By EDWARD WYATT
PALM SPRINGS, Calif., Oct. 30 — The Kaufmann House, a 1946 glass, steel and stone landmark built on the edge of this desert town by the architect Richard Neutra, has twice been at the vanguard of new movements in architecture — helping to shape postwar Modernism and later, as a result of a painstaking restoration in the mid-1990s, spurring a revived interest in mid-20th-century homes.
Now the California homeowners who undertook that restoration hope Neutra’s masterpiece will play a role in a third movement: promoting architecture as a collectible art worthy of the same consideration as painting and sculpture.
Those owners, Brent Harris, an investment manager, and Beth Edwards Harris, an architectural historian, are finalizing their divorce, and plan to auction the Kaufmann House at Christie’s in New York in May. The building, with a presale estimate of $15 million to $25 million, will be part of Christie’s high-profile evening sale of postwar and contemporary art.
Commissioned by Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr., the Pittsburgh department store magnate who had commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright about a decade earlier to build Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, the house was designed as a desert retreat from harsh winters. Constructed as a series of horizontal planes that seem to float over glass walls, the house seems to absorb the mood of the surrounding desert.
Auctions of such midcentury landmarks have become more common in recent years. In 2003 Sotheby’s sold the 1951 Farnsworth House southwest of Chicago, designed by Mies van der Rohe, at auction for $7.5 million. In June Jean Prouvé’s 1951 Maison Tropicale, a prototype for prefabricated homes for French colonial officials stationed in Africa, sold at Christie’s for $4.97 million.
Such auctions are bringing a new level of scrutiny to a form that, little more than a decade ago, attracted so little notice that the Kaufmann House was being offered for sale as a teardown.
Still, such sales sometimes draw criticism from preservationists who would prefer that the houses be tended by a public institution or trust that guarantees continued access for architecture students and scholars rather than sold to the highest bidder. (The Farnsworth House, now open to the public, was bought by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, while the Maison Tropicale went to a private bidder.)
But Dr. Harris, who worked toward her doctorate in architectural history while restoring the Kaufmann House, said she believed an auction would further the preservationist cause.
“It’s an odd thing, but the more money this house goes for, the better it is for preservation in my point of view,” she said on Monday while giving a tour of the house to a reporter. “I think it will encourage other people who have the income to go out and get places like these to restore, rather than just looking for some pretty palace somewhere.”
The Kaufmann House is one of the best-known designs by Neutra, a Viennese-born architect who moved to the United States in the 1920s and designed homes for the next few decades for many wealthy West Coast clients. His buildings are seen virtually as the apotheosis of Modernism’s International Style, with their skeletal steel frames and open plans. Yet Neutra was also known for catering sensitively to the needs of his clients, so that their houses would be not only functional but would also nurture their owners psychologically.
When Brent and Beth Harris first saw the Kaufmann House, it was neither a pretty palace nor an obvious candidate for restoration. Strikingly photographed in 1947 by Julius Shulman, it stood vacant for several years after Kaufmann’s death in 1955. Then it went through a series of owners, including the singer Barry Manilow, and a series of renovations. Along the way, a light-disseminating patio was enclosed, one wall was broken through for the addition of a media room, the sleek roof lines were interrupted with air-conditioning units, and some bedrooms were wallpapered in delicate floral prints.
In 1992 Beth Harris, an architectural tourist of a sort, scaled a fence one afternoon to peek at the famous house while her husband discovered a for-sale sign in an overgrown hedge.
“It quite clearly was at some risk of being severely modified by whoever was to buy it, or potentially demolished,” Mr. Harris said, recalling his first glimpses of the house.
In Palm Springs, increasingly dominated by faux Spanish estates, Neutra’s Modernism “wasn’t the prevailing style,” Mr. Harris said, and the Kaufmann House “had been for sale for at least three and a half years.” He added: “No one wanted it. And so it was a gorgeous house, an important house, and it was crying out for restoration.”
After purchasing the house and its more than an acre of land for about $1.5 million, the Harrises removed the extra appendages and enlisted two young Los Angeles-area architects, Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner, to restore the Neutra design. They sought out the original providers of paint and fixtures, bought a metal-crimping machine to reproduce the sheet-metal fascia that lined the roof and even reopened a long-closed section of a Utah quarry to mine matching stone to replace what had been removed or damaged.
Without the original plans for the house, the Harrises dug through the Neutra archives at the University of California, Los Angeles, looking at hundreds of Neutra’s sketches of details for the house. They persuaded Mr. Shulman to let them examine dozens of never-printed photographs of the home’s interior, and found other documents in the architectural collections at Columbia University.
The Harrises also bought several adjoining plots to more than double the land around the 3,200-square-foot house, restoring the desert buffer that Neutra envisioned. They rebuilt a pool house that serves as a viewing pavilion for the main house, and kept a tennis court that was built on a parcel added to the original Kaufmann property.
The Harrises “were visionaries in their own way,” said Joshua Holdeman, a senior vice president at Christie’s who oversees the 20th-century decorative art and design department. With the renovation “they created a whole new public awareness of midcentury-modern architecture.”
Describing the results of the restoration in The Los Angeles Times in 1999, Nicolai Ouroussoff, now the architecture critic for The New York Times, said the house could “now be seen in its full glory for the first time in nearly 50 years.”
The pending sale is bittersweet for the current owners, who said they planned to give a portion of the proceeds to preservation groups. Asked how it felt to be close to selling the property, Dr. Harris looked back at the house, blinking away tears.
“Oh, it’s horrifying,” she said. “But we did our time here. There will be other things.”