Out with the New
Breaking with tradition, more Asian buyers are discovering the value of owning vintage architect-designed and historic properties.
by Alison Singh Gee
David You was scrolling through the online pages of The Wall Street Journal in 2015 when something called to him. A native of Jiangsu Province, China, he had stumbled upon a story about the Millard House, a.k.a. La Miniatura, Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1923 textile-block masterpiece in Pasadena. This iconic residence (once nominated for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was on the market again. And though showing significant signs of age, it was still a stunner. With a price tag of $3.95 million, La Miniatura might have been a pricey fixer upper. But for You, trained at one of the best architecture universities in China, this was not an insurmountable obstacle.
He and wife Jennifer Li, an engineer, already had a foothold in Southern California real estate—they had recently bought a gracious four-bedroom house with a pool in San Marino, California. And he was splitting time between this upscale enclave and a luxury apartment in Shanghai, where he runs a successful real-estate development company. Meanwhile, Li was living stateside with their two children, who were enrolled in San Marino’s top-rated schools.
And yet, there was something about the landmark property in Pasadena he could not let go of. So he called Shanghai-born realtor Thomas Chan and arranged to tour the property. What he saw made his heart leap. Soft light filtered in through large windows overlooking a rocky garden and private pond. The untended grounds echoed possibilities. “We knew instantly that this was a very special house,” he says. “Every window has a view that’s like a landscape painting.”
What’s more, here was an opportunity to own an American landmark and upgrade it to its full potential. “I knew that Frank Lloyd Wright had been influenced by Japanese design, but his knowledge only went so deep,” You says. “It is like a Western architect’s view of Asian architecture and design. I knew I wanted to respect the way the house was built, but perhaps develop the garden, so that it integrates the interiors with the exteriors and draws more from Japanese and Chinese garden design.”
After much meticulous negotiation with the seller—You spoke in Mandarin to Chan, who then translated the Mandarin into English—the couple bought La Miniatura for $3.6 million. “Another Chinese [buyer] might have come here and said, ‘It’s an old damn building. I don’t know who Frank Lloyd Wright is and the Pasadena school district is lousy. The house needs so much restoration. There’s no way that I would buy this,” says Chan. But You and Li knew better—and not only had the skills to tackle a restoration, but they were well aware that owning La Miniatura would elevate their standing among other Chinese, not to mention the international design cognoscenti. “How many Chinese have ever bought a house by Frank Lloyd Wright?” Chan continues. “Zero. Not one in all of China.” This was, indeed, a very prestigious purchase.
It was also a purchase that surprised members of the architecture, design, and real-estate communities. “There’s a stereotype that Asians only want McMansions in areas like Temple City and Arcadia,” says one prominent broker, referring to popular suburban L.A. towns rich in boba and soup dumpling shops. Who knew that Asian emigres would choose high-maintenance historic homes over shiny new cookie-cutter digs that come heaped with must-have mod cons such as large master bedrooms, en suite baths with Jacuzzi tubs, central heat and air, marble floors, powder rooms, alarm systems, and a glitzy chandelier or two.
The usual Asian attraction to “new” is understandable. In cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Seoul, old dwellings have come to mean discomfort and overcrowding. Shanghai’s French Concession was once lined with mansions from the 19th and early 20th century. During the Cultural Revolution, these grand houses were carved into tiny apartments, with 20 or more families occupying the same space. That meant one small room per family and dozens of people using the house’s few bathrooms.
After economic reforms in the 1980s, modern high-rises began springing up across the city. The new buildings did not have the character or beauty of the older houses, but residents were no longer sharing one bathtub with six families. Another bonus: With brand new homes it was unlikely that anybody had ever died there—which, for many Asians who believe in spirits, was a real selling point.
So it’s no wonder that when Asian economies began to soar, these émigrés bought new homes—the bigger, the better. As Shanghai-born Michael Chow, longstanding architecture aficionado and proprietor of a select string of stylish Mr. Chow restaurants between Beverly Hills and London, explains, when people who have been living in oppressed or impoverished countries for decades emerge with newly minted wealth, “they become nouveau riche. You can’t blame them—they’ve been hungry for so long.”
So why the interest in older architectural houses now? For one thing, it stands to reason that with 18 million people of Asian descent living in America, not all prefer the allure of built-yesterday homes. And, like You and Li, many affluent Chinese, Japanese, and South Koreans have already bought their first houses in America, Australia or the U.K. as a foothold in a foreign land. Now, they want to purchase properties that are a step up—and historically significant or architecturally cool houses are considered status properties that reflect refinement and taste, like the mansions of the past.
“There’s a new level of connoisseurship that is emerging from Asia,” says Singapore-born author Kevin Kwan, whose bestselling novels, Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend, comically chronicle the lifestyles of the rich and Asian. “They’ve already bought the McMansion and the investment condo and now they want more,” he says. “This is not just about investing and getting money out of China. This is about appreciating a lifestyle.”
And it’s making headlines. When 27-year-old Chinese mogul, Jin Lin, managing director of the property development company, Aqualand, spent a record $52.5 million for Villa Igiea, a coveted 1920s harbor-front estate in Sydney, Australia, the deal even made Australia’s evening news. “It’s the kind of house that comes with bragging rights,” Kwan says with a laugh. “There are only so many of these historical properties and to snag one is like snagging a trophy.”
Three years ago, Nanjing-born Ping Fu snagged a remarkable 1975 Buff & Hensman house known as Domus Solaris—once described by L.A. Curbed as “achingly handsome”—in the Hollywood Hills. But the Chinese-American co-founder of 3D software development company Geomagic (which she sold in 2013) insists it wasn’t for the bragging rights.
As the tech entrepeneur recounts it, the Mullholland Drive residence (once Donald Hensman’s own bachelor pad) had been owned by her friend, former IMG sports agent Michael Rielly, who had bought the storied house in 2005 when it was in extreme disrepair. Curiously, though the previous owners were of Asian descent, they had misunderstood the residence, painting over the redwood and converting the sleek, but spare, one-bedroom abode into a three-bedroom family home (on the advice, no less, of a feng shui master who had advised them to add more doors and walls, lest all their money “blow away”). But that was then. Rielly spent years undoing the damage; and in 2014, when he decided to move to Berkeley, he listed the impeccably restored one-bedroom landmark for $2.4 million. Fu saw photos of it on the internet and asked to visit the place before it sold.
Once she stepped inside, however, she didn’t want to leave. She sat on the couch and gazed out the floor-to-ceiling windows onto a heart-pounding view of sky and mountains. “It was so tranquil,” Fu recalls. When Rielly confided that he worried what would happen “if somebody buys [the house] and destroys it,” she said impulsively, “Well, why don’t I buy it?” She had just sold her company and had the means. And somehow, it hardly mattered that she lived thousands of miles away in North Carolina with no plans to relocate.
To her credit, Fu wasn’t just any home buyer with deep pockets. Though she had grown up in the luxury of her grandfather’s French-style home in Shanghai, she had never lived in a modern house. What’s more, her house in North Carolina was a 7,000 square-foot McMansion—the opposite of the minimalist Domus Solaris. But, as a worldly businesswoman, she appreciated the aesthetic of Donald Hensman’s design and understood the real importance of the property: It wasn’t just real estate, it was a one-of-a-kind piece of art created in kinship with its surroundings. “Mike asked me why I would buy a house in Los Angeles,” she remembers. “And I said, ‘I’m not buying a house. I’m buying a Picasso.’”
The deal went through in April 2014, with Rielly turning down higher offers. As destiny would have it, Fu’s company (she is now vice-president and CEO of 3D Systems) offered her the opportunity to move to Los Angeles in the summer of 2015. “It was karma,” she says. And though she had to purge many treasured belongings to fit into her 1,508-square-foot modern masterpiece, Fu says, “When I bought the house, I thought of it as art. [Now] every time I move through the rooms, I feel life’s rhythm, I feel poetry. It is magical.”
South Korea-born Sophie Park left Seoul when she was in her late teens to study at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In Providence, she noticed that students often rented out the Victorian houses in the historic district. “I thought to myself, ‘What is so wonderful about those places?’ They looked old and creaky. Everything was broken. I really did not see the big deal.”
After college, Sophie married attorney Eugene Park and the couple moved into a luxurious Manhattan high-rise. But in 2014, with three children in tow, the Parks relocated to ritzy La Cañada, CA., where they rented a 6,000-square-foot Spanish-style home. “We were not in a hurry to buy,” says Sophie, who decided to get acquainted with the real-estate market first. When she came across a listing for a 3,172-square-foot mid-century classic by Lloyd Wright—she knew Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, but not his also-famous son’s—she went to see it right away.
Park, who had become enamored of mid-century furniture design while studying painting at RISD, remembers that pivotal visit: “It reminded me instantly of my grandfather’s house, which he had built from scratch in the middle of rice fields outside Seoul. An architect had designed it for him in the 1970s but it was very modern.”
While newish La Cañada ranch houses were getting snapped up as soon as they hit the market, the 1946 Lloyd Wright languished in the listings. “We were stunned that nobody had taken it,” she says. Though the $2.395 million asking price was beyond their budget, the couple took a leap of faith. “We understood the value—[and] we knew that something like this would not come back on the market again.”
Today, she considers living in the Lloyd Wright to be something of a homecoming. “My grandfather’s house was built just after the Japanese occupation of Korea and there is some overlap in design. Frank Lloyd Wright and Lloyd Wright were both influenced by the Japanese—and that sensibility resonates throughout the house for me.” In America, she has found the house that she thought only lived in her memories.
This sensory connection is common. Not infrequently, Asians in search of Western homes often respond to houses that remind them of places they once knew. “I’ve often observed that people try to recreate the environment in which they were the happiest or felt the most secure,” says author Kwan, who grew up in a charming Singapore bungalow that “shaped my lifestyle.” While he now lives in a Manhattan apartment, he claims “it has a tropical 1950s modern feel to it”—not unlike his Singapore digs.
This kind of personal connection is what drew Annie Yan to purchase a stunning 1917 Alfred Heineman mansion in Pasadena that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Shanghai-born real-estate investor, who already owns other properties in the area, toured the 1917 Arts and Crafts property and instantly fell in love. “I appreciate the artistry and the history of the house,” says Yan, who recalls childhood days walking around the French Concession of Shanghai with her family. Her parents were both blue-collar workers and home was a small row house, but they would marvel at the European mansions lining the Concession. “They had such a romance to them,” she says, practically sighing at the memory.
Back then, China was closed off to America and Yan could not even dream of buying a house in the West. However, by the time relations changed, Yan’s fortunes had grown and she took the opportunity to visit Europe and America. “I wanted to learn as much as I could about the West,” she says.
Yan and her husband own a luxury home in Shanghai, but it is not especially noteworthy. “Everyone lives in an apartment,” she says, pointing out that few people can live in the historic, grand colonial mansions that remain in the Chinese city. “Those old houses are now used as hotels, institutes, embassies or museums,” she says. “The inventory is extremely low and the prices are extremely high. And then you have to pay an extra few million to remodel it.”
Yan wasn’t looking to buy a landmark property in California. But the Heineman house with its rolled rooftop, gables, beamed ceilings and picture windows, captivated her. “It had a certain da qi,” she says, calling on the Chinese phrase for elegance. “I appreciate its character and age.”
Hong Kong-born Coralie Langston-Jones shares a similar sensibility. As the daughter of a Malaysian-Chinese mother and a British father, she has been aware of many Asian buyers’ seeming preference for elaborate digs and flashy trappings since childhood. Growing up in the former British colony, she lived with her parents and two brothers in a spacious flat in the manicured Mid-Levels, where a mixture of well-to-do Chinese and Brits resided. “Most of the families of my Hong Kong friends had good taste,” says Langston-Jones, the founder of Social Blueprint, a publicity firm that has represented such design clients as Marmol Radziner Architects and Heath Ceramics. “However, I remember when I would go trick or treating in our block of flats each Halloween, we would get a glimpse into our neighbors’ houses. While the expat homes were not much different from ours, the Chinese homes fascinated me. It was mainly in the materials, like their use of polished marble everywhere, gold leaf decorative features, and elaborate front-door grills.”
Langston-Jones attributes these differences to Chinese cultural priorities. “Being half-Chinese myself, I have a deep appreciation for how the Chinese like to present their best sides to the world and this would include the way they like to house themselves and what sort of image it portrays to the outside world.” The fancier the home, says Langston-Jones, the more it “conveys success, prosperity, and pride.”
But she also had formative experiences with architecture that showed her a world beyond all that glitters. As a child, she often visited her mother’s homeland. In Kuala Lumpur, she learned to admire traditional British Colonial-era houses. “My family lived in one of these old houses before I was born and they were surrounded by sprawling gardens, complete with ornamental orchid patches,” she says. “You could always get to the garden from any room on the ground floor. This did mean encountering unwelcome animals, like hungry monkeys, cobras, and the occasional kingfisher bird—and many locals don’t like these houses for this reason.” But Langston-Jones’ early experiences with such gracious tropical houses established her life-long adoration of homes with indoor-outdoor flow. “I’ve always felt that proximity to nature is the ultimate luxury,” she remarks.
So when she and her Canadian husband, Brett Wickens, moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, they single-mindedly sought a Joseph Eichler house in San Rafael. “We bought it when it was 40 years old and knew that every part of the house would be near the end of its life,” she says. So the couple ended up replacing—and upgrading—virtually every surface in the house, both interior and exterior. “I can hear my Malaysian mother tut-tutting about old houses,” she says, laughing.
But after a costly and meticulously planned renovation, the house is now their dream home—it has even appeared on the much-coveted cover of Elle Decoration in the U.K. “Buying this sort of home was an entirely considered purchase,” says Langston-Jones. But now, she and her family can gaze out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the striking hills and lush trees with great appreciation and fulfillment. “We can enjoy beautiful views of the valley from every room in our house,” she says. “I’m glad Brett and I made our own assessments and opted for a vintage-era house.”
Of course, skeptics might say that many deep-pocketed Asian buyers may only be investing in properties for the financial returns, without any soulful or creative connection to the houses. “When you are a collector, you know the price will always go up,” says restaurateur Chow, one of L.A.’s first Asian buyers of architectural or historic homes, who admits his collectible Lloyd Wright properties (see sidebar, page 27) eventually sold for a considerable profit. “You will never lose money. Generally speaking, collectors’ items appreciate by a greater margin. I think that’s why Asians are now buying these landmark houses—that, and because they are insecure and so go for name brands.”
What’s more, most landmark properties are protected by historical societies and typically cost a sizable amount to restore and maintain, so few would attract Asian buyers only interested in flipping them. Says author Kwan, “These historic-home purchases are about much more than square footage or buying for the sake of investment. This is the next step up. All the good houses in Shanghai and Singapore are taken already. This is about snagging a trophy and building a legacy.”
David You agrees. While he doesn’t plan on living in La Miniatura personally, he hopes to house visiting Chinese relatives and friends there. Before that happens, however, he wants to develop the gardens and add a pool. “I plan to respect Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision but the house also needs to progress into the 21st century,” he says.
“A lot of people tried to talk me out of buying the house,” says You, stepping onto La Miniatura’s sun-dappled terrace and taking in the view. “They said it was going to be a lot of mafan,” he adds, calling on the Mandarin word for bother. “But I felt that as an architect I could take this on.” His ultimate justification for the significant investment of time, effort, and money required to restore the concrete-block masterpiece? He pauses to take in the architectural splendor of the Frank Lloyd Wright home and his subsequent words seem to echo through the ravine: “I love this house.”