Demolishing Modernism

Eight months later, not long after the house had been sold and cleared escrow, Alex Kaiser dropped by to check if there was any mail for the family. As he drove Fairway Drive, he was surprised to see the gate open, and as he turned into the cul-de-sac, he was shocked to see the concrete in front of the house being torn up. The next morning Edith Nadler was startled by a crash that she thought was an earthquake. When she ran outside, “I saw they were demolishing the house. I was just so shocked. I started crying.” The next day Leslie Enders, a Maslon family friend, was playing golf on the Tamarisk course. “And when I came to the twelfth hole, it was all gone.” She rushed home and called Jim and Laura Maslon. Jim and Laura called Enid. “They couldn’t get over it,” Enders recalls. “They kept saying, ‘He promised, he promised.’”

Word spread quickly through the Coachella Valley arts community. Janice Lyle recalls hearing the news from Edith Nadler and replying, “That can’t be right, Edie. You must be mistaken. Nobody would do something like that.” Pete Moruzzi, chair of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, a group devoted to the preservation of mid-century architecture in the Coachella Valley, received the news in L.A. “I freaked out, but I was skeptical. I mean, why would anyone tear down a $2.5 million house? So I had a friend go over and sure enough.”

Dr. Jaffe heard about it several days later. “I remember picking up a copy of the L.A. Times and seeing it there. I mean, you have to be sick to do something like that.” Sick or not, someone named “Richard Roitenberg” [sic] was listed on the March 19, 2002 demolition permit as the owner of 70-900 Fairway Drive. And despite the best attempts of some of the world’s most distinguished newspapers, Richard Rotenberg wasn’t talking.

Like Samuel Maslon, Richard Rotenberg is a native of the Minneapolis Jewish community, and like Maslon, he left Minneapolis to attend law school. But Richard Rotenberg didn’t go to Harvard, and he didn’t finish his law degree. Instead, he became a successful developer in Southern California who, by 1990, had acquired the financial means to purchase a house on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. By the mid-1990s he was building upscale residential subdivisions in the Twin Cities suburbs.

Over the years, Rotenberg has made a habit of clearing and subdividing. His Emerald Ridge development is cut into the woods of Minnetonka (Rotenberg owns a suburban manor in that development, complete with three full-sized brass deer in the front yard). He also likes to renovate; after buying his Beverly Hills home, he took out renovation permits for tens of thousands of dollars worth of work (including the installation of a urinal not far from an expanded “breakfast room”).

Richard Rotenberg won’t talk about himself, and those who know him won’t talk about him either. Nonetheless, it is clear that Rotenberg is quite proud of his Beverly Hills residence. The Star Tribune reports that he once stood up at a Minnetonka City Council meeting and introduced himself as “Richard Rotenberg, Beverly Hills, 90210.” Yet there is some evidence that some of his neighbors do not take a similar pride in Rotenberg. In a chance encounter with a photographer in front of that Beverly Hills residence, one neighbor sniffed, “Let him know that nobody around here is impressed by that Porsche he always leaves in his front yard. It’s Beverly Hills, for chrissakes.”

Richard Rotenberg could afford the $2.45 million that the Maslons were asking for the house. “That was $850,000 over the appraised value,” James Maslon explains. “We just figured that anybody who would pay that premium would be interested in preserving it.” In the end, Richard Rotenberg was the only serious buyer, though it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Laura Maslon recalls that “we had all these people” over the years who had offered to buy the house, if Luella ever decided to sell it. But by the time the house was offered “many of them had died, and many just didn’t come forward.”

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