Homeowner appeals ruling to rebuild historic property he razed

A San Francisco court ruled in December that Ross Johnston illegally tore down his own historic home

A real estate developer ordered to rebuild a replica of an historic home he had torn down is fighting the decision in appeals court.

Last month, the San Francisco Planning Commission ordered San Francisco homeowner Ross Johnston to build an exact replica of his 900-square-foot historic home after Johnson, a real estate developer, tore it down as part of a plan to build a new residence on the same plot of land.

“The Planning Commission decision is invalid, bizarre, and illegal,” said Andrew Zacks, the land use attorney representing Johnston, in a statement. The team of attorneys argues that the building “bore no resemblance” to the original 1930s home because it had been renovated by the city prior to Johnston’s purchase.

The home, known locally as Largent House, was designed by prominent modernist architect Richard Neutra in 1936. Johnston purchased the 49 Hopkins Avenue property in 2017 for $1.7 million with the intent of building a larger home for his family on the land. Even though his permit only allowed him to remodel the first floor of the house, Johnston took a backhoe and demolished the entire structure.

The move caused the ire of neighbors and preservationists worried about developers destroying San Francisco’s history in an effort to maximize profits from the land. As a result, the Planning Commission ordered Johnston to rebuild the house to exactly what it looked like in 1936 at his own expense.

But, the attorneys argue, the property Johnston purchased had already looked nothing like the original design — in 2014, a historian deemed that its original integrity had been lost due to numerous city-authorized renovations and a 1969 fire. Zacks also argues that the ruling has been “manufactured […] for political purposes with no regard to the facts or previously approved permits.”

In the coming months, an appeals court will determine whether to uphold the original land use decision.

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