Thomas Mann House

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The Mann's garden in Pacific Palisades - TMA: 4413 - ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Thomas-Mann-Archiv / Photographer: Unknown

“The house was so completely my own” [i]

When the house at 1550 San Remo Drive was offered for sale in the summer of 2016, there was no mention of the fact that it had been the residence of Thomas Mann and his family. According to the realtor, the value was in the land, not the architecture. But soon, many opponents of a likely teardown made their voices heard ‒ among them Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s Foreign Minister/Secretary of State at the time, Monika Grütters, State Commissioner for Cultural Affairs and the Media, and Herta Müller, Mann’s fellow Nobel laureate. They shared the goal of preserving the house as a place of remembrance and debate.

In the summer of 1940, the Manns had visited California and rented a property (441 North Rockingham Avenue) for three months. In the spring of 1941, they decided to make the permanent move from Princeton to the Pacific and initially leased the house at 740 Amalfi Drive, situated above Santa Monica Canyon and in the vicinity of Eva Herrmann, Aldous Huxley, Bruno Frank, Ludwig Marcuse, Salka Viertel and the Feuchtwangers, who at the time were still looking for their dream home which they would not find until 1943. Later in 1941, Thomas Mann and his family commissioned architect Julius Ralph Davidson (1889 - 1977) to build their home on San Remo Drive, where they would live until 1952.

Davidson, born in Berlin in 1889 and a resident of Los Angeles since 1923, is considered one of the main representatives of “California Modernism”. Before selecting him, Thomas Mann had gone on a tour of the most architecturally significant modern residential buildings in Los Angeles with Richard Neutra. Paul Laszlo submitted two designs, which the Manns rejected, along with a collaboration with Neutra himself.

The Mann's home. - TMA 4427 - ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Thomas-Mann-Archiv / Photographer: Unknown

The beginning of construction was delayed several times, and the project was cancelled altogether in April of 1941. In the end, the Manns decided to proceed, partly due to generous financial backing by journalist Agnes Meyer, partly due to Thomas Mann’s yearning for dignified and representative surroundings. The decision to build a home in California can be seen as a commitment to the United States. It emphasizes the “intention to lay down roots in California, which was rare for German Exiles at the time. ”[ii] The nod to a modern design seems to have resulted from the selection an architect from the familiar circle of German speaking immigrants, rather than a conscious aesthetic decision.  Katia Mann told the Los Angeles Times: “So we have a Modern House. We like it, though.”[iii] Davidson’s design, which was developed in close cooperation with Katia and Thomas Mann, turned out moderately modern. Architecture historian Thomas Hines calls it a “more gemütlich version of the International Style.”[iv] Davidson himself described it as “nostalgic German.”[v] Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne attributes “real architectural significance” to the building.[vi]

The floor plan of the five-bedroom house leads “from the profane to the inner sanctum”,[vii] the study, which Davidson rotated out of the axis, contained the desk Mann had brought from Munich. A small hallway leads to a set of stairs connected to Mann’s bedroom on the second floor. The interior design was entrusted to Paul Huldschinsky, a friend of the Mann family who, like Davidson, hailed from Berlin. Davidson, known for the architectural quality of his room layouts as well as his interior designs, was deeply disappointed. Huldschinsky’s design represented “a dignified upper-middle-class residence” reminiscent of the Mann-Villa in Munich[viii] ‒ and, therefore, continuity. According to Heinrich Wefing, the house on San Remo Drive was the embodiment of the two principles of exile: From the outside, “Seven Palms”, as the house was known at the time, was a symbol of assimilation to the California environment, whereas on the inside, it became the “inhabited museum devoted to a lost homeland”.[ix]

TMA_8112 - ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Thomas-Mann-Archiv / Photographer: Unknown

At the “White House of Exile” (Frank-Walter Steinmeier), Mann addressed the most pressing issues of his time, including the question of a common set of core values shared by Western democracies. It was here that most of the radio broadcasts to his “German Listeners!” were recorded before being broadcast to Germany by the BBC.  

In 1944, Thomas Mann became an American citizen. His home in Pacific Palisades was a “focus of German émigré life in Southern California”,[x]  a “place where intellect triumphed over barbarity. ”[xi] The purchase of the house by the Federal Foreign Office on behalf of the Federal Republic of Germany in November 2016 serves the express purpose of creating a space for transatlantic debates. Mann expert Tilmann Lahme speaks of an “auspicious moment for German cultural foreign policy.”

Under the auspices of Villa Aurora & Thomas Mann House e. V., the Thomas Mann House will be home to a residency program which offers intellectuals and visionaries an opportunity to engage in an exchange about the most important questions of our time – with each other as well as with their host country. The Thomas Mann House is funded by the Federal Foreign Office, the State Commissioner for Cultural Affairs and the Media, as well as private foundations.


 

[i] “Das Haus war so ganz das meine”, Thomas Mann, Tagebücher 1953, p. 34.

[ii] „[…] den damals unter den deutschen Exilanten seltenen Willen, in Kalifornien Wurzeln schlagen zu wollen“: Peter Richter und Andrian Kreye, “Bundesrepublik kauft Thomas-Mann-Villa in Los Angeles”, Süddeutsche Zeitung, November 18, 2016.

[iii] Los Angeles Times, December 19, 1948.

[iv] Thomas S. Hines, Architecture of the Sun, p. 518.

[v] Zit. n. Heinrich Wefing, “We are at home wherever the desk stands”, in: Building Paradise: Exile Architecture in California. Villa Aurora Edition, Berlin 2004, p. 71.

[vi] Christopher Hawthorne, “Thomas Mann House by midcentury great J.R. Davidson: L.A.‘s next big teardown?“, Los Angeles Times, August 15, 2016.

[vii] Heinrich Wefing, “We are at home wherever the desk stands”, in: Building Paradise: Exile Architecture in California. Villa Aurora Edition, Berlin 2004, p. 63.

[viii] Heinrich Wefing, “We are at home wherever the desk stands”, in: Building Paradise: Exile Architecture in California. Villa Aurora Edition, Berlin 2004, p. 79.

[ix] Heinrich Wefing, “We are at home wherever the desk stands”, in: Building Paradise: Exile Architecture in California. Villa Aurora Edition, Berlin 2004, p. 83.

[x] Heinrich Wefing, “ We are at home wherever the desk stands ”, in: Building Paradise: Exile Architecture in California. Villa Aurora Edition, Berlin 2004, p. 53-55.

[xi] „Triumphort des Geistes über die Barbarei“: Dr. Dirk Heißerer, “Ich wollte, Dr. Göbbels könnte es sehen”. Leserbrief, Süddeutsche Zeitung, November 22, 2016.