8840 Lookout Mountain Ave: Neutra Protégé’s Seminal Work
Commissioned in 1958 for Roy and Carol Mills and their children, 8840 Lookout Mountain was an engineering marvel of its time. In fact, the Mills Residence received the first Architect-Builder-Crier Award as an unusual hillside dwelling. Designed by Donald P. Polsky, FAIA, this distinguished Mid-Century Modern home is influenced by Polsky’s mentor, Modernist Master, Richard Neutra. Though one of Polsky’s earliest individual projects, 8840 Lookout Mountain proved to be an auspicious beginning to a career that has spanned over 60 remarkable years. 8840 Lookout Mountain Avenue offered at: $1,299,000
“Architecture can’t be verbalized. It must be experienced. Moving through space in time you are made aware of it not only visually but by all of your stimulated or relaxed senses.”-Donald P. Polsky, FAIA
Ever since his interest was piqued by a required seventh grade drafting course, Polsky told Medium Magazine in 2005, he never considered doing anything else. He went on to study at the University of Nebraska College of Architecture. After serving in the US Air Force from 1951-53 he set out to “work for the best practicing architect he could find,” and went knocking on none other than internationally-renown Richard Neutra’s door. As Polsky recalled, he was persistent and unrelenting until he gained an interview with Dion Neutra, Richard’s son, and was hired shortly there afterwards.
“We tried as often as we could to make opportunities like that possible. My father’s life was really that of a visionary and he ended up influencing a lot of people. It’s astounding when you go around the world and you’ll find many that he’d had an impact on. A tremendous number of people came through our firm who later made wonderful careers for themselves,” Dion Neutra told Legacies of LA. “Donald Polsky’s Mills Residence is a fine work.”
From 1953-56, Polsky served as job captain for the Neutra Architectural firm. It was during that time that he developed a sophisticated Modern aesthetic.
In 1956, Polsky struck out on his own and is credited with few but significant projects in Southern California.
Just as his mentor, Neutra often had been, Polsky was clearly inspired by the surroundings at 8840 Lookout Mountain. At the time it was built, the Modernist design of the Mills Residence was the exception, not the norm, in the Laurel Canyon Neighborhood.
Donald Polsky, FAIA, and engineer, Eugene Birnbaum used steel rods on the steeply inclined lot to cantilever a living area, kitchen, deck, bedrooms, and bathrooms on the upper level, and a studio-bedroom on the lower level. Based in Silver Lake, Birnbaum was widely employed by many Modern architects, such as the Neutras, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Rudolph Schindler. Birnbaum’s obituary after his passing in 1999 lists some of his interesting projects:
“Although Birnbaum was involved in such landmark projects as the Spruce Goose and the retrofitting of the Watts Towers, his influence may be more widely seen in mundane projects, from drive-in movie screens and fast-food stands to most of the International House of Pancakes, Chuck E. Cheese and Sizzler restaurants on the West Coast.”-Los Angeles Times, 1999
In 1962, Polsky won the honorable mention award from the American Institute of Architects, Life, and House & Home magazines for designing the Oceano Apartments in Santa Barbara, CA
After a return to his home state of Nebraska, Polsky’s designs, that emphasized on clean lines, simplicity, and efficient use of space, translated well to Omaha. Since then, he has been credited for establishing Modernism in the Midwest.
“We were green before its time, we put in a lot of insulation, we shaded our windows, we oriented things towards light, and brought light into the home. We used insulating glass, we planted trees to give us shade, we broke the wind from the north, and we worked with the client’s budget on the configuration of the site,” Polsky said in an earlier interview.
Clients in Nebraska lauded him a “Midwest treasure.” In later years, as an adjunct professor of architecture, Polsky counseled his students to listen to their clients:
“If you draw too soon, you can become biased toward your way. Get the scope. And you have to analyze the site.”-Donald P. Polsky, FAIA
Polsky noted that because his clients required that his projects be different from previous design, he had taken inspiration from such uncanny items as Japanese pagodas to origami paper folding. An innovator, he is also credited with being a pioneer of the design-build concept.
In 2002, he was awarded the Harry F. Cunningham Gold Medal for Architectural Excellence in the State of Nebraska from the Nebraska Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The following year, Polsky was elevated to fellowship in the AIA–one of the highest honors bestowed upon architects.
As recently as 2014, Polsky was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award for Excellence in Architecture by the University of Nebraska College of Architecture.
The Mills Residence is a 1,543 square foot house carefully designed at the crest of a 9,460 square foot lot. When Mel Moss, the second and current owner of 8840 Lookout Mountain first moved into the home in 1979, much of the original integrity of the home was still intact. Moss eventually bought the home in 2004 from the Mills family.
“”Which was the first time,” said Moss, “that Mills would consider selling.” Moss recalled how Polsky’s use of glass opened up the living room to time-honored canyon views. “I liked it because of the open feeling,”
“…the use of glass doors to divide the space in the living and dining areas which open to the amazing landscape of the wooden valley. Once again, the barriers between inside and outside are blurred.”-Mid Century Home Magazine
Many of the original appliances and fixtures remain. Twentyone feet of counter space afforded luxurious indoor/outdoor entertaining with dramatic views from the deck just steps away.
Moss was diligent not to destroy the integrity of the house. He consulted Donald Polsky, FAIA, himself, and any original plans that he could gather when he had considered a remodel.
“The aim for its design was to create as many conversation and relaxation areas as possible which also open towards other areas of the house- a goal which was common with other famous mid-century modern houses as the Neutra’s Kaufmann House or the Eames and Saarinen’s Case Study House #9″–Mid Century Home Magazine
“The canyon had an eclectic history of celebrities living there in various stages of their careers,” said Moss. “When I moved in Steve Martin lived across the street, and Steven Spielberg was 3-4 doors down and lived there when he was working on Close Encounters.The neighborhood has a central location while still feeling like you’ve escaped to the country.”
“I always appreciated the architecture of the house. For me, it wasn’t just a place to live, it was a lot more than that,” said Mel Moss. “I like to think it will require a special owner to look at it as more than a roof over their head.”