The Working Man’s Masterpiece
The story of “The Oyler House: Richard Neutra’s Desert Retreat” will screen this weekend in Bishop
In 1957, Richard Oyler, an Inyo County employee and resident of Lone Pine, happened upon a cover page from a 1949 edition of Time Magazine at the Inyo County Library. The page featured modern architect Richard Neutra (a student of Frank Lloyd Wright), who was widely credited with defining modernism in Southern California. Neutra was a world-renowned architect, whose work has been featured in the Modern Museum of Art.
In 1959, Oyler owned a parcel of land in the Alabama Hills. He wrote to Neutra personally and asked him if he would consider designing a modest home for him and his family on the site. For context, The Sheet found a two-bedroom, one-bath home that Neutra designed during the same era listed for sale for $10.5 million in Los Angeles.
According to actress Kelly Lynch, who now owns the Oyler House, Neutra was taken with the surrealist desert landscape of the Alabama Hills, and struck up a friendship with Oyler. He agreed to design the house for very little commission, asserting that he had not seen such a vast amount of open space anywhere in North America.
What resulted was an unlikely friendship. Neutra was known for his philosophy of “bio-realism.” He created designs that integrated indoor and outdoor spaces, using glass walls and framing to bring features of the surrounding landscape into the buildings he designed.
According to Lynch, Neutra was also known for working closely with clients to tailor his designs to meet their needs. He built the Oyler family home to accommodate everything from their budget to their concerns about their children’s safety in an in-ground swimming pool (Neutra and Oyler subsequently recruited local mine employees and friends to drill a hole into an above-ground boulder to be filled with hose water as a pool). “The home is post and beam,” said Lynch. “We have plywood cabinets, nothing exotic or expensive, but it is extremely elegant, and as perfect for a family as for a multi-millionaire,” said Lynch in an interview this week. “There’s something about that. Beauty shouldn’t just be for those who can afford it. Good design should be for everyone.”
The Alabama Hills provided a compelling scene for a mid-century architectural masterpiece. The moderate climate allowed Neutra to play with openness by pairing large glass walls with post and beam construction to allow the varied angles and features of the landscape–from Mount Whitney to the quartz-monzonite monoliths of the Alabama Hills, to the vast expanse of the Owens Valley– to create the illusion that the indoor space extends forever into the surrounding scenery.
In 2012, documentary filmmaker Mike Dorsey, Richard Oyler’s step-grandson, made a film called, “The Oyler House: Richard Neutra’s Desert Retreat,” to tell the story of how Neutra came to build the Oylers’ family home in Lone Pine. Lynch had been corresponding with the Oylers, who had since moved to San Clemente, and had invited them to visit her at what was now her family home. At that time, Richard Oyler was 90. Dorsey set out to film his grandfather’s return to the house. Lynch described Richard Oyler as “the kind of guy you would meet and say, ‘wow I wish he was my dad.’” She called him “a very dear person.”
In one interview from the film, set in the house in Lone Pine, Oyler reflects, “I wrote to him [Richard Neutra] and told him who I was: nobody. I knew just by his office, he was a very important man, and I thought, he’s not going to build a house for me.” The house went on to become one of Neutra’s favorite projects and a place that he and his own family returned to annually over Christmas, while the Oylers visited their family on the coast.
For Lynch’s part, she and her husband, screenwriter Mitch Glazer, purchased the property in 1992. It was their first home. She said it was very powerful to meet Richard Oyler, when he finally returned to the property where he and his wife had raised their five children, in 2012. “His eyes filled up when he walked in… and I met this person who had left behind this beautiful place for my family,” said Lynch. Richard Oyler died about six months later