The Sowden House

 
 

A concrete den of sex, scandal, and intrigue. A stunning example of Mayan Revival American architecture. A glamorous Hollywood haunt. And perhaps where Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, met her deadly demise. For more than 90 years, the Sowden House has captured the morbid curiosity of true crime fiends, Old Hollywood lovers and architecture admirers alike. Today, the Sowden House exists as equal parts history and mystery thanks to shocking headlines, crime theories, and on-screen portrayals, not to mention its ominous presence looming high over Franklin Avenue. But aside from the home’s scandalized tales that have long been seared into the popular imagination, what do we really know about the Sowden House?

Situated on a densely-trafficked street running through the heart of Los Angeles, the Sowden House, in part, seems to command so much attention because of its strikingly unusual exterior and its highly-visible location. The house reigns as an idiosyncratic curio in an area largely made up of Spanish, Art Deco, Tudor, and Mid-Century Modern homes. However, at the time of its construction in 1926, the Sowden House reflected Southern California’s fascination with the intricate exoticism of Mayan and Aztec design elements. In The Mayan Revival Style: Art Deco Mayan Fantasy, author Marjorie Ingle explores this trend in American architectural and design history:

Kooky, exotic, and incongruous to contemporary American life, the Mayan Revival style is the product of the playful pilferings of architectural and decorative elements of the Mayan and Aztec ruins and their incorporation into the contemporary environment. Mayan pyramids in New Orleans and in Glendale and Los Angeles… Mayan-inspired churches… silk ties with stylized Mayan stelae… these are examples of the extent of the Mayan Revival style popular during the 1920s and 1930s.
 

Photo via Library of Congress (1940)

 

In 1915, the Panama-California Exposition opened in San Diego’s Balboa Park to honor the construction of the Panama Canal, and further establish San Diego as an attractive port city. This cultural fair consisted of musical and theatrical performances, and numerous exhibitions relating to agriculture, architecture, and design. Construction of Balboa Park’s numerous structures began several years prior in 1911, with Bertram Goodhue and Carleton Winslow as principal architects. Goodhue and Winslow designed Balboa Park in decadent Spanish Revival and Spanish and Mexican Churrigueresque style, an outright rejection of neo-Classical and Beaux-Arts architectural styles that previously dominated American design projects. The Expo established a new regional standard of design in California, further fueling architectural and design exploration, and leading to the popularization of Aztec and Mayan design elements. By the 1920s and 1930s, the Mayan Revival style had solidified its place in Southern California’s architectural landscape.

The Aztec Hotel in Monrovia (designed by Robert Stacy-Judd in 1924), and the Mayan Theater in Downtown LA (designed by Stiles O. Clements in 1927), are archetypal examples of public Mayan Revival spaces that still exist to this day. In terms of private homes, Frank Lloyd Wright and his son, Lloyd Wright, further evangelized Mayan design throughout the Los Angeles area during this time. Frank Lloyd Wright’s first Los Angeles project, Hollyhock House (1921), as well his later Ennis House (1924), laid the groundwork for Lloyd Wright to follow in his father’s Mayan Revival footsteps with his Sowden House in 1926. And while architectural and design-minded communities went crazy for Americanized Mayan style, to this day, these homes are widely regarded as stark, cold, and even uninhabitable.

 
 

In 1932, one observer of the Sowden House commented “[m]y goodness, I wouldn’t want to live in a place like that. That darned stuff might come tumbling down on you while you was trying to open them gates to get in the house.” That “darned stuff,” the decorative concrete blocks that are the most prominent feature of the house, create a cave-like entrance that has been likened to entering through the mouth of a shark. Steve Hodel lived in the home as a child in the 1940s and recalled how “[c]ars driving by would stop and stare at it in astonishment… It was a high-walled fortress, private and impenetrable, right in the center of Hollywood’s residential district…” Residents and guests who were allowed to pass through the “fortress” walked through a (now) heavily patinated copper gate and up an uninviting staircase. At the top of the steps, guests were met with a rectangular floor plan comprised of four connecting corridors.

 

Photo via Library of Congress (1940)

 

Oak flooring, yellow ceramic bathroom tiles, ornate wood doors, built-in shelving, skylights, large glass walls on either end of the living room, an ornate fireplace immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), and intricately carved concrete interior walls are some of the home’s main interior design elements. Perhaps giving merit to criticisms of Mayan Revival homes not being well-suited for living, the Sowden House has changed hands numerous times over the years, and seems to have found more success in functioning as an event space rather than a private home. Lloyd Wright even initially built the home with the primary purpose of entertainment. Wright’s artist friends, John and Ruth Sowden, were gracious hosts looking for a space that would allow them to entertain their Hollywood friends. And so the Sowden House was born.

 

Sowden House via Library of Congress (1940)

Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner in The Aviator (2004)

 
 

The Sowden House standing in as Ava Gardner’s house in The Aviator (2004)

The Sowden House fireplace. Photo via Library of Congress (1940)

 

To this day, the house lends itself beautifully to entertaining, where guests can move seamlessly throughout the living and dining areas, and from inside to outside with ease. For a time, under a subsequent owner, stage actor Guy Bates Post ran a theater as well as the Puck School of Drama and Music out of the Sowden House starting in 1939. One summer night in July of that year, “[w]ith the lady moon beaming approval and the black velvet curtains of night, lit by myriad twinkling stars, forming an ideal background, the picturesque Puck Theater, located in the medieval Aztec castle at 5121 Franklin Ave., received an auspicious christening.” This “Medieval Aztec castle” continued to move from one owner to the next throughout the remainder of the 20th century and beyond, always with entertaining, more so than living, as its core purpose.

In 1946, physician George H. Hodel moved his fractured family into the Sowden House for several years. To the Hodel children, the “Franklin House,” as they called it, was an odd and fascinating place to live and explore. Steve Hodel, George’s son, likens the home to a temple, and in the Black Dahlia Avenger, muses that once inside:

[T]here was a blaze of light that came at you from all directions, because all the rooms opened onto a central open-air courtyard… There existed no yard exterior to the home, only the open interior atrium surrounded by the four corridors of the house… Beyond and to the west was the living room, with its ornate fireplace and floor-to-ceiling bookcases that concealed a secret room, accessible only to those who knew how to open the hidden door… From any room one could step into a central courtyard full of exotic foliage and beautiful giant cactus plants reaching straight into the sky. Once inside this remarkable house one found oneself in absolute privacy, invisible to the outside world.
 

Photo via Library of Congress (1940)

 

Hodel goes onto recall how “[g]rowing up in that house, my brothers and I saw it as a place of magic that we were convinced could easily have greeted the uninvited with pits of fire, poison darts, deadly snakes, or even a giant sword-bearing turbaned bodyguard at the door. Right out of The Arabian Nights.” George Hodel filled his Sowden House with artifacts and curiosities from all over the world, further adding to the exotic allure that his children and the home’s guests experienced. And Hodel’s artifacts did not go unnoticed. On November 19, 1947, it was reported that a “1400-year-old Chinese sacrificial tablet, valued by the owner at $25,000, was stolen… from the home of Dr. George H. Hodel, 5121 Franklin Ave... The burglar entered the home through a rear bedroom window. Dr. Hodel described the antique as 11 by 6 by 3½ inches, bearing about 50 Chinese characters carved on a dark gray stone.” While the tablet was never recovered, this would not be the last time George Hodel and his Sowden House graced Los Angeles headlines.

 

Image via The Ferro-Concrete Style by Francis Skillman Onderdonk (1928)

 

The magic that the Hodel children associated with the Sowden House in those early years was soon marked by family scandal and later, accusations of murder. On October 6, 1949, George Hodel was arrested along with 13 boys based on “bizarre parties” held at the Sowden House, “questionable photographs and pornographic art objects,” and incensuous “acts” performed on his 14 year old daughter, Tamar. In response, Hodel, a “tall, mustached doctor,” oddly proclaimed that he was “delving into the mystery of love and the universe” and that Tamar’s accusations were “unclear, like a dream” to him. Several days later two other men and a Beverly Hills physician were arrested in connection to an alleged abortion performed on Tamar, and further “improper relations.”

Hodel was eventually acquitted of the crimes against his daughter, their story most recently fictionalized in the I Am The Night mini-series, but Hodel’s soiled reputation did not disappear—neither from his public persona nor from his family’s perception. Hodel’s son Steve grew up to be a LAPD Detective and he publically and firmly believes that his father murdered a young woman in the basement of the Sowden House back in January 1947.  Few stories haunt Los Angeles like the death of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia. A lurid and mysterious series of events that seem straight from a Hollywood movie themselves—a gruesome unsolved murder, sensationalized headlines, taunting letters from an alleged killer, inadequate police work, and a litany of would-be suspects all leading to dead ends. Hodel is one of several enduring theories/suspects, and while we won’t begin to add to the theories and speculation of the Black Dahlia murder that has been written about ad nauseum, it at the very least intrinsically ties the Sowden House to the sordid history of one of Los Angeles’—and the country’s—most riveting unsolved crimes. We may never know if Elizabeth Short took her last breath, or even stepped foot, in the Sowden House, but her murder and the shameful legacy of Hodel hang heavy in those Sowden House corridors.

In 2019, the infamous Sowden House continues its legacy as a beautiful space for entertaining and acknowledges, rather than shies away from, the skeletons in its closets. The home is still privately owned, now by Dan Goldfarb and Jenny Landers Goldfarb, who inhabit the house with their eight Persian cats. The Sowden House website describes the home as “a meticulously renovated 6,000 square-foot neo-Mayan mansion in the heart of modern Hollywood,” and presents the space as the ideal location for a fabulous gathering or event. And it is.

 

The Sowden House courtyard. Photo by Charmaine David for the Los Angeles Times (2017)

The Sowden House living room. Photo by Charmaine David for the Los Angeles Times (2017)

 

We recently found ourselves at the Sowden House attending a Dark Note Society event, and despite the home’s many modernizations over the last two decades, it still retains it’s intriguing je ne sais quois. On a dark February evening, we made our way over to Los Feliz, anticipating what it would be like to finally step foot in the infamous abode. We parked our car off of Franklin Avenue and made our way to the gate entrance off the street. A security guard waved us through; he wasn’t the “giant sword-bearing turbaned bodyguard” that Steve Hodel had dreamt up as a child, but we quickly understood why he could have pictured that. We stopped in our tracks at the foot of the staircase leading to the front door—it was impossible not to pause and marvel at the beautifully lit concrete facade in the moonlight. Then through the copper gate and up the stairs, we had finally arrived. Maybe it was the jazz, or the martinis, or the stylish guests conversing in hushed tones in dark corners, but it felt, to an extent, that time had stood still inside the Sowden House.  Among the imposing Mayan concrete, guests mingled, imbibed and enjoyed the music just as guests have been doing at the Sowden House for more than 90 years.

 

Photo via Library of Congress (1940)

 

The Sowden House is located at 5121 Franklin Avenue in Los Angeles. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.

 
 

Sources:
"Beverly Hills Doctor Linked to Morals Case." Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Oct 11 1949, p. 1. ProQuest. Web. 27 Feb. 2019.
"CHINESE TABLET VALUED AT $25,000 TAKEN BY BURGLAR." Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Nov 20 1947, p. 1. ProQuest. Web. 27 Feb. 2019.
"Doctor Faces Accusation in Morals Case." Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Oct 07 1949, p. 2. ProQuest. Web. 28 Feb. 2019.
Foussianes, Chloe. “The House in I Am the Night Is Probably the Best Part of the Show.” Town & Country Magazine. 5 Feb. 2019. Web. 10 Mar. 2019. <https://www.townandcountrymag.com/style/home-decor/a26104181/i-am-the-night-george-hodel-john-sowden-lloyd-wright-house/>.
Hodel, Steve. Black Dahlia Avenger: The True Story. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012. Google Book Search. Web. 10 Mar. 2019.
Ingle, Marjorie I. The Mayan Revival Style: Art Deco Mayan Fantasy. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1984.
KATHERINE, VON B. "Post Opens New Theater." Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Jul 27 1939, p. 6. ProQuest. Web. 28 Feb. 2019.
Onderdonk, Francis Skillman. The Ferro-Concrete Style: Reinforced Concrete in Modern Architecture, with Four Hundred Illustrations of European and American Ferro-Concrete Design. Architectural Book Publishing Co., Inc., 1928. Google Book Search. Web. 10 Mar. 2019.
Seewerker, Joe and Charles Owens. "NUESTRO PUEBLO." Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Oct 03 1938, p. 6. ProQuest. Web. 10 Mar. 2019.
“Sowden House History: Dr. George Hodel and Frank Lloyd Wright.” SowdenHouse.com. n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2019.
Sauer, Craig. “John Sowden House.” craigsauer3d.com. n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2019.
Thackrey, Ted,Jr. "Lloyd Wright, Architect of L.A. Landmarks, Dies." Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Jun 02 1978, p. 2. ProQuest. Web. 27 Feb. 2019.
United States. Dept. of the Interior. National Parks Service. Historic American Buildings Survey. Sowden House. HABS No. CA-1940. Web. 10 Mar. 2019.