"For tours of historic modernism, if you don't really have the preservation aspect [represented], I don't know what you're doing," Steinberg says. "I wouldn't go through the hassle and bother of it if it weren't for the preservation aspect."
Photos: John DiDomenico, Zann Gates, Matt Borries, Tim Foster, David Toerge, John Eng, Dave Weinstein; and courtesy Modern Home Tours LLC, Prandi Property Management, Midtown Monthly, Gretchen Steinberg, Linda Siguenza, Ingrid Spencer
If putting on a single tour of modern homes in one city can be a challenge, what's it like to take two dozen on the road?
Modern Home Tours, LLC put on 26 tours in 2012 in cities throughout America—from the Northwest to the Deep South, from New England to San Diego.
"Philadelphia was awesome," says Ingrid Spencer, who chooses the homes, "Chicago mind boggling."
And this year, if all goes according to plan, Modern Home Tours, America's only for-profit company whose entire business is putting on modern home tours, will go international as well.
"We're very keen on Toronto and other places in Canada," she says.
The venture began as a local tour put on by an Austin realtor who loves modern homes. Krisstina Wise brought in Ingrid Spencer, with a background in architectural writing and editing, to choose homes that would be architecturally significant.
Wise also hooked up with an Austin events promotion firm, 787 Enterprises (it oversees such events as 'Austin Fashion Week' and 'Sip and Savor,' a food and drink extravaganza).
"It started more as a passion project," says Matt Swinney, one of two partners in Modern Home Tours, who says he is "interested in modern architecture at a personal level."
"My knowledge of architecture came from Ingrid," he says. "She keeps us honest on the curatorial side."
"We didn't really know there was such a love of modern architecture till we put it out there," he says. "A year ago we decided to take it on the road. What do you know? People are really interested in it throughout the country."
Swinney's company hopes to do 30 or so tours in 2013. The business is profitable, Swinney says, and currently he has two full-time employees and some interns.
Modern Home Tours, which has been criticized by some nonprofit organizers of tours for muscling in on their turf, often seeks local nonprofit partners in the various cities—preservation groups or AIA chapters, Swinney says. The local partners are asked to provide docents and get out the word, in exchange for donations from Modern Home Tours.
"It helps us because they're connected to the community in a way we are not," Swinney says.
The company's tours have not succeeded as hoped in every market, Spencer says. In Kansas City, only 150 people attended, between 50 and 100 fewer than expected. "It was summer," she says.
Spencer says the goal is to reflect the character of modernism found in each location. "[Architect] Bruce Goff influenced modernism in Kansas City. The beach cities in Los Angeles have a very different aesthetic," she says.
The company's tours mix new homes with historic modern homes. "We look for quality," Spencer says. "It's got to be beautiful. Of course, it's my opinion of what's beautiful—and the architect's, and the homeowner's opinion."
No home tour is complete without homes—but finding just the right ones can be a challenge.
Linda Siguenza, who helps organize Eichler tours in San Mateo Highlands, drives the neighborhood looking for sharp-looking houses, then knocks on doors. Gretchen Steinberg, who ran one tour in Sacramento and plans another, has done the same.
"Some people are very willing, others not so much," Siguenza says. "One home is a crown jewel of the neighborhood, but the people are reclusive," she says.
Steinberg said finding homes for her tour was the biggest challenge. "Some people didn't want the wear and tear on their house, or the inconvenience of having to adjust their lives on the day of the tour."