Homeowner Battles San Francisco’s $10M Order to Rebuild House

The Largent House, pre-demolition, in 2014. (Google Maps)

(CN) – San Francisco is no stranger to housing controversies, but a court battle is brewing after a homeowner sued the city in federal court Thursday saying it illegally forced him to dismantle his house and rebuild the previous house brick by brick to match its historical condition.

Ross Johnston captured local headlines in December after the city’s planning commission ruled that he must dismantle a single family home he purchased and rebuild an exact copy of the modernist masterpiece designed by famed architect Richard Neutra that once stood there.

Johnston, who sued the entities as a limited liability company called 49Hopkins, said the city violated his civil rights and cost him more than $10 million by ordering him to undertake the project.  

“The planning commission decision is invalid, bizarre, and illegal,” said Andrew Zacks, the attorney representing Johnston, in a release issued in January.

In the 19-page complaint, Johnston said that even before the previous house had been razed and a 3,700 square foot house was constructed in its place, the old house had lost most of its historic value through a series of renovations.

“The Commission’s order that the owner re-build an exact replica of the original 900 square foot 1935 Neutra —a home that wasn’t even on the site when his family purchased the property in 2017—is absurd given permits previously approved by the S.F. Planning Department for a 3,700 square-foot single family home,” Zacks said.

While Johnston did acknowledge that Netura built a 927 square-foot single family home on the site in 1935, very little of the construction remained.

In fact, the plaintiffs argue, the historic aspect of the property was compromised by extensive renovations approved by the city that took place over the years. Notably, a second-story swimming pool with a large glass and steel envelope was built on the property with the city’s express permission.

Then in 2014, according to the plaintiff, the city approved a permit that allowed the previous owner to demolish the former building and construct a more contemporary and livable home in its stead.

Johnston said the planning department was particularly keen to approve the demolition because parts of the old building had been structurally compromised by a 1969 fire and was unsound as a result.

Johnston said he purchased the house for $1.7 million last year, but has since incurred enormous expenses as a result of the entire ordeal.

The incident has received international press coverage and sparked debate about whether forcing property owners to rebuild items of architectural value is an appropriate response to illegal razing.

San Francisco did not return a comment seeking comment on Thursday, but Dennis Richards, the head of the planning commission, told the San Francisco Chronicle he thought Johnston would lose on appeal.

“Good luck to him — he is within his right to appeal, but I don’t know what he thinks he is going to get out of it,” Richards said. “He is not going to get permission to build a 4,000-square-foot replacement structure. I would bet my house on it.”

The planning commission voted unanimously 5-0 to force Johnston to rebuild the house.

Neutra was born in Austria and worked in Europe before moving to the United States in the 1920s, where he worked for Frank Lloyd Wright.

He spent most of his life in Southern California, where he built a considerable amount of buildings impressive in their range and versatility of style. He was renowned for tailoring buildings to the needs and desires of his clients rather than imposing his vision.

By no means one of the most celebrated architects while he was alive, his reputation has since increased and is widely considered to be one of the most important modernist architects.

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