The Zimmerman House was built for the California dream. Like other midcentury modernist homes built in Los Angeles, this 1950 Craig Ellwood project was low-slung and open, with floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding glass doors. Light flowed in from the outdoors and out from a central brick fireplace. Breezy and informal, the Zimmerman House was an essential example of Southern California cool.

Few people realized the Zimmerman House was in any danger before it was unceremoniously demolished by actor Chris Pratt and author Katherine Schwarzenegger, who bought the home and its nearly 1-acre plot last year for $12.5 million. The couple, who reportedly plan to erect a supersized 15,000-square-foot farmhouse, now find themselves being dragged by the entire internet, blasted by countless critics for buying a Rothko for the frame.

Preservationists were shocked but not surprised. Historic houses across the United States are targeted for teardowns every week, often under cover of night with little to no warning. Increasingly, preservationists say, these demolitions are not driven by changing tastes but rather by growing appetites: Americans' ravenous desire for larger and larger homes.

"This situation isn't isolated. We do lose houses like this more than we care to say," says Adrian Fine, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Conservancy, a nonprofit focused on architectural preservation across Los Angeles County. "We're seeing more of these teardowns, because people see these as valuable plots of dirt."

Ellwood had no formal training, instead getting his education in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by enlisting during World War II, but he went on to leave his fingerprints all over L.A. Craig Ellwood wasn't his real name: Jon Burke and some of his Army buddies named their studio after a liquor store sign outside their door, and Burke later manifested his eponymous architecture firm by changing his own name.

Fine had heard rumors that the new owners might want to tear the house down after an estate auction at the site early last year. So he went into emergency mode. One option was to start the process to designate the Zimmerman House as a Historic-Cultural Monument through the city's landmarking program, a painstaking approach that can be adversarial, especially when the buyers have not made it public that they are dead set on building a barndominium.

"The new owners came in and got their demolition permit without anyone noticing," Fine says. (A representative for Pratt did not respond to email requests to comment for this story.)

L.A. has more modernist homes than most cities. In many ways, it's the birthplace of modernism in the United States, Fine says. Southern California is home to the Case Study Houses, a program run by Arts & Architecture magazine from 1945 to 1966 to commission modernist architects — among them California luminaries such as Ray and Charles Eames, Richard Neutra, and Ellwood — to build affordable homes for the atomic age. Los Angeles's population soared during this same period, when designers began playing around with what residential living could look like.

But even forward-looking designers could not have predicted how needlessly large 21st-century homes would be. The median single-family home built in 1973 was 1,525 square feet, according to U.S. Census Bureau data; by 2022, that number soared to 2,383 square feet.

Los Angeles is hardly the only place where the wrecking ball looms. A groovy Phoenix dojo designed by Al Beadle may be destroyed. A summer cottage on Cape Cod by Marcel Breuer awaits its fate. And a developer in suburban Chicago is willing to let anyone take a house designed by John Schmidtke as long as they move it somewhere else. Which is not as odd as it sounds: Earlier this year, a couple spared a modern house in Raleigh, N.C., by George Matsumoto by picking it up and moving it 7 miles.

Teardowns are accelerating, says Elizabeth Waytkus, executive director for the nonprofit preservationist group Docomomo US, in part because modernist homes are reaching the age at which systems begin to fail. Midcentury designers experimented with new building technologies, which may be difficult to replace or maintain 50 to 70 years later. It can be hard to find craftspeople who know how to do the jobs.

But there is a difference between an owner who buys a home with extra needs and someone who sees only the land beneath it. Two years ago, after a couple purchased Geller I — another Breuer project, this one designed in 1945 for Long Island in New York — Waytkus dialed up the buyers to introduce herself. She wanted to find out what they knew about the house and its legendary Brutalist architect.

"The owner said to me, we understand what we have, we don't plan on demolishing it, we want our grandchildren to be able to use it in the summertime," Waytkus says. "Two weeks later, it was gone."

Historic homes anywhere can fall into disrepair or wind up remodeled beyond recognition. Demolitions specifically happen where land prices are high. Modernist homes are an endangered species in the Hamptons, for example. But in Fort Worth, where land prices are far lower, a modernist house by A. Quincy Jones struggled for years to find a buyer — despite being listed for under $1 million, with a 2.5-acre plot. Rescued from a demolition permit at the eleventh hour, the Fuller House was restored by new owners and reopened in 2021.

Ultimately, preservationists have just two tools to hold on to important buildings: persuasion and restrictions. When the carrot and stick both fail, it's because the property rights of buyers trump those of fans. Preservationists say they don't want to be in the business of forcing homeowners to be caretakers for expensive structures they don't want, and they don't see shame as helping matters.

"It doesn't do the preservation community any good," Waytkus says. "What is the meme going around, the least likable Chris? I find all of that unfortunate. We're missing the point."

Given its modernist bona fides, L.A. is better prepared than many other cities to protect its cultural heritage. In 2009, the city launched SurveyLA to identify its cultural and historic resources, the largest citywide survey of its kind. California also offers a few extra carrots to try to preserve modern homes: The state's Mills Act program offers property tax reductions for owners who restore and preserve qualified historic buildings.

Bringing down land prices and inflated home sizes are challenges outside the ambit of architectural preservation. Solving both problems means building more densely. Converting single-family homes to small apartment buildings would seem to run contrary to the preservationist's mission; they're rarely free-market types. But housing abundance and preservation don't have to run at cross purposes: Of the roughly 880,000 parcels in Los Angeles, Fine says, only 7% are deemed historic properties.

"We can preserve our neighborhoods, adding supply, preserving naturally affordable and architectural heritage, while creating a lot more housing," Fine says.

The sad story of the Zimmerman House pits elite aesthetics against conspicuous consumption. But it also reflects broader dynamics of scarce housing, rising prices and insatiable need to possess more and more. That makes this L.A. story a cautionary tale for all Americans.