Case Study House 26 History
Most often, the info that is published on interesting buildings focuses on their original design. Though, being able to experience these houses today requires a lot more - a healthy mix of understanding the place’s importance, some commitment to preserve it, and certainly a bit of luck to get it through the difficult time when its importance is not appreciated yet.
This page tries to give you this story; some info on how the house came together originally and how it made it so well through the last 5 decades.
If you have new facts to share or see inaccurate facts, let us know!
The idea to develop the neighborhood starts. Booming post-war California needs more homes; a lot of them - and this neighborhood should help. In the typical planning style of that time, Peacock Gap is envisioned for suburban, mid- to high-end housing, rounded out with a golf course, shopping center, and church. As a special feature, the developer, 20th Century Homes, partners with 3 construction-industry groups to build a prototypical houses, comparing the pro and cons of a timber-framed, a laminated wood, and a steel-framed house.
Bethlehem Steel, builder of the Golden Gate Bridge 25 years earlier, sponsors the steel-framed house; their CEO Wallace Harrison brings in Beverley Thorne, whose specialty is buildings with steel on on-buildable sites.
Beverley visits the site several times - often with his kids in tow - and starts developing the design. With no other structures around yet, his context for the house on the large, steeply sloped site is the natural surroundings and cardinal directions, meaning the path of the sun. He places the home, using – what he calls ‘space platforms’ - on a single floor, with entering from the carport above, providing a maximum of privacy and - most importantly – orienting the house in a perfect position towards the panoramic view over hills and golf course and towards the sun. We wonder if his idea was to enjoy the first drink after work relaxing on the deck and watching the sunset.
The connection to ‘Arts & Architecture’, with the new editor Richard Travers, is established, who plans include the home in their Case Study House program. His crisp design is a good continuation of exploring a modern family’s life environment.
Garret Eckbo, at that time already forming already as EDAW, develops at interesting landscape design, leaving one half of the large lot untouched as native California vegetation and concentrating the landscape on the entrance and area that is level with the main floor.
Construction is complete; and as usual for the Case Study Houses, it opens for several weekends to the public for tours.
To show off the forward-looking lifestyle the house promises and the immense stability of the steel frame, a helicopter lands on its roof. Back then, commuting to work with a helicopter is considered the way of the future.
Unfortunately, Bethlehem Steel CEO Wallace Harrison suffers a heart attack before the house was completed. Beverley Thorne insists to name the house after him, so it is also known as the Harrison House.
Following the Open House, it is for sale to any interested buyer. But this design is too groundbreaking for most. The high asking price of $70,000 initially - double of what an average Eichler home would sell - does also not help to find a buyer quickly. After few price reductions, the Renee and Gari Ketcham buy it in the summer of 1963. For location and style, for Gari and Renee, a TWA pilot and flight attendant couple, it represents the right place to raise their family. Marin County-born Renee can stay at home and raise the kids, while Gari flies out from Sarrinnen’s TWA Terminal in New York, with the prestigious route to Paris being his home route.
Soon after completion, Beverley designs a lower-floor addition of a rumpus room and pool. His initial design was so smart that the steel frame could easily accommodate a full-height floor.
After moving-in the Ketchams do not modify the home a lot. But the transparency is unusual for them. They work with Beverley on same design changes for the entry and garden area, but most of them - including the lower floor addition - will not be realized.
Only actual change is to replace the front door with frosted glass, and to add a ramp from the house leading up to the driveway.
To give their family of 6 more space in the garden, Renee and Gari decide to flatten out the lower portion of the lot. The area is perfect and shaded at different times of the day; perfect to baseball and other outdoor games. From time to time, we still do find modern relics buried in the hill, like old tricycles and outdoor furniture and such.
The newly built stairs leading down to the garden are likely the reason that the planter boxes on either end of the house are demolished. Beverley considered them important to tie the design back to the hill, but their construction was very simple and did not prove to stand the time.
The original kitchen layout followed very much the post-war model: a tight U-shape layout, and very much separated from the rest of the house. In 1970 it does not reflect the more emancipated housewife’s role anymore. A new kitchen from St Charles, the leading metal kitchen manufacturer, is installed, placing an open kitchen island in the center and opening the view to and from the kitchen.
Esther McCoy republishes her Case Study House book for the 2nd time. For the 1963 edition, the house had not been completed and therefore was not included. For the new print, Esther updates her list of Case Study Houses with the ones built since with their basic info. This book will remain the de-facto standard book on Case Study Houses for a very long time.
The rediscovery of the Case Study Houses begins. In October, the Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles opens an exhibition on the Case Study House program, curated by Elizabeth Smith, and providing the first museum-level analysis of the 20+ homes. It includes a replica of the Eames House. Prior to the show, its exhibit designers, Sandy and David Wasco, visit the Harrison House and share recommendation how to maintain the house with Renee. Their advise are instrumental to achieve the current level of preservation and design integrity.
The same month, the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake hits the San Francisco area and causes massive damage. Luckily, the house does not suffer any damage. Knock on steel!
After many years of slow deterioration, the deck - a very thin construction of wood studs covered by few inches of concrete, that is beaten very hard with each rain - is not safe anymore and has to be replaced. Replacing it with the same material and construction is not feasible due to cost and lack of skilled workers. The new deck is the regular wood boards, now draining properly; though it changes the appearance a lot; not only from the deck, also from the underside, that Bev called the fifth facade and tried to keep as clean as possible.
In the early 2000’s, several authors and journalists write about the house. When they visit and interview her, she spreads all drawings on the dining table..
SF Chronicle’s design editor Zahid Sadar publishes a long article in the SF Chronicle and her experience living here.
The most comprehensive and lavish new book is Taschen’s Case Study House – The Complete Program, for which Taschen commissioned new photographs. The book has been in re-prints ever since.
Beverley attends to book launch in Los Angeles, that takes place at Case Study House #22. He is the only Case Study House architect in attendance.
Over the years, tours - both by students and architects - visit the house, with Edwin Oostmeijer’s Summit Tours in Spring 2010 being one of the first ones that we know of.
The pictures taken at these tours are important documents to better understand how the house changed over time. (If you are one of these past visitors, please share them with us!)
Around this time, Renee decides to move to a nursing home. For a few years, the house is rented.
In the spring of 2015, Renee Ketcham passes away. Following some light renovations - mostly paint and garden maintenance - her children decide to sell the house.
To help with the sale, Beverley Thorne, now residing in Hawaii, returns to the home for the first time since 1963. His first words are: “Why are all the walls still in the same place? Nothing has changed here!”
In December, the home is bought by Alfonso and Cord. They move in the weekend before Christmas.
After their move-in, the new owners need to decide on an approach how to maintain or renovate the house, since almost nothing changed here since 1963.
In brief, their solution is to change as little as possible and as much as necessary to allow for its continuous use as a home with today’s way of living.
Besides furnishing the home with a mix of modern and contemporary furniture and artwork, their initial focus is on making the house more energy efficient. Key steps are retrofitting the windows, replacing floor finishes, and placing of rocks in the loft. The later also restores the original continuity of roof platform.
Other projects update the kitchen with new appliances and finishes; though with reusing the 1970 metal cabinets.
Beverley Thorne passes away on December 6th. He was the last surviving architect of the Case Study House program. Over his lifetime, he designed more than 150 homes in California and Hawaii; not surprisingly mostly in steel. His work is an outstanding example of uncompromisingly modern and audacious design, though always reflecting his private and introverted character.
The best overview of his work is currently on US Modernist.
Ever since we moved in, our free time has been busy maintaining and repairing the house, keeping the large garden from growing over, researching the home’s history, and entertaining our friends and family.
With our interest in making the history of this and other Case Study Houses more public and share the impressive design with the community, anyone who is interested to tour the home, can can sign-up here.
As one of the few Case Study Houses available for visit, it is added to the Iconic House network in the summer of 2019.
Stop by when you are in the San Francisco Bay Area!