As It Happens

Developer who tore down historic San Francisco house ordered to rebuild it 'exactly like it was'

After a developer in San Francisco illegally demolishes a 1930s designer home, the city's planning department orders him to rebuild a replica of what he bulldozed.

City staffer Dennis Richards hopes the rebuilt house will serve as a 'scarlet letter' to future homeowners

An aerial view of the demolished Largent House in San Francisco. (Santiago Mejia/San Francisco Chronicle/Associated Press)

Transcript

When a San Francisco property developer demolished his house a year ago, it wasn't just his neighbours that were mad — residents across the city were shocked.

This was the beloved Largent House, built in the 1930s by renowned modernist architect Richard Neutra. The Austrian-American architect's work is often compared to that of Frank Lloyd Wright's.

The city's planning department was livid about the demolition, too. And now, it has demanded the homeowner build an exact replica of the house he tore down — complete with a plaque out front confessing his unauthorized development sins. 

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to San Francisco planning commissioner Dennis Richards about the house and the message he hopes this will send to future developers.

Here is part of their conversation.

What's happened to this house?

The owner pulled a permit to remodel and he ended up taking the building down to all but the garage door and the frame around the garage door. There's not much there anymore.

That was illegal. He wasn't allowed to do that?

No.

The Largent House is one of only five homes built by Richard Neutra in San Francisco and was one of the architect's earliest works. (Google Street View)

What was his plan?

I guess he wanted to renovate what was left. I think the first floor was supposed to stay and then build like a 4,000 square foot house around it.

But the original house is about 1,300 square feet, right?

Right, right.

So this house at 49 Hopkins Avenue is quite beautiful. But it's simple. It's modest. It's a nice family size for its time. And he wanted to build a mega-mansion there?

I'd call it a McMansion. We have a McMansion-ing happening in the city. This type of thing is happening a lot and new legislation has been introduced last week to actually try to put a stop to it.

Up until now, the only way that we can have a disincentive is — this is the fourth one we've done from the planning commission — putting back a structure with the same square footage and the same massing.

This is the first one that we've actually said because of the specialness of the house, we want you to put it back exactly like it was originally.

The city's planning commission also ordered the homeowner to add a sidewalk plaque telling the entire saga of the house's origins in the 1930s, its demolition and replication. (Santiago Mejia/San Francisco Chronicle/Associated Press)

So tell us what he is required to do. 

What he has to do is actually build the original structure.

The external portion of the house needs to look exactly like it was built in 1936 — same materials, same form, same function, same massing, same placing on the lot — everything.

We're asking that the owner put a plaque out front in the sidewalk that says this is an exact copy, a replica, of the original house as it was built in 1936. And then tell a little bit about what happened: The original house was added on and then somebody bought it and it was demolished illegally and the planning commission, on this date, required that the original restructure be replaced.

Ouch. So not only does he have to rebuild it — but he was has to confess on a plaque in front of the house.

Well, kind of. We're not requiring him to put his name on it. We're just requiring him to tell the story of the house. 

The landmark Largent House pictured in 2014. (Google Street View)

But this kind of brands him as the person who did it, right? 

Yeah. With a little digging, you can find out who it is. But I think over the years, it's going to probably fade — but at least the story will be told.

It's kind of a scarlet letter on the house. Originally, that wasn't the intent. It was really to say that it was replica and to tell the story.

But the more I thought about it, the scarlet letter is this house wearing a scarlet letter. It's kind of a message. Just like the woman who wore the scarlet letter because she was an adulteress, this is a scarlet letter based on evil demolition. 

They didn't play by the rules. The knocking down of homes that are relatively affordable in San Francisco, and I use the word relatively, maybe 10 to 15 per cent of the population here can afford a house like that, but we're cannibalizing our housing stock.

We're taking modest homes that some people can afford and we're blowing them up into McMansions that virtually nobody can afford. 

It's really changing the face of our city and it's time that we woke up and said, "You know, I think we've had enough."

Written by Jeanne Armstrong and John McGill. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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