An Unbuilt Richard Neutra Design in La Jolla

MacConnell Residence view from the North

An unbuilt design by architect Richard J. Neutra was carefully crafted during World War II as much of the world was unsettled in the chaos of global conflict.

By Keith York
MacConnell Residence view from the North
MacConnell Residence view from the West
MacConnell Residence view from the East
MacConnell Residence view from the South
MacConnell Residence view from the North
MacConnell House by William Kesling. Photograph by Julius Shulman. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

In August 2023, I was notified by Catherine at Blue Waters Estate Sales that a client would be selling plans by architect Richard J. Neutra from what was a well-documented home by William Kesling.

During my visit, I met family members and toured two homes -- the "lower house" -- the J. Walton MacConnell House (1947) by Kesling that was photographed by Julius Shulman and the “upper house” (more on that below). Having used his photographs of the home in my exhibition Julius Shulman: Modern La Jolla alongside Peter Stackpole’s photos taken in October 1947 and published in LIFE Magazine’s November 3, 1947 issue, I thought I knew the full story before I set foot on the property.

Shortly after arriving, I toured the lower house – the Kesling design -- with family members of its owner, Josephine “Jo Bobbie” MacConnell Showley, and grew more interested in the upper house and its contents. Amidst the artifacts of decades past, I was presented with a significant number of folded drawings and more recent remodel schemes traditionally rolled as if they were prepped to readily slide into cylindrical cardboard poster-tube.

As I perused the drawings, I realized that the upper house was already on this site under Joseph Kowalski’s biographical page! While I could not recall the source (likely my interview with Kowalski’s widow years earlier), I was surprised to see that I had 1890 Spindrift Drive in La Jolla listed under two architect’s pages – both Kesling and Kowalski. Until that day I was not fully aware that there were two distinctly different homes on the parcel designed and built five years apart. These drawings are the first of Joseph Kowalski’s I have come across.

As I unrolled and unfolded dozens of sheets of drawings, some of which were over 70 years old, my expectations to see my first drawings by William Kesling were dashed. Not one reference of the well-documented seafront home were amongst the collection of papers. In their place, a series of drawings by architect Richard J. Neutra of Oceanview Residence for J. Walton MacConnell were unveiling themselves in my presence – just as my guide said they would. I was really taken aback. As delighted as I was to peruse original drawings, I was simultaneously wondering why I had not been aware of this years prior. Dion Neutra never mentioned this project during our correspondence or during his visits to San Diego. I had yet to come across any reference to this project (likely because it was not built) in any texts on Richard Neutra’s career. Or perhaps I just missed it?

As soon as I returned home, I consulted my files and my Neutra reference materials. Nothing. As soon as I searched the Online Archive of California, it was right there all along – in UCLA’s Richard (and Dion) Neutra Papers. I made an appointment and met with Simon Elliott at UCLA Special Collections in the basement of the Charles E. Young Research Library. I had met Simon years ago while researching the work of Lloyd Wright in San Diego County – included in my 2015 exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright’s Legacy In San Diego: The Taliesin Apprentices. I placed an order for scans and secured permissions to use UCLA’s materials for Residence of J. Walton MacConnell. Simon also connected me with (Richard Neutra’s youngest son) Raymond Neutra to secure his permission to publish the drawings. Raymond was super gracious and shared in my excitement.

When LIFE Magazine published its photo essay on retired airline pilot and bachelor J. Walton MacConnell's oceanfront home, the lines of his William Kesling designed home were quite a departure from the fantastic flat-roofed structure Neutra had designed previously -- surrounding a square open-air atrium at its center.

In their correspondence, both client and architect shared details of Neutra’s other homes as references to design the house at 1890 Spindrift Drive. By April 1944, the house was fairly well configured and by August 1945 it appears that progress on drawings were nearly complete. From the siting, it appears that Neutra located the project where Kowalski's "upper house" was eventually built.

It is not clear why MacConnell ceased working with Neutra on "Oceanview Residence for Walton J. MacConnell, Spindrift Drive, La Jolla, Cal." MacConnell may have engaged William Kesling (who had relocated from Los Angeles to La Jolla in 1939), locally and who likely proposed an oceanfront home design for far less than Neutra's plan would cost. MacConnell built Kesling’s design, and with the 1947 LIFE Magazine pictorial, his efforts with the client secured a place in regional history.

Drawings are courtesy of Specifications, Schedules, and Construction Details MacConnell, Walton J. undated. Neutra (Richard and Dion) papers (LSC.1179). Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA. Publication rights granted by Raymond Neutra.

The LIFE article is written as a day-in-the-life at the home: “MacConnell and his friends gather around barbecue built into niche in sandstone cliff at one end of house. Guests sit on driftwood benches, drink beer from pewter mugs. Guest Jo Bobbie Hooker walks up beach to join the others for supper, which the Cuban houseboy is preparing.” Jo Bobbie Hooker later became Josephine “Jo Bobbie” MacConnell.

The article continues, “With a Cuban houseboy, a barbecue pit, a fishing rod and a telescope, retired bachelor Walton MacConnell has settled down in the elegant, sunny little town of La Jolla, Calif. to a pleasant, lounging existence. As a setting for this life he has built himself a dramatic, glassy, $40,000 home which hugs the edge of a 50-foot seaside cliff. Here the Pacific swishes around under the living-room floor and occasionally splashes up soothingly over the huge windows. Fully retired after a two-year stint in the Marine Corps, MacConnell now holds a perpetual open house for nearby friends who flock around to enjoy the surf, the sun and the beer. At high tide they can sometimes catch fish swimming at the base of the sea wall. With the telescope they casually scan the surrounding view, focusing on an occasional passing ship. Between card games and drinks they borrow from Mac-Connell's large stock of swimming suits and play around in the water. Then, after a barbecue supper and dancing in the patio, they often go in again for a moonlight dip before going home to rest up for another full day of Riviera-like fun.”

After securing my permissions to publish from Raymond Neutra and UCLA, I learned that someone purchased all the Richard J. Neutra materials at the estate sale. On November 15, 2023, Los Angeles Modern Auctions sold “thirteen blueprints in two rolls and six drawings for the Oceanview residence for Walton J. MacConnell, Spindrift Dr., La Jolla, CA. Signed and dated to four works ‘Richard J. Neutra’. Both rolls of blueprints sold with endpapers with annotations, and one with extensive notes and inscriptions by a member of the Neutra Studio.” The set of drawings sold for $11,970. Additionally, a stereo cabinet pictured in the LIFE article was sold at the same auction for $4,410 attributed to William Kesling. I do not believe this cabinet was designed by Kesling.

Adding a Neutra project to this website after two decades of research energizes me to continue to forge ahead in hopes of discovering more regional modernist designs. Whether built or not, rumors and attributions that architects like Raphael Soriano and Philip Johnson designed projects in San Diego need to be confirmed!

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