The news that James F. (Jim) Goldstein, the owner of the John Lautner-designed Sheats House, has gifted his property to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) as a house museum fills me with ambivalence. The house is beautiful: A concrete exultation emerges out of a cave filled with plants and water to cascade down a Los Angeles hillside; some of the site-specific art installations are certainly worth seeing. The fact that this site in an exclusive neighborhood will be open to the public in even some limited fashion is good news. Yet there is one reality to houses serving as museums that disturbs me: they are dead. A house is a place where somebody lives. A museum is a place that brings people and art together in a secure, permanent, and isolated setting. Making a house into a museum kills the life that animates it.
One of my first experiences in architecture was visiting Mrs. Schröder-Schräder in the house Gerrit Rietveld designed for her in Utrecht, Netherlands. It made me realize the possibilities of designing a new world that you could actually inhabit. Years later, I went back and found a sterile environment, complete as a work of architecture, but devoid of the promise and possibilities that I found in my first visit. Similarly, when I visited the newly restored Tugendhat house not too long ago, I found a building that had left behind its melancholy air and deteriorated surfaces to become a Technicolor version of the photographs we all know from the books. It seemed as alien to me as those documents. Even worse is the state of the J. Irwin Miller House in Columbus, Ind., as there the original art and design pieces that were sold at auction before the house was given to the Indianapolis Museum of Art were such an integral part of the place’s aura. Similarly, the Palais Stoclet is now a denuded ghost of itself without even being open to the public yet, as is Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House at Barnsdall Art Park in Los Angeles.
I am afraid that something similar will happen to the Sheats House. It might not be as bad in this case because the house already is a party place, rented out for special occasions and outfitted with all the conveniences a caterer might expect. It is by this point a monument to itself curated by Mr. Goldstein. Nonetheless, it will now be (in perpetuity) nothing other than a memorial to the design intention to create a beautiful home on a hillside overlooking Los Angeles.
The problem is that making such structures available to the public necessitates having the inhabitants move out so we can move around their private spaces—and we do want to be able to see these homes. I am privileged in that I can usually get myself into such sites (although, in the case of the Stoclet it took me 20 years), and have had the pleasure of spending time at the Sheats House. I would not want to deny that experience to anyone. But, if you read the reports on the house’s future, it turns out that it will be open "for fundraisers and conferences, as well as collaborations with other museums,” according to Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the LA Times. I suspect that the neighbors do not want regular tours, and so the experience of this house will remain restricted to an elite. To me, that would seem to offer the worst of both worlds: A house that is not a house, but a place only donors and scholars can enter.
I hate to say it, but I think it would be better if Mr. Goldstein had sold the house to an owner who would value the property, inhabit it, and hopefully continue to have it be as accessible as he has made the building. The reality is that you cannot keep architecture lovers out. Mr. Goldstein could then donate the full value of the house, its contents, and the $17 million maintenance endowment he has promised, to LACMA to strengthen its programs in architecture and design. A major exhibition on the work of John Lautner might be a good first use of those funds.
Listen to the NPR Morning Edition report on Jim Goldstein's gift of the Sheats House to LACMA: