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On Exhibit: unearthing a newly found Neutra

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Richard Neutra, the California architect often credited with introducing the International style to American architecture, only spent a couple years in the midwest, but they were formative ones. He was fascinated by the innovative commercial architecture of the Chicago School, and worked briefly for Holabird and Roche, the Chicago firm responsible for the first steel-skeleton skyscraper. But he was also obsessed with Frank Lloyd Wright--he named his firstborn son Frank--and put in some time with the Prairie School visionary at his Taliesin studio in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Born in Vienna in 1892, Neutra had worked briefly with a Swiss architect and then with modernist Erich Mendelsohn in Berlin. In 1923 he moved to the U.S. to meet Wright, but by 1925 he'd left Chicago for Los Angeles, where his childhood friend and fellow architect Rudolph Schindler had invited him to join his fledgling practice. Some of Neutra's works, like the steel-framed Lovell House in the LA hills, are known by architecture buffs worldwide. But at least one, the Helburn House in Bozeman, Montana, still hadn't been verified as his work even two years ago. Now Chicagoans have a chance to explore the rediscovered house and its history in a Chicago Architecture Foundation exhibit titled "Neutra in Montana: The Blurring of Architecture and Landscape." Organized by John Brittingham, the associate professor of architecture at Montana State University who did the documentation, the show runs through November 17.

Neutra would make his name with a style that incorporated both the open floor plans and expansive windows of the Chicago School and Wright's ideas about architecture's relationship to its natural surroundings. But he was like Wright in another respect as well: he would take on small projects for middle-class clients. One of those clients was Nick Helburn, a professor of geography at Montana State University. Neutra visited the university for a summer program on urbanism in 1949, and after a lecture Helburn introduced himself and asked the architect if he'd be interested in designing a house in Bozeman. After seeing the Helburns' plot of land, Neutra agreed to do it.

He designed a one-story structure that appears to be growing out of the hill it sits on--it's constructed from logs and has a sod roof. Helburn and his wife loved to garden, so Neutra designed an indoor room with a dirt floor and a wall of windows that enabled the couple to plant vegetables year-round. The bedrooms are small; like many architects of the era, Neutra put the focus on the living and dining areas. He used thermopane glazing and radiant floor heat, rare in the 1950s.

Using Neutra's floor plan and first elevations, the couple did all the construction themselves, completing the house in 1954. Helburn, who is now retired, lived in it until the mid-60s, when he relocated to Longmont, Colorado. His wife lived in the house until 1971. Neutra died in 1970.

The house was largely forgotten for years. It wasn't even mentioned in Barbara Mac Lamprecht's Neutra: The Complete Works, published in 2000. Brittingham didn't know about it until he moved to the area to teach five years ago. Even then, details were sketchy. "Many in Bozeman knew about it, but they didn't know it was done by Neutra," he says. "It was just that house on Sourdough Road."

With a grant from MSU, Brittingham set about his research, culling information from Neutra archives at UCLA and interviewing Helburn. He found out about another Neutra house in Missoula, but its appearance had been significantly altered by an addition. What makes Helburn House important is that the original design is virtually intact. It's currently owned by a former Montana State University architecture student, who doesn't intend to make any changes to the local landmark.

But Brittingham says Helburn House is important for another reason. "Montana's not known as a progressive state," he says. "But the state has here a house by one of the best known architects of the 20th century, in a location where there's not a lot of modern architecture."

"Neutra in Montana: The Blurring of Architecture and Landscape" is on display in the ArchiCenter Lecture Hall at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, 224 S. Michigan; admission is free. For more information call 312-922-3432.

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