A Rare Tour of Dr. George Hodel’s Whimsically Weird Childhood House

Some believe that the architecture of the home that a person grows up in has a profound influence on their developing mind. So while the open-plan modernist houses of mid-century suburbia provided ample space for computing pioneers to imagine new worlds, it’s not surprising that a kid who had to bed down in Lloyd Wright’s stark Mayan-inspired Sowden House might hatch some dark ideas about the father who paid the mortgage.

Sowden House is a Los Angeles landmark and a fascinating example of a traditional Spanish casa infused with material innovations and the theatrical needs of Hollywood’s social set. But as you’ll see in this explorable 3-D scan from our ongoing series, it’s pretty creepy.

Young George Hodel, whose tenancy has given Sowden House a lasting notoriety, briefly lived with his parents in a very different, but no less remarkable, dwelling. Just across the Los Angeles River and up the artsy Arroyo, on the edge of South Pasadena, stands The Hodel Residence and Tea House, a designated Los Angeles landmark (HCM #802) designed by genre-hopping Russian architect Alexander Zelenko in 1921.

Thanks to Esotouric pal Thessaly “The Ukulady” Lerner (she composed our podcast theme song!), who had the pleasure of renting the landmark, we’re pleased to share rare views of the Hodel Residence at 6412 Monterey Road. With its storybook details and theatrical spaces, Zelenko’s design makes a lasting impression.

We like to imagine the young George Hodel, a musical prodigy, entertaining his parents and their cultured friends from the balcony above the hearth. How different everything might have been, had he raised his own family in this fairy tale dwelling, and not across town in the shadowy house of mystery!

And yet, there was the strangest little reminder of Steve Hodel’s abiding belief that his father is The Black Dahlia’s murderer: Thessaly directed us to park, not on Monterey Road, but above the house… on SHORT WAY. Coincidence, or something more sinister?

We hope you enjoy your visit to one of the most eclectic residential landmarks in Los Angeles. Click the first photo to explore. And to hear a little more about George Hodel, join us on the Real Black Dahlia crime bus tour. The next date is on April 20.

Lloyd Wright’s Sowden House, 1920s Hollywood Landmark & Black Dahlia Suspect’s Lair

Welcome to the sixth in a series of 3-D explorable tours of historic Los Angeles spaces, created by Craig Sauer using cutting-edge Matterport technology. This one is special, as for the first time in our partnership, Craig got us inside a building we’ve been longing to explore!

A decade ago we launched Esotouric with our flagship tour, The Real Black Dahlia. And on nearly every Dahlia tour, someone asks us about the murder suspect George Hodel and his sinister-looking house on Franklin Avenue. Although we don’t subscribe to his son Steve’s theory that George Hodel killed Beth Short in the basement, the house itself is fascinating.

Constructed in 1926 by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son and collaborator Lloyd Wright, using techniques similar to the elder architect’s “textile block” concrete forms, Sowden House is a classic Spanish Rancho-era California home filtered through a Mayan Art Deco sieve and updated for the jazz age theatrical set who lived to entertain. Presenting a blank white wall to the world outside, the house opens up to a magnificent sun-dappled courtyard, ringed all around with public and private spaces.

While we’d never been inside, the house could be understood by consulting a lovely set of 1971 Marvin Rand photographs and plans for the Historic America Building Survey (HABS), viewable on the Library of Congress website and above.

In 2001 Sowden House was purchased from its seventh owners by crystal-loving designer Xorin Balbes, who in the course of “restoring” the National Register and Los Angeles landmark, added many garish contemporary touches. He also apparently demolished the site-specific sculptural tiled bath. In recent years, the house has been used as a filming location and hosted George Hodel’s son Steve poking around the basement with a “cadaver dog” named Buster, seeking evidence of a seventy-year-old slaying.

But you can’t keep a misguided preservationist down, and Mr. Balbes has moved on to ruin other significant Los Angeles buildings, like the Hiram Higgins, or Willard house, a strong candidate to top our annual list of historic preservation nightmares. Sowden House was sold in 2013.

And just this summer, its tenth stewards took possession of Lloyd Wright’s bold building. Among their first acts was to ask Craig Sauer to document the property with an immersive 3-D scan—but only after the thick jungle of yucca, palm, bird of paradise and banana that has obscured the facade for years was removed. And like a handsome man who finally shaved off his awful beard, all we can do is wonder what took him so long.

As you click to enter the newly stark facade through Craig’s Matterport scan, then ascend the spartan staircase—ignore the contemporary rustic risers, which were originally bare concrete tile tread—you’ll find a house that is happily regaining its architectural integrity. Gone are the climbing vines and thorny succulents that clogged the edges of the courtyard, which Mr. Balbes had already rendered semi-usable with poorly-proportioned small pools instead of replicating the lost 32’ pool with its upright block structure supporting a water organ. The textured walls and columns change subtly as the sun moves across the sky and night falls.

The new owners are philanthropists dedicating to helping animals, promoting art and artists, and supporting social activism. They founded Canna-Pet and its non-profit organization, Pet Conscious, and plan on sharing the Sowden House as an event space to connect with other foundations and nonprofits in the L.A. community and help with fundraising. Perhaps an evening at Sowden House is in your future? But for now, we urge you to explore this Los Angeles treasure at your leisure.

But one part of the structure doesn’t appear in Craig’s scan, so don’t bother looking. Although every armchair Dahlia-ologist is curious about the basement in which George Hodel did or didn’t do something terrible to Beth Short in 1947, Craig felt that it just wasn’t architecturally “interesting” enough to merit the effort of scanning. So here, for your ghoulish pleasure, is a view of the dirt-floored basement and its primitive raised storage platform. We couldn’t visit the house without seeing it.

Now when we offer our Real Black Dahlia tour, as we will again on October 7, we’ll be able to direct interested parties to virtually explore the house where George Hodel danced a delicate duet with the cops he knew were bugging him. Maybe they’ll spot a clue, or one of the pussycats who are getting settled in to their new home. Certainly, they’ll be ensorcelled by this marvelous place!