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Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty recently sold this Marcel Breuer masterpiece on the Hudson River.

The Most Important Things to Know Before Buying an Architectural Landmark

Purchasing a home conceived by Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson, or Paul Rudolph comes with its own unique checklist of considerations

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Heller House in Chicago is listed for $2.2 million with @Properties. Photo: Courtesy of @Properties

Purchasing a trophy residence masterminded by a major architect like Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson, or Paul Rudolph is far from a standard real estate transaction. “Architecturally significant properties increase in value more like a piece of art than a normal home,” says Gerard Bisignano of Vista Sotheby’s International Realty. He would know: Based in Southern California, Bisignano has sold iconic dwellings by Pierre Koenig, Thom Mayne, and Ray Kappe—and is currently marketing Richard Neutra’s stunning Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs for $25 million. “These landmarks are very special. They resonate deeply with people.”

A neoclassical manse by Wallace Neff in Los Angeles, listed for $12.375 million with Douglas Elliman. Photo: Anthony Barcelo

Built in 1946, the Kaufmann residence is an icon of midcentury modernism, famously immortalized by photographers Slim Aarons and Julius Shulman. By the time the current owners bought the estate in the ’90s, however, the home was in disrepair. The couple enlisted architecture firm Marmol Radziner for a historically accurate overhaul. After a painstaking five-year process—which took the team to Missouri and Utah in search of original materials—the structure was awarded the highest historic classification by the city of Palm Springs, which considerably reduced the tax burden. “For that price in California, you would expect to pay hundreds of thousands a year in property taxes,” says Bisignano. “But because of the designation, it’s only around $9,000.” 

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While the cost to revive one of these landmark properties can be significantly more, the investment can be financially beneficial in the long run, as architect Lee Ledbetter learned firsthand after acquiring and meticulously restoring a 1963 New Orleans home by Nathaniel C. “Buster” Curtis Jr. of Curtis and Davis Architects, which designed the city’s iconic Superdome. “It varies by state, but you can deduct a certain portion of your construction costs if the house is landmarked or in a landmark district,” he explains, noting that such designations also govern the extent to which a structure can be altered. “One of the most important things for someone to know before buying is what the restrictions are in terms of renovations.”

Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann Desert House, on the market for $19.75 million with Gerard Bisignano of Vista Sotheby’s International Realty. Photo: Daniel Solomon

“Architecturally significant properties increase in value more like a piece of art than a normal home”

Gerard Bisignano

The 1963 Nathaniel C. “Buster” Curtis Jr. home renovated by Lee Ledbetter. Photo: pieter estersohn

This is especially crucial because each State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and local preservation body has a different process. “Every reviewing agency has a distinct culture,” says architect Ashley R. Wilson of the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation. “The best advice is to work with the agency as soon as changes and designs are being discussed so they can guide the owner through the preplanning and design phases.” 

Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty recently sold this Marcel Breuer masterpiece on the Hudson River.

For his part, Ledbetter advocates a light touch. “I always encourage people to work with what’s there, respect what’s there, and celebrate that,” he says. “Otherwise, why buy the house?”

A version of this article first appeared in print in our 2021 Spring Issue under the headline “Living History.” Subscribe to the magazine.

Cover: Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty recently sold this Marcel Breuer masterpiece on the Hudson River.

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