By Libby Motika
Palisades News Contributor
In April 1938, the German émigré Thomas Mann visited Los Angeles with the intention of making a new home. On his fact-finding foray, he toured new houses with Austrian-born architect Richard Neutra, the pioneer of California modernism.
Three years later when Mann decided to build his home in Pacific Palisades, Neutra presumed he would be the logical choice for the German novelist. It was not to be, for Mann confided in his diary his aversion to the “cubist glass-box style,” which he found “so unpleasant,” and chose instead the more conservative architect, J.R. Davidson.
Architectural historian Thomas Hines attributes Mann’s decision to be a reaction against Neutra’s overzealous salesmanship, referring to a party at the home of writer Vicki Baum in the Palisades Riviera, where Neutra tried to curry Mann’s favor. According to witnesses, the novelist was so annoyed, he muttered to someone, “Get that Neutra off my back.”
Davidson’s design was a more gemütlich (pleasant and cheerful) version of the International Style, according to a curator at Frankfurt’s German Architecture Museum.
A German immigrant himself, Davidson, moved to Los Angeles in 1923, where his projects ranged from the redesign of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub interiors in 1926 to participating in a number of Case Study House designs in the mid-1940s.
The Mann house, at 1550 San Remo Dr., recently purchased by the German government for $13.25 million, is destined to become a place of cultural exchange, and home for young writers and architecture students. The artist residence Villa Aurora, also located in Pacific Palisades and funded by the German government, is entrusted with the administration of the house and will oversee programming.
Mann, the 1929 Nobel Prize winner, had originally moved to Princeton, New Jersey, in 1938 after emigrating from Europe in the face of Hitler’s Nazi aggression. He enjoyed a tremendous welcome and was enthusiastically acclaimed on the lecture circuit as an indefatigable critic of Hitler’s Germany.
After two years in the East, he continued west, where he would enjoy the comradeship of other German immigrants and exiles. He was especially drawn to the Palisades and liked living in a small town, surrounded, as he said, by scenery.
Mann and his wife, Katia, were prominent members of the German expatriate community, and would frequently meet other émigrés at the house of Salka and Bertold Viertel in Santa Monica Canyon, and at the Villa Aurora, the home of fellow German exile Lion Feuchtwanger on Paseo Miramar.
The flat-roofed Mann house, which today is almost impossible to see from the base of a long driveway on the corner of San Remo and Monaco, is characterized by bands of plain windows and unadorned surfaces with bedrooms set back to make room for terraces topped by a continuous built-in pergola. Described as a compromise between Romantic and modern elements, the house suited Mann’s “habits, needs, demands.”
“I shall, Heil Hitler, have the finest study I have ever worked in,” he wrote. He first sat there on February 14, 1942.
Mann lived in the house for a decade, during which time he wrote Doctor Faustus, a book UCLA German Professor Ehrhard Bahr calls “an allegory of Germany’s most recent history.”
The novel, centered on the life of composer Adrian Leverkühn, who bargains his soul in exchange for 24 years of genius, parallels the German cultural and political environment, which led to the rise and downfall of Nazi Germany.
Born in 1875 in Germany, Mann lived in Munich until he immigrated first to Switzerland. In 1933 when the Nazis came to power, Mann and his wife were on holiday in Switzerland. Due to his father’s strident denunciations of Nazi policies, his son Klaus advised him not to return.
But Thomas Mann’s books, in contrast to those of his brother Heinrich and his son Klaus, were not among those burnt publicly by Hitler’s regime in May 1933, possibly because he was a Nobel laureate in literature.
But in 1936 when the Nazi government officially revoked his German citizenship, Mann came to think, “I am more suited to represent Germany’s cultural traditions than to become a martyr to them.”
The Mann family, including six children, all of whom emigrated to the United States, constituted what daughter Erika called “the mass immigration movement.” Mann enjoyed the order and quiet of his house, and was inclined to make excursions in the neighborhood accompanied by his dog. As he was listed in the phone book, strangers would occasionally knock on his door where they were graciously invited in for a tour and a cup of tea.
On 23 June 1944, Thomas Mann was naturalized as a citizen of the United States. He lived in the United States until he began to sense dread over the closing of the liberal cosmopolitan America following Franklin Roosevelt’s death and the rise of the anti-Communist witch-hunts during the 1950s.
Knowing full well how a civilized society could turn threatening overnight, he and Katia decided to leave. In 1952, they emigrated again, this time to Zurich, where he died in 1955.
Chester and Jon Lappen, who lived in the Mann house for more than 60 years, proudly installed a plaque in English and German that noted Thomas Mann’s foothold in America.
Indeed, Mann remains the most important figure of German culture abroad.
“He was really a hero because after the war everyone was looking for a model that stood for the ‘Good’ Germany for the culture,” said Villa Aurora chairman Markus Klimmer from Berlin. “For Germans, he is as important as George Washington or Martin Luther King, Jr.
“He was the embodiment of that hero, not only for the conservative Germans, but also for the left-wing Germans. The house was also the embodiment of his integration and he considered his home to be where liberty is, where freedom is.”
While the Villa Aurora will manage the Thomas Mann house, the programming will be similar and dissimilar, Klimmer says. “There might be visiting fellows. Whereas the Villa’s accommodations are basic, that is, not made for families, the Mann house has a lot more possibilities for longer stays.
You cannot have big conferences here, it’s a family home, and let’s treat this as what it is.” Klimmer says he’d love to have the Mann house open for architectural stu- dents or limited visits.
“It can be a focal point for some kind of trans-Atlantic dialogue focusing more to- ward science literature and maybe political science. Maybe you can reach people with the Thomas Mann house where govern- mentsfail.”
But, Klimmer says, the people in Germany can’t dictate the programming. “We need to figure out what is relevant in California.”