March 22, 2020

Photo Essay: Sowden House, The Great White Shark Fortress of Franklin Avenue

People have called it the "Jaws House"—probably only since the movie came out in theaters in 1975 (or maybe the year before, when the book came out).

But even before that, the Sowden House in Los Feliz, Los Angeles probably looked like a shark to passers-by.

And maybe its architect, Lloyd Wright (son of FLW), intended it to look that way.

After all, the Mayan Revival style incorporates iconography and symbology that would've been important to the pre-Columbian civilization. And apparently, the Mayans were terrified of the shark (or xoc)—their mighty jaws and impossibly large teeth used as hunting trophies and for trade, even in the inland parts of Mesoamerica.

The Sowden House was the last home built by the elder or younger Wright in this Mayan style, subsequently having come to be known as "Wrightian." And it sure made a splash.

Completed in 1926 at the behest of Wright's friend, photographer John Sowden, and his wife Ruth, the Sowden House—as it's still called, though they sold it in 1930 and it's currently on its 10th owner—greets you from the street with stepped pyramids, zigzags, and jagged peaks like teeth. You can't miss it, now that the overgrowth of yucca, palm, bird of paradise, and banana leaves no longer obscures the sidewalk or street view and leaves it starkly unenshrouded.

That's the first taste of the textured concrete or "textile" block ornamentation that the Wrights were, for a time, notorious for using. And you must pass underneath it—into the gaping mouth—in order to explore the rest of this fortress on Franklin Avenue.

First, you're greeted by entry gates of sculpted copper, with their green patina highlighting chevron-shaped plates lined up on vertical bars (the most Art Deco part of the entire house).

After entering a "cave-like" purgatory...

...and emerging out from under the interior "hood"... walk out into the 6000-square-foot "rectangular doughnut," whose courtyard is no longer festooned with cascading bougainvillea in shocking pink, hacked away with nary a stubble left.

The water features out there have pretty much always been a point of contention, as Wright and the Sowdens disagreed on what should be there (if any at all). For a time, the courtyard featured water organs—but now there's a pool (which seems more ornamental than utilitarian).

Courtyard pillars help make the Sowden House resemble, say, the Palace of Sayil or The Governor's Palace of Uxmal—but looks can be deceiving. It's not the Mexican state of Yucatán; it's Hollywood!

And just like the Mayans, we like to celebrate the sun, water, harvest, and clouds here, too. Wright even incorporated their respective Mayan symbols into the textile blocks that surround the pool.

The open floor plan of the Sowden House is marked by side rooms—lit by skylights and accessed through sliding pocket doors—situated along a colonnade. Somewhere in there, there's a secret passageway, too.

And although the interior has been "updated" for "modern living," it hasn't yet been scrubbed of its secrets.

There are still those who believe that Elizabeth Short—a.k.a. "The Black Dahlia"—was slaughtered here, in the partial basement below the living room, before her remains were dumped in Leimert Park in 1947. She was only 22. Her murder is still officially unsolved.

And there may have been others, some of whom may have never left the basement.

Some are quick to point their fingers at the fifth owner of the Sowden House—Dr. George Hill Hodel, the "Hollywood gynecologist" who served as chief of staff and checked patients for venereal diseases (or "blood-sex diseases") at the First Street Clinic in Little Toyko/"Bronzeville," Los Angeles.

Funny enough, Dr. Hodel was also accused of hosting crazy "sex parties" while he lived at the Sowden House from 1945 to 1950.

But he was never convicted of any wrongdoing—sexual or otherwise.

Nevertheless, his fictionalized story was recently told by the TV series I Am the Night, shot in the Sowden House for historical accuracy.

L.A. Confidential, The Aviator, and other productions have also used it as a filming location.

Despite its possibly grisly history, it doesn't seem to scare people away. In fact, it seems to draw visitors and owners in—even though some who came before them never escaped.

Related Posts:
A Lloyd Wright Masterpiece, Commissioned By a Murdered Silent Film Star
Photo Essay: Neutra's Lovell Health House and Hollywood Supervillain Lair, Upon Its 90th Anniversary (Updated)

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely fascinating. We are fortunate that this monument remains with us today. Mr. Wright was a genius, and it a pleasure to see such a masterpiece endures.