believes art auctions "are a wonderful way to put these modernist homes into the hands of those who will treasure them." Maybe preservationists can rest a little easier.

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