REVISITING THE ARENSBERGS’ HOUSE-MUSEUM
by Mark Nelson and William H. Sherman
On this platform last June, George Baker offered readers an elegiac account of LA’s lost sites and collections of modern art. He lamented the city’s general reputation for “rebuilding itself beyond recognition,” but he mused most longingly on two Hollywood houses that were once among California’s most active hubs of avant-garde collecting and cultural exchange. The first, on Blue Heights Drive in West Hollywood, belonged to the flamboyant art dealer Galka Scheyer, known for championing the works of the so-called Blue Four (Lyonel Feininger, Alexei Jawlensky, Vasily Kandinsky and Paul Klee). The second, at 7065 Hillside Avenue in Outpost Estates, was owned by Louise and Walter Arensberg, principal patrons of Marcel Duchamp (fig. 1). The Arensbergs’ collection first took shape in their Manhattan apartment, where—in the wake of the Armory Show of 1913—they gave Duchamp his first American home and presided over the salon that brought Dada to New York. With more time, money, and space at hand, the collection expanded exponentially after their move in 1921 to Los Angeles. There, for the next three decades, the Arensbergs put the European avant-garde, the English Renaissance, and Mesoamerican civilizations into dialogue in dense and playful displays that shocked and inspired visitors—including many of the period’s leading artists, writers, and curators (fig. 2).
Beyond a shared passion for certain artists, two things connected the two collections. First, they were displayed in buildings at least partially designed by Richard Neutra: Scheyer’s entire house was built by the architect in 1933, while the Arensbergs turned to him, the same year, for a sunroom extension at the back of their existing house (fig. 3). Second, the two collections were originally donated to UCLA on the condition that they be housed together in a new complex—“The Museum That Never Was,” as Baker described it in his essay, since plans fell through in 1947. After the failure of this grand design, Scheyer’s collection moved across town to Pasadena, where it was absorbed within what would eventually become the Norton Simon Museum. And despite efforts to keep the Arensberg collection in Los Angeles, it was ultimately bequeathed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1950.
Deprived of its Duchamps—and hidden from view from the street—it is not entirely surprising that the Arensberg house initially escaped Baker’s notice. It wasn’t until 2017, when he saw the real estate listing for 7065 Hillside Avenue—then on the market for the first time in more than sixty years—that he learned a house he passed regularly had once held the great Arensberg collection. Soon after, seeing signs of construction underway, Baker wondered whether this would be another example of Los Angeles erasing its past in the name of renovation, another “devouring of its physical history.”
As he pondered 7065 Hillside, Baker had no easy way of knowing that the history of the house was being secured rather than jeopardized. Thankfully though, the sellers—Ronald and April Dammann—had always been committed to keeping the house in view. Over the years they lived there, the couple hosted countless events for local museums, art societies, students, and researchers in all fields of art, architecture, and archaeology. And, in 2011, they took the ultimate step in preserving the house for posterity, successfully applying for Historic-Cultural Monument status. No doubt this decision substantially reduced their pool of potential buyers, but it also ensured the right one would be found. The new owners, Jonathan Browning and Marco Heithaus, shared an appreciation for the home’s artistic past and architectural eccentricities. They purchased the house in 2017 and have now spent more than three years on a meticulously researched restoration that will soon be completed. These years also saw the culmination of our book Hollywood Arensberg, co-authored with Ellen Hoobler and published last October by the Getty Research Institute (GRI). This project utilizes historic photographs, newly commissioned architectural plans, and intricate line drawings to create a room-by-room, wall-by-wall, and object-by-object tour of the domestic museum that had been so thrilling to the Arensbergs’ visitors.
Even after the Arensbergs’ deaths in 1953 and ’54, when the collection was transferred to a public museum, the house retained its connection to the couple and their art. It was bought by the dealer Earl Stendahl who, in 1941, had traded a significant cache of pre-Columbian objects to the couple for a second house they owned next door at 7055 Hillside Avenue. In the words of Mary Miller (Director of the GRI, which has recently acquired the Stendahl Art Galleries archive):
The Stendahl Galleries would have various sites around Los Angeles—including the Ambassador Hotel [on Wilshire Boulevard]—before permanently settling into the Hillside Avenue locations. Best known today for their sales of pre-Columbian art, the Stendahls also sold Brancusi sculptures and Modigliani paintings; when they could, they would secure old master paintings as well as their broad inventory of ancient Mexican offerings, an assemblage of materials that also characterize the works within the Arensberg home.
Stendahl ran his gallery from 7055 Hillside, where he helped the Arensbergs to build their pioneering collection. His story—and the nature of his relationship with Louise and Walter—has been vividly told by April Dammann in her book Exhibitionist: Earl Stendahl, Art Dealer as Impresario:
At the time of his move to Hillside Avenue, Stendahl didn’t anticipate how the proximity to one of his best customers would increase business. The Arensbergs had been regular visitors to the galleries on Wilshire, and Stendahl had spent many hours showing paintings and pre-Columbian art at their home. But once the two men became neighbors, Arensberg was like a kid waiting for the ice cream truck. When he saw a delivery arrive at Stendahl’s driveway, he would hurry next door to inquire about its contents. With great anticipation, Arensberg watched Earl unload the crates from Mexico. Money was changing hands as fast as anyone could say Quetzalcoatl.
7065 Hillside Avenue itself would change hands after the Arensbergs died, and Stendahl, having purchased it in a closed-bid auction, would own both properties as the Arensbergs once had. Earl transferred his showroom immediately to 7065 Hillside, and the business would pass, along with the family house, first to his son Al Stendahl and then to his grandson Ronald Dammann. By the time Dammann retired, in 2017, the business had become LA’s longest continuously operating gallery (fig. 6).
Over the ninety years that the William Lee Woollett–designed house was in the care of the Arensberg and Stendahl families, it went through many alterations. In addition to the Neutra sunroom, it also featured extensions by several architects, the most notable of which were a 1928 foyer by Henry Palmer Sabin, a 1936 second-floor sitting room by Gregory Ain, and a 1955 carport by John Lautner. As part of the latter commission Lautner also redesigned the front patio, covering the original Mediterranean-style tilework with brick. Given this intricate history, the new owners faced complicated decisions about which features from which eras would be retained, which would be removed, and what might be added. A native Angeleno and an architect by training, Jonathan Browning had long hoped to find a building that would at once return him to his roots and engage his passion for historic design. Having already built a successful San Francisco-based lighting design company with his partner Marco Heithaus, Browning saw the project as an opportunity to bring the Arensberg house back to life and its architectural secrets to light.
Among the most immediate decisions was whether or not to keep an imposing canopy over the front patio, installed in 1955 by Henry Lawrence Eggers (fig. 7).
While it complemented the roof of Lautner’s carport, it obscured the symmetry and grandeur of the home’s original facade and obstructed the sunlight that once streamed through the living- and dining-rooms’ French doors. An early photograph we had found in the archives of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (fig. 8) inspired Browning and Heithaus to remove the canopy, replant the original landscaping, remove Lautner’s brickwork, and restore a gap in the wall leading down to the front yard that had been filled in by Neutra (fig. 9). “Remove,” however, does not mean “discard,” for they have stored the elements they have dismantled.
The restoration, in turn, informed our writing of Hollywood Arensberg: one day while removing a shed that Stendahl had built behind the house, Browning and Heithaus found an extra window that had once belonged to the Neutra sunroom. Their surprising discovery that the room once held nine tall windows—not eight, as all archival pictures show—restored our appreciation for Neutra’s original design and enhanced our understanding of the history of the space. The sunroom was originally built in 1933 as Neutra had designed it, with steel casement windows spanning its entire breadth. When Gregory Ain added the second floor sitting room atop the sunroom in 1936, however, a steel I-beam was installed for support in the Northeast corner and the window was removed. The Arensbergs responded by filling the void, as they always did, using the extra wall space to hang the newly acquired Woman by Joan Miró beneath an iconic painting by Robert Delaunay depicting Saint-Séverin in Paris.
Browning and Heithaus are now putting their own unique stamp on 7065 Hillside as well (fig. 10). Browning has partnered with designer Doug Levine to reconsider and re-design every wall, surface, and lighting feature not governed by the home’s status as Historic-Cultural Monument #994. Folding these features into a historic renovation has produced an overall gestalt that is both filled with bright energy and profoundly respectful of the past. It was originally hoped that the completion of their work, facilitated by Heithaus and Elissa Scrafano architects, would coincide with the publication of Hollywood Arensberg—that the book of the house and the house in the book could be celebrated together. Though Covid-19 prevented that from happening, the public will now be offered its first glimpse of the nearly complete restoration during an event organized by the GRI to mark the publication of Hollywood Arensberg. Last December, the GRI and the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented Part 1 in this series, The Arensbergs’ Hollywood House-Museum, which provided the context needed to understand the cultural significance of 7065 Hillside Avenue. Part 2, Hollywood Arensberg: Arriving at the House, will feature three short films—created by Tumbleweed Films and narrated by Browning—situating this history in its rightful home in Los Angeles. We hope everyone interested in the city, its architecture, and its cultural legacies will join us on March 9th—including, of course, Mr. Baker.
UPDATE: Part 2 indeed aired on March 9. It can be viewed here.
Mark Nelson, an author and book designer, is a partner at McCall Associates, New York. William H. Sherman is director of the Warburg Institute and professor of cultural history at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. Hollywood Arensberg co-author Ellen Hoobler is the William B. Ziff, Jr., Associate Curator of Art of the Americas at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.