Remember the Craig Ellwood That Was Demolished? This Man Wants to Rebuild It—in New York

Remember the Craig Ellwood That Was Demolished? This Man Wants to Rebuild It—in New York

Lots of people were horrified in early April when news broke that Chris Pratt and Katherine Schwarzenegger leveled a midcentury designed by Craig Ellwood. But few of us would go as far as one man, who’s now trying to recreate the Zimmerman House all the way across the country.

Evan Dyer, a litigator from the Philadelphia area, says he’s committed to building something "as close as possible" to the original, albeit set on a wooded lot somewhere outside of New York City, rather than in Los Angeles’s Brentwood neighborhood. Meant to be a vacation home for his family, Dyer’s "Zimmerman 2.0" is coming together with help from architect Charlotte Ensign and project designer Steven Andrew Kocher of Brooklyn practice Group B Studio.

The 1950 Zimmerman House marked one of Los Angeles-based modernist architect Craig Ellwood’s earliest projects.

Originally, Dyer says, he and his wife Jessie had planned to purchase an original midcentury-modern home in the Catskills or Hudson Valley area. They struggled to find a decent supply, though, and walked away from one they’d made an offer on after finding a buried oil tank during the inspection. After resigning themselves to just building something new but midcentury-modern-inspired, news came out about the Zimmerman House’s demise. "When I saw that a work by one of my favorite architects was destroyed," Dyer says, "the idea [to recreate it] crystalized fairly quickly."

Dyer reached out to George Smart, founder and CEO of the nonprofit educational archive U.S. Modernist, for help on the project. "I don’t think there’s anyone more dedicated to the style and movement," Dyer says of Smart, hailing his existing collection of material about both Ellwood and the home. Smart put a notice in his U.S. Modernist newsletter asking readers for photos, videos, and anything else they might have had tucked away relating to the Zimmerman House, and ephemera quickly came flooding in. He also hooked Dyer up with some Ellwood experts, like Barton Jahncke, an architectural design principle at L.A. firm Previous Partners, who specializes in renovating Ellwood originals.

In early April, news broke that Chris Pratt and Katherine Schwarzenegger bought then razed the Ellwood-designed midcentury with plans to build a modern farmhouse-style mansion in its place.

Craig Ellwood’s daughter, Erin Ellwood, has also come on board as a consultant on the project. A designer by trade, Ellwood says she’ll be on call to consult about finishes and materials, adding not just insight on what her dad would have done then, but also what she thinks makes sense for that aesthetic now. Ellwood says she hopes Dyer doesn’t try to create a living time capsule: "If my father was renovating one of his houses now, he would never use Formica counters. He used those at the time for a reason, but there are so many more great options now, so he would definitely want to upgrade."

Smart says that, as far as he knows, recreating a home by a noted architect is "quite rare." That could be for a few reasons: First, there’s the questionable legality in many cases of taking an architect’s design and using it for your own purposes, and second, the fact that some of these historic homes just weren’t built with today’s conveniences or lifestyles in mind. When outdoor furniture brand Kettal partnered with Richard Neutra’s son to create two replicas of the architect’s legendary glass penthouse in 2020, the company updated the materials and construction methods to contemporary standards. The $300,000 kits for "easy-to-assemble" houses inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian homes that recently came on the market have also been modified and modernized, and while the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation recognizes the Seattle-based company’s house designs and receives a small royalty when a kit is sold, it still emphasizes they aren’t authentic Wright structures.

Dyer says he’s fully committed to the "Zimmerman 2.0" idea, spending an initial $8,000 for new plans based on a "necromancy" of the house that uses photos he’s gathered from archives and modernism fans. He’s been unable to find Ellwood’s original blueprints—something Smart says isn’t unusual "for houses of that vintage"—but says Ensign thinks they have enough to at least "replicate the bones."

"I’ve gotten a lot of material, like photographs, the floor plan, and the original building permits from 1950, which have been incredibly helpful," Dyer says, noting he’s still in pursuit of even more unpublished images due out sometime soon via a book by San Diego modernism expert Keith York. While Dyer says he wishes Pratt and Schwartzenegger would have sold the Zimmerman House to someone who was interested in moving it off-site—à la the recent sale of a George Matsumoto home in North Carolina—he acknowledges that his needs as a New York homeowner might not have been met by the home as it stood. For instance, while the original Zimmerman House was built with an indoor/outdoor California lifestyle in mind, Dyer’s 2.0 version will modify the walls of glass to be constructed with a class of glass better suited for colder climates.

Dyer is also planning on making a few upgrades, some of which he says were already made before the house was demolished. While he’s planning on pursuing some of the original, cheaper finishes—the Zimmerman House was, after all, meant to be a relatively affordable home when it was first built—he’s also going to pop for some better appliances. "I think there’s room for interpretation," he says, joking, "I’m not trying to have a ’50s refrigerator."

There’s an Instagram account for the project now, too, which Dyer encourages fans of both the original home and of modernism in general to follow, especially if they’re interested in doing something similar. Countless midcentury masterpieces have been lost over the years, and while no one can turn back time and bring them all back, having a few more in the world would probably please the unending fans of the style—or at least might be less likely to offend them.


Originally published in Dwell
Text by Marah Eakin

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