Intellectuals call on German government to rescue Thomas Mann′s California villa | Books | DW | 15.08.2016
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Intellectuals call on German government to rescue Thomas Mann's California villa

The California villa where German author and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann wrote his novels "Doctor Faustus," "Lotte in Weimar" and other famous works is up for sale. Can it be saved for posterity?

1,550 San Remo Drive in the Pacific Palisades: a Los Angeles address that German literature fans are all too familiar with.

That's probably why Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage has attracted a lot of attention for its $15 million (13.3. million euro) property without even mentioning its former owner, Thomas Mann.

German author Thomas Mann at his desk (Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa)

Mann lived in exile in the US from 1938 to 1952

The renowned German author and Nobel laureate lived in the house from 1942 until 1952. He commissioned architect Julius Ralph Davidson of Wroclaw, then the German city of Breslau but now in present-day Poland, with the design and construction - exiled author meeting exile architect.

Mann left his home country in 1938 to become the head of an intellectual circle of German exiles in the US. "Germany is where I am," he once told his admirers.

Hedges, bushes and trees line the property. The flat-roofed villa is almost hidden by palm trees, "inconspicuous in comparison with neighboring homes built in all kinds of styles ranging from Moorish to baroque castles," as an author writing for the German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" observed years ago.

According to his description, the building, in spite of its huge windows and plaster walls, doesn't look particularly modern. It's simple, with clear proportions and lacking unnecessary embellishments. A blank canvas for its new owners, or a site ripe for redevelopment?

Demolition would be a 'great shame' for Germany

Despite the home's outward appearance, Jürgen Kaumkötter, curator of the recently founded Center for Persecuted Arts in Solingen#, says the villa should be saved at all costs. He's gone so far as to demand that the German government buy the property in order to prevent the demolition of this historical house.

Jürgen Kaumkötter, art historian and curator of the Center for Persecuted Arts, Solingen (Copyright: Tina Winkhaus.)

Kaumkötter believes the German government should buy the property

"The building could serve as a meeting ground for young writers," Kaumkötter said, "perhaps in combination with the Villa Aurora (the former home of German-Jewish novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger)" If Germany wants to have an international outlook, it should also provide some room for critical thinkers.

That view is echoed by Jürgen Serke, a Hamburg-based collector of art and literature and the author of "Die verbrannten Dichter" ("Burned poets"). He thinks German Culture Minister Monika Grütters should give the idea some thought; in his view, there is plenty of money to finance this proposal. He believes a demolition of the villa would be a great shame for Germany, with Mann being the most significant German author of the 20th century.

'Maintaining the villa makes sense'

Only two canyons separate Mann's villa from the Villa Aurora, also in the Pacific Palisades. Like many other German writers in exile, the Mann couple was often invited to the palatial home of Lion Feuchtwanger.

The villa, rescued from demolition by a private organization in Berlin, and financially supported by the German government, now serves as a semi-official place of remembrance of German exiles in California. A cultural foundation supports the center, which also hosts students with a grant.

"Maintaining the Mann villa does make sense," said Annette Rupp of the Villa Aurora association. The costs for purchasing and maintaining the villa should, however, not be underestimated, she added. And, she said, any interested party must be quick.

The building has not been placed under historical protection in California, even though nearly all the other locations that played a role in Mann's biography have been protected and restored. Among them are his summer villa on the Curonian Spit in the Baltic Sea, a house on Lake Starnberg in Bavaria and the Buddenbrook House in Lübeck. The only exception to this rule - so far - is the villa at 1,550 San Remo Drive.

The summer residence of Thomas Mann in Nida. (Copyright: Peer Grimm, dpa)

Mann's summer residence on the Baltic Sea has already been saved

Important site for German culture

Yorck Förster, curator at the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt, praises the high artistic quality of the home's architectural drafts. Julius Ralph Davidson was seen as the main representative of the Californian mid-century modern style, and realized "a more gemütlich version of the International Style" in accordance with Mann's personal wishes.

The lawyer who purchased the house from the Mann couple when they returned to Europe in 1952 knew quite well that what he had bought was an important site for German culture and intellectual history. He marked the spot with a bronze plaque featuring a profile of Thomas Mann, explaining in English and German the significance of the home.

Nowadays, this historic location can be seen on computer screens throughout the world - including those of the Foreign Office in Berlin, the ministry in charge of the issue.

"With the Villa Aurora, Germany already has a cultural meeting ground in Los Angeles that offers a representative and very successful residence program for artists," DW was told. "A possible takeover of the Thomas Mann villa is the subject of an open-ended examination." Further details were not available.

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