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!

Esotouric’s local history talk & book signing at Los Angeles Breakfast Club, March 29

On March 29, Esotouric’s Kim Cooper and Richard Schave are honored to present an illustrated lecture on their offbeat Southern California history research at the legendary Los Angeles Breakfast Club. This will be followed by a book signing, featuring Kim’s newest title, How To Find Old Los Angeles, and other historic books and maps. This is just one in a series of special events celebrating Esotouric’s 10th Anniversary.

Where: Friendship Auditorium, 3201 Riverside Drive, Los Angeles 90027
When: Wednesday, March 29, from 7-9am
Cost: First-time visitors may attend for free; hot buffet breakfast is $15

So what is this Los Angeles Breakfast Club? Just one of the oldest social clubs in the city! Since 1925, congenial Angelenos have gathered at the foot of Griffith Park for hearty eats and stimulating conversation. Learn more about the club and membership benefits here.

A Possible Solution to the Los Feliz Murder Mansion Mystery

2475 Glendower, after the crime (Los Angeles Times)

2475 Glendower, after the crime (L.A. Times)

In the early morning hours of December 6, 1959 in a handsome Spanish-style mansion in hilly Los Feliz, California, Dr. Harold Perelson took up a hammer and murdered his wife Lillian in her bed, then attempted to kill his sleeping daughter Judy.

But his aim was poor, and Judy was able to raise the alarm and to escape. The killer spoke calmly to his younger children, telling them it was only a nightmare and to go back to bed. Then he retreated to a bathroom, where he took a fatal overdose. He was found dead in bed, the bloody hammer in his hand and an open copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy at his side.

It’s a terrible story, and a strange one. In the legends that swirled around the house in later years, as it sat vacant and brooding with a living room filled with stored junk that credulous urban explorers convinced themselves represented “the Perelson’s Christmas tree and presents, exactly as they’d left them,” Harold’s brutal actions appear unexplainable, perhaps demonic. Sure, the family had money problems, but what family doesn’t?

Now, as the house on Glendower Place goes back on the market after 56 years, and a production company develops a film about the spooky murder mansion, the question still lingers: just what got into Harold Perelson?

The answer, we suspect, lies in the last substances he ingested, and in a very similar crime that would occur four months later, in an equally fine Pasadena mansion. It’s a story we tell on the Pasadena Confidential tour.

Here is a headline from the front page of the Pasadena Independent on December 8, 1959, after Harold Perelson’s attacks.

Pasadena Independent December 8 1959 perelson los feliz Nightmare of Murder headline

And this is a front page headline from the same paper, April 23, 1960.

Pasadena Independent april 23 1960 taft coma headline

Pasadenans Martha Ann and William Howard Taft had their problems, too. His jealousy, her anxiety, their failure to conceive. But when she left her bed on April 21, took up the heavy hammer and beat her sleeping mate’s brains in, so soundly that the handle broke, nobody was more surprised than she. When she realized what she’d done, she wrote a suicide note / confession, took an overdose of pills and slashed her wrists. Her sister found her alive the next morning, but William was beyond help.

When Martha had recovered enough to be held accountable, she opted to go before a Superior Court judge, no jury. H. Burton Noble ruled that while she had killed her husband, it was not a conscious act on her part. Influencing his decision was the report of UCLA toxicologist Dr. Thomas Haley, who stated that anyone who took as much of the powerful tranquilizer Miltown as Martha had could behave “like a maniac.” She was freed.

The Taft House, today

The Taft House, today (photo: Esotouric)

The unconscious mind is a force beyond our understanding. Almost asleep, deeply drugged, acting out past traumas with the nearest weapon at hand, Martha Ann Taft became a murderess. Perhaps the germ of the idea was formed over the morning newspaper that past December, as she read about another family’s nightmare.

The Los Feliz Murder Mansion case is fascinating because it makes so little sense. The family annihilator type of killer, a parent who goes after spouse and children, typically leaves no survivors, and doesn’t always commit suicide. When they do kill themselves, it’s decisively, not by taking pills in front of witnesses. It doesn’t add up, unless you factor in the pills as an unseen actor.

We know from his mode of death that Harold Perelson had a medicine chest full of powerful drugs. We know from his actions that fatal night that he could be easily distracted from the act of murder. He told the little children who he let get away that it was only a nightmare. Maybe, as he slipped away, he believed that, too.