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“Buck wanted to stand in every room from his house, turn his head, and see every view. Even the bathroom. And so that was kind of what inspired the design of the house.”
Among the most famous photographs of modern architecture is Julius Shulman’s picture of Case Study House #22, also known as the Stahl House after the family that commissioned it. Two girls in white dresses sit inside a glass cube that seems to float atop a cliff over the illuminated grid of Los Angeles at night. Built by a family with a “beer budget and champagne tastes,” the two-bedroom home designed by architect Pierre Koenig changed residential design in LA. While Shulman’s image and others of the building have appeared in countless publications, advertisements, films, and TV shows, the story of how the house came to be and what it was like to live there is less well known.
In this episode, Bruce Stahl and Shari Stahl Gronwald and writer Kim Cross discuss the story of how Case Study House #22 came to be and share personal stories about what it was like to grow up and live in the home, from roller skating across the concrete floors to diving off the roof into the pool. Stahl, Gronwald, and Cross are co-authors of the recent book The Stahl House: Case Study House #22; The Making of a Modernist Icon.
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JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
KIM CROSS: Buck wanted to stand in every room from his house, turn his head, and see every view. Even the bathroom. And so that was kind of what inspired the design of the house.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Kim Cross, Bruce Stahl, and Shari Stahl Gronwald about Case Study House 22, the Stahl House.
The Stahl House, or Case Study House #22, is a modernist-styled house designed by the architect Pierre Koenig in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles.
Built in 1959 as part of the Case Study Houses program, the house is considered an icon of modern architecture in Los Angeles, immortalized by the photographer Julius Shulman. It has since become one of the most frequently reproduced modernist homes, appearing in fashion shoots, films, and advertising campaigns.
I recently spoke with Bruce and Shari Stahl, two of the three Stahl children who grew up in the house, and award-winning journalist Kim Cross, who together authored the new book The Stahl House: Case Study House #22, the Making of a Modernist Icon.
Shari, Bruce, and Kim, thank you for speaking with me this morning. Shari and Bruce, we’re here to talk about your house, the house you grew up in, the Stahl House, Case Study House number 22. Tell us about your parents and what prompted them to commission this High Modernist house.
BRUCE STAHL: Our father, Clarence Henry Stahl—everybody knew him as Buck Stahl—was born in St. Louis, 1912, the son of a milkman and a homemaker. In his teens, he lived through the Great Depression. He attended Cleveland High School, where his talents in drawing and printing started to come out. After high school, he attended a mechanical trade school and studied printing.
SHARI STAHL GRONWALD: Once our father, Buck, came over from St. Louis, he worked in the aerospace industry. Carlotta, my mother, was a native Southern Californian. She was born and raised down in Santa Monica, and she ended up growing up in Culver City. And she worked at North American Aviation. And they ended up meeting by a sales call that Buck ended up going on. And Carlotta was a receptionist when he came in, and he was taken by this, you know, blonde beauty. They ended up falling in love and they wanted to get married. And they drove out to Las Vegas and they got married March 20th, 1954.
My parents actually eyed this lot that the Stahl House is on today from a apartment that they rented shortly after they got married, across the canyon. So this lot, or these lots that were for sale across the canyon, were in plain view every day. So I think what happened is that they ended up falling in love with this particular lot that was the one closest to the edge, with the view that just went forever.
CROSS: So in 1954, Buck and Carlotta were newlyweds, and they were renting an apartment in the Hollywood Hills. And out their window, they could see this beautiful promontory, this ridgeline. And on its tip was a lot that just looked like an island in the sky, and they started fantasizing about this lot. They started calling it “our lot.” And one day they decided to drive up there and see “our lot.” And just by coincidence, the owner of the lot, who lived in La Jolla, just happened to be driving there. After about an hour of conversation, Buck and Carlotta bought the lot for $100 of earnest money and $13,500, and the owner of the lot carried the mortgage.
You know, back in those days, you didn’t get a mortgage and start building immediately; you had to pay off the lot. And they paid it off fifty dollars at a time over four years. And during those four years, Buck spent four years of weekends basically driving around Los Angeles in his Cadillac and going to building sites where they had heaps of discarded concrete. And he would load the concrete in the trunk of his Cadillac, and then drive it, riding low, up to the lot, unload the concrete, and then he used those chunks to basically build these terraces and a perimeter around the lot that prevented erosion and made the buildable surface six feet bigger. And that area was the place where the house is cantilevered over the cliff.
GRONWALD: During this time, Buck was able to build a model that specifically showed exactly how the house was supposed to be laid out, exactly what he wanted for their dream home. I don’t think it was ever considered to be anything famous. It was just the style of the time. He wanted a butterfly roof; he wanted a waterfall; he wanted walls that curved along the street. He didn’t know how it was gonna be done, but this is what he wanted.
CROSS: And when he built his model, so many architects turned him down because they said either the lot’s unbuildable or the structure’s unbuildable, or for whatever reason, they didn’t want any part of it. So something like five architects, including Craig Elwood, turned ’em down and said nope. And then they found Pierre Koenig, sort of by flipping through Pictorial Living, they saw his work, called him. And he was the one who said, “Yes, we can do this.”
CUNO: So Pierre Koenig designed the house, but there was a great deal of collaboration between the owners of the house and the architect of the house. Tell us about that.
CROSS: So Buck Stahl really had a vision of what he wanted, and it all started with the lot. And he wanted a house that wouldn’t obstruct any of the 270-degree view of Los Angeles. He started with sculpting a replica of the lot out of crushed beer cans and soda cans and clay, and then he fashioned something that he thought would fit on it. It was an L-shaped plan, except it had a butterfly roof that swept up and out like wings, and then it also had a curved wall that followed the curve in the road. And these would’ve been very expensive to build. And so Pierre took Buck’s ideas and made them not only buildable, but affordable. They had a very tight budget to work with, and it would’ve been very expensive to build steel or to build that butterfly roof or to construct— Buck wanted a water feature. And so Pierre changed Buck’s ideas and made them affordable, and also elevated the design into a masterpiece.
GRONWALD: As Pierre used to say, they had champagne taste on a beer budget.
CROSS: And one of the exceptional things, I think, that’s so stunning about what Pierre did was he only had something like sixty different components, stock parts, to design this house with. And that’s part of what made it affordable. Imagine being given sixty, you know, types of Legos and that’s all you have. You can’t cut them, you can’t bend them, you can’t do anything with them. And he used those pieces to create something really beautiful, but also affordable. And that’s part of the magic of this house.
The other thing that Buck wanted was he wanted stone somewhere. And Pierre designed it into the fireplace. But when it came down to building the house, the Stahls ran out of money. And so there was no stone on the original fireplace.
GRONWALD: They also couldn’t afford the original terrazzo floor that was supposed to be throughout the house, so they ended up having to settle for concrete. They couldn’t afford carpeting. Carpeting came later. But until the carpeting ended up getting put in, Bruce and I used to roller skate through the house. A lotta people kinda were in shock when we told ’em because it’s a all-glass house. But Mom and Dad used to let us roller skate up and down through the hallways. Well, not so much hallways, but the openness of the living room, and then we were able to skate right into our bedroom. So it was kind of fun. I’m kinda glad the terrazzo didn’t get in.
CUNO: Were they architects monque in any kind of way. Did they see themselves as architects?
GRONWALD: My parents, Buck and Carlotta, were not architects at all. Buck had training in art and drafting and printing. And he had a talent for being very creative. He was very good at what he did, as far as drawing. So he was able to see the house and exactly what he wanted to be able to put it in model form.
CUNO: How did he become aware of the Case Study House program? And Kim, tell us what the Case Study House program was.
CROSS: So the Case Study House program is one of the greatest experiments in American architecture. As World War II was drawing to a close, there was a magazine editor named John Entenza. He was the editor of Arts & Architecture magazine. And he realized that we were sending home 6.7 million Americans from living abroad, and they were not gonna have anyplace to live. Because during the war, virtually all of the resources were diverted to the war effort, and almost no residential construction had taken place during the war.
And so he didn’t wanna see a glut of really bad design happen to solve this housing crisis. So he had a great idea. He said, “Why don’t we commission the nation’s best young Modernist architects to reimagine the American lifestyle and redesign the middleclass American home. And so he started the Modernist architects in America, and he would pair them up with a client and they would design a house for the client. But the objective was to design prototypes that could be mass produced nationwide, regardless of the site, bringing good design to the masses.
And so this was the program that the Stahl family just happened to plug into, with good fortune.
CUNO: Was it also more affordable?
CROSS: Yes. The goal was affordable, well-designed prototypes that could be mass produced nationwide.
CUNO: So this is Case Study House number 22. How many Case Study Houses were there?
CROSS: Well, there are thirty-six. Ten of them were never built, and about twenty remain today. And I think the Stahl House, if I’m correct, is the only one that’s still in the hands of the original owners.
CUNO: How different was the Stahl House from the other Case Study Houses?
CROSS: Case Study House 21, also designed by Pierre Koenig, really embodied all of the ideals of the Case Study House program. It had a small footprint; it was modest, it was affordable, and it was the design that could really be built on any site, so it wasn’t site-specific. Tenty-two was very site-specific. It was, in fact, designed to maximize the beautiful views from this lot that Buck and Carlotta had bought, which had 270-degree views of Los Angeles rolling out like a carpet beneath the house, and then the ocean in the background. And you know, Buck and Carlotta, they really didn’t wanna waste any bit of this view. I know Buck wanted to stand in every room from his house, turn his head, and see every view. Even the bathroom. And so that was kind of what inspired the design of the house. And Pierre Koenig saw the potential for that and really maximized it. So in that way, it was very different.
CUNO: What about the neighboring houses? What were they like?
STAHL: The neighboring houses were traditional-style houses. Two and three bedrooms. Most of ’em up there on the street were three bedrooms, probably two baths. They all had a bit of a view at certain angles. But there was nothing like our house up in that area. There was one at the very end of the cul-de-sac that had some kinda midcentury lines to it. Flat roof, carport, no garage, pool, high ceilings in a certain part of the house. But that was the only one that I would consider midcentury, and it came after ours.
CUNO: Kim, how did the Case Study program get administered? Did one have to register the house with a central authority of some kind to get a special number?
CROSS: So the Case Study House program was administered by Arts & Architecture magazine and John Entenza. And he would reach out to these architects and have them work on a design. When possible, he would match them with a client who needed a house, and he would design a house for that client. But again, the idea was that they would design prototypes that could be mass produced, using the technologies developed for the war, and the materials.
The brilliant part about this program was, he made partnerships with manufacturers and suppliers of those materials. And those suppliers made those materials affordable, or they sold them either at cost or donated them to these Case Study House projects. And in exchange, they got coverage in the magazine. So in the magazine, he would publish the designs, and then he would publish pictures of construction, so you could see these houses unfolding in the magazine. And in exchange for donating or selling at cost these materials, the suppliers would get free advertising.
And then he would open the houses to the public for tours for a certain amount of time before the families were allowed to move in. So it was kind of this win-win-win. The families who participated got cheaper materials for their house, making it more affordable, which was really key for the Stahl House, because they were on a pretty tight budget, and this program really made it affordable for them to build their house.
CUNO: What role did Paul Williams, the African American architect in Los Angeles, play in the process of building and registering the Stahl House? He features prominently in one photograph in the book.
GRONWALD: Paul Williams was one of the founders of a Black-owned bank called Broadway Federal Savings and Loan. And I believe it was founded in 1946. He was one of the founders, and he also was on the board.
And I believe when Buck and Carlotta couldn’t find a loan—they tried. With Pierre, they searched all over to find someone that would loan them the money to build their dream home. The only one that came forward was Broadway Federal Savings and Loan. It was a bank that was created for the need for conventional loans to minority consumers, which many of ’em were returning veterans. They noticed that the minority consumers were being ignored by the existing banks, so they kinda filled that gap. And it became very successful.
We would like to think Paul Williams, being a noted architect himself, that that had something to do with the approval of my parents’ loans. We are forever grateful to this bank for allowing my parents to build their dream home. A Black-owned bank that made a white couple’s dream come true, even when discrimination was still happening in the area. It’s amazing to me.
STAHL: Back then, banks were very leery about investing in what they called back then is hill dwellers. Construction of homes in the hills. The engineering back then wasn’t as good as today’s engineering, and there was a lot of catastrophes where pools would slide down the hill or portions of the house would fail. This is why the banks weren’t coming forward to lend my parents money, because they thought it was a risk.
CROSS: Can I jump in and add that, I mean, this really is exceptional, that a Black-owned bank underwrote the dream house of a white family. And it did this in a neighborhood where the covenants, conditions, and restrictions actually discriminated against non-whites. There were things written into the code that said that non-white people could not live on the property of any of these houses.
And the other thing was they had a requirement, as part of the mortgage, that I think changed the Stahl House and made it, was part— one of the things that made it what it is today. They required a pool. That was not part of the original design.
CROSS: And I think that the pool, in particular, the addition of the pool is so important for the house. Not only for the way it reflects the environment and the house itself—the house is constantly transforming because the glass of the walls reflects the sunset; the light from the pool bounces off onto the walls in those little shadows of light. I mean, the house wouldn’t be the house without the pool.
And it also really changed your lives, Bruce and Shari. And can you talk about how, like, the tradition that you had when you were tiny and you didn’t know how to swim yet? You had a pool right outside your door. Can you talk about what you had to do when you were little?
STAHL: Yeah. As children growing up, and once we learned how to walk, the first thing that we put on in the morning—and a lotta times, it was put on right over the jammies—was a life vest. And that was before we even left the room, we had to put our life vest on, because around our pool, there was no fences. The windows opened right into the pool, just about. So until we could learn to master swimming, that was our morning regimen, before we even got out of our room.
GRONWALD: And needless to say, we ended up learning how to swim pretty quickly, ’cause we got tired of the life vests.
CROSS: And then one day your dad propped a ladder against the roof, and what happened?
STAHL: Well, he launched himself off the roof into the deep end, which started a tradition that is still going today. We’re probably on our fourth generation of roof jumpers now. My father was the first generation. Shari and I and Mark were the second generation. My three kids are the third-generation roof jumpers. They’ve all jumped. And on my uncle’s side of the family, the grandkids, which is the fourth-generation roof jumpers, have gone off that roof.
CROSS: I should add that Shari and Bruce had a— had a requirement for me to write their book. They said, “If you really wanna understand what it was like for us to grow up in this house, you have to jump off the roof.” So they made me jump off the roof, into the pool.
GRONWALD: She loved every minute of it.
CUNO: How much did it cost to build Case Study House 22?
GRONWALD: Well, the lot was $13,500. And they couldn’t build until that loan was paid off. And soon as the loan was paid off, that’s when they took their model and they started contacting architects. And then they ended up getting the loan for $34,000. So $34,000 was the house cost. But because Broadway Federal Savings and Loan wouldn’t finance the pool, that tacked on another $3,455. So I guess the overall cost of the house being built was $37,455, and then plus the 13,5 for the lot.
CUNO: Did that seem like a good deal at the time?
GRONWALD: No. My parents’ friends and family thought they were crazy, ’cause they could buy a three-bedroom two-bath home on a lot down on the flat area in Los Angeles for that price and be done. But they didn’t listen to them. My mom and dad had a dream, and they wanted this house, they wanted this lot so bad that whatever they said didn’t matter. You know, they were called crazy and, you know, all sorts’a things. But they didn’t listen to ’em and they decided to do what they wanted to do.
CROSS: I think the bottom line is that this is the story of a blue-collar family with a white-collar dream. You know, most people who think they know the Stahl House assume that someone rich and famous lives there, when in fact, it was this ordinary middleclass family who had a dream, and fought really hard to make it happen.
CUNO: Were Case Study Houses a Southern California phenomenon, or could I go back to St. Louis and find one?
STAHL: Primarily, all the Case Studies were out here. Most of ’em kind of in the LA area. There’s Case Study 25, which is down in Long Beach, but they didn’t venture too far. Back east, the climate wasn’t suitable for these modern-style homes. I mean, Case Study 22 would not survive in Chicago. It wouldn’t make it through a winter. The house may, but the people inside would not.
But you know, Arts & Architecture magazine was California, Southern-California based, I believe. And this is where a lot of these new progressive architects lived.
CUNO: Tell us about the photograph that Julius Shulman took of the house, and describe it for us and tell us about the importance of the photograph in the history of Case Study Houses.
What role did he play in promoting the idea of the Case Study House and creating the romantic myth of such a house?
CROSS: This photograph captures a corner of the house that’s cantilevered over nighttime Los Angeles, which sort of stretches out, glittering below like a carpet. It’s a glass box, essentially, with two women in white dresses sitting chatting in that cantilevered corner. And it just captures the spirit of an age in one image. And it really is something for an image to do that.
He was instrumental in documenting a lot of the Case Study House. And I think that that image was part of the Stahl House’s rise to what it is today. Mark Stahl, who’s no longer with us, used to say that stars had to align for the Stahl House to be built, and also for it to rise to the level of a celebrity in its own right. And one of those stars was Julius Shulman.
And I think there was an ongoing, I guess, friendly debate between Pierre and Julius, about who made who famous. And Julius liked to brag that he made Pierre Koenig famous, and the house; and Pierre Koenig would reply, “Well, you know, Julius, architects had to build the houses before you photographed them.” So I think it was kind of the constellation of, like, all of the things in one image. And that is one of the reasons the Stahl House is so famous.
STAHL: Julius Shulman picture, if you talk to him about that image, and if you call it a picture, he will probably tell you it wasn’t a picture of a piece of architecture. He said he captured a picture of a mood that changed everything. And I think Julius looked at images in just a little bit different way than most photographers did.
And regarding the back and forth with Koenig and Shulman, when that conversation always takes place, who made who famous, I always come back, “Well, if my father didn’t have the idea, then you both wouldn’t have it.”
GRONWALD: But Buck used to always say, “They can have the fame; I have the house.”
CUNO: Well, I was wondering if you could tell us when the photograph was taken. Before the house was completed, after the house was completed, before you moved into the house?
CROSS: So the photograph was taken before the Stahl family actually moved in. It was a photo shoot for Arts & Architecture magazine, which was, of course, going to publish the house in full in the magazine, like it did the other Case Study Houses.
Julius Shulman was ready to take the photo, and the house was not done. Pierre actually came to the house in the days before the scheduled shoot, found no one there, got very upset, found that just it wasn’t ready. And they had a deadline because it had to get to press. And so he wrote a really terse letter to the builder and saying, you know, “I have all this pressure. Julius Shulman’s ready to shoot it. John Entenza’s wondering when we can get the shots. Buck and Carlotta wanna move in. You know, when is this gonna be done?”
So on the day of the shoot, it was still kind of in shambles. There was plaster dust everywhere, the landscaping was not done, the floors had not been finished. They had run out of money to put the terrazzo floors planned in, and so the floor was bare concrete. And Julius Shulman, who was famous for bringing houseplants and foliage from nearby bushes into his shots, sort of staged it so that it did look like there was landscaping.
And he was setting up an indoor shot. And then he stepped outside to take in the view or look around, and that’s when he saw two girls sitting in the cantilevered corner. These girls had nothing to do with the house. They were the girlfriends of two architecture students who Pierre Koenig had asked to come up and help with the shoot. I think Julius liked to put people in his photos. And so he told Pierre, “Please, you know, tell them to bring their girlfriends, and tell them to wear nice clothes. They might be in a shot.” And so he saw them just naturally sitting there and chatting, and he said, “Oh, we’re redoing the shot.”
So he runs inside, takes all of his equipment, redoes the lighting, and says, “Okay, girls, I want you to just, you know, sit there quietly.” And he has this really famous, super-complicated exposure, in the age before digital photography, where he had to expose first for the nighttime ambient line, so to get the city lights in the background. And so he had them sit quietly in the dark. And then he put light bulbs, flashbulbs into, I think, the bulb lights in the house, and he had a way to trigger it so that it would pop those bulbs and expose the girls, after he had burned in the nighttime ambient light with something like an eight-minute exposure. And so it’s a really tricky exposure to nail. And he was “one-shot Shulman, “and he did it perfectly. So that’s another reason that photo is so impressive.
CUNO: Now, Shari and Bruce, what was it like to grow up in this house?
STAHL: Well, fantastic. But as a kid growing up in it, our reference point was the house, so we didn’t realize really what kinda house we were growing up in until Shari and I got into high school, when the house became more and more famous and popular. I often tell people that ask what it was like, I go, “Well, you gotta remember, when the house was completed it wasn’t famous yet. It was different.”
Today, the house is probably more famous than different. Now it’s a standard for Midcentury Modern.
But growing up there, our life revolved around the pool, running around the hills. But the pool was the main focus. That was our main entertainment.
GRONWALD: Like Bruce said, when were kids, it was just home. It wasn’t anything famous, it was home to us. And our friends loved coming up because it was different, and we had a pool. So my mother ended up being the taxi, because there were no kids living up in the area at the time, so she would have to go bring ’em down. And every weekend, she’d bring kids up to play with us.
But we were always in the pool. If we weren’t in the pool, we were hiking in the hills, we were hiking down below the house. And we just, you know, whatever dirt we could find, we loved playing with. And it definitely shaped our lives when we got a little bit older, in high school.
CUNO: Well, they almost lost the house in 1979, I think, when there was a fire nearby. Tell us about the fire and about the consequences for your house.
STAHL: Shari, you could probably take this better, ’cause you were there.
GRONWALD: Right. Let’s see. I guess what it was, my mother, father, and my brother Mark were at home. And I invited three friends to come up, and we just kinda laid out and tanned and went swimming. And Dad would sit out with all of us, and he was chatting. And all of a sudden, I see him look up to the sky, and I see this kinda scared look on his face. And all he said to me was, “Fire.”
And we all jumped up and we ran out to the road. And we could just see the whole ridge behind us, all the homes are engulfed in flames. And it was taking out home after home after home. And it moved up so fast through the canyon that these people barely had time to get out of their house. It was a very scary time for everybody up there on our ridge, as well as the ridge behind us.
Another issue was, there wasn’t enough fire trucks to actually put out the fire. They were trying to get up these windy roads, which in cases, were so narrow because of cars parked on one side. When they finally got up, there wasn’t enough firefighters to actually help put out the fire. So my friends ended up having to hold hoses for them, while they were busy using hoses somewhere else.
When the fire started coming down our ridge, the first house that it would’ve hit was Buck Henry. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Buck Henry. He was the actor, comedian, and filmmaker years ago. And so my father and I, we ran up to Buck Henry’s house, ’cause we saw him on his roof with his water hose, trying to water down the roof, but the fire was approaching pretty fast. And so we ended up going up there with shovels, and trying to create some kinda fire break because these flames were pretty much licking at Buck Henry’s house.
And we did our best to try and put it out, even as water tankers came over. There was one water tanker that actually came over and it dumped water right on my dad, when he was trying to make a fire break. And I’ve never seen my dad flattened to the ground so fast. And I was so afraid that it hurt him, but he was fine. He got up and he kept digging.
We saved Buck Henry’s house, but it started coming down the side of the mountain, which didn’t have any homes on it; but it was creeping towards our house, which was really scary. And luckily, when it got about halfway down the ridge, the were able to control it and they were able to put that section out. So we feel very fortunate that it didn’t actually hit the house at all.
CUNO: What about the exhibition at MoCA, Museum of Contemporary Art here in Los Angeles? The exhibition was called Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of Case Study Houses. Your house, the Stahl House, featured prominently in it. But I also had a feeling from your book, that the exhibition revived an interest in Case Study Houses.
CROSS: So Blueprints for Modern Living was a real turning point in the story of the Stahl House. It was in 1989. I think it took five years to complete, and it was one of the most ambitious architectural exhibitions ever produced. It really resurrected the story of the Case Study House program and celebrated it. And it was designed by Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung, who I believe worked with Hollywood set designers. And so they created this story of the Case Study House program where you entered through Ralph Rapson’s Greenbelt House, which was never built; and then you walked through a series of exhibits that told the story of that time.
And then you ended on an upper level floor that presented a nighttime replica of the Stahl House. So it was so big that two Case Study Houses were reconstructed at full scale, basically in MoCA’s Temporary Contemporary, which was a former warehouse. And so you ended at the Stahl House. And you could look out over the exhibition floor and have the sense that you were above it all, like you do at the actual house.
That exhibition marked the point at which the Stahl House started appearing in magazines and ads and films and TV shows. And I believe that because people were walking through it and seeing it, it really kind of put it on the map of Hollywood. And so it was, I believe, the only Case Study House to be built twice. And Bruce and Shari and their family got to walk through their own house in a museum. Bruce, do you wanna share what that was like for you?
STAHL: Yeah, sure. I mean, it was— I don’t really like the term surreal, but it kinda was. And we were walkin’ through our home. And there was a bunch’a other people walking through it at the same time, and I pretty much couldn’t help myself. I had to just talk to a stranger. And I just said, “I grew up in this house.” And she turned to me and she goes, “You did?” And it was a conversation that I just had to— it just had to come out of me. I just was so excited about it.
But one thing—and I’m sure Shari felt it, too—we were walkin’ through it and we could tell it was slightly off; it wasn’t exact. ’Cause growing up in the house, we know ever square inch, and if it’s an inch off, we’re gonna see it. And the replica was slightly off, but only to our eyes, because no one else could feel it, except for Shari and I and our family.
CROSS: The other interesting thing about the exhibition is, I think it marked a turning point for Pierre Koenig, who was very underappreciated before then. I believe he had not yet been promoted to full professor at the USC School of Architecture, and he finally got the recognition that he deserved.
CUNO: What happened to the house? I mean, I know it’s still standing, but what’s the structure that supports the house in a financial way?
STAHL: The house we have today, Shari and I are still the owners-slash-stewards of the house. And today, the house is rented to the studios quite a bit. And we also, in 2009 or 2010, we opened the doors to tours, which is the main stable of resources that we use to renovate the house. Every year, we will close down the house in December and take a section of the house to renovate it. And every year we do this, and it’s paid for with the film revenue that we bring in, and also the tour revenue, which helps sustain the house.
GRONWALD: My parents struggled in the beginning to get the house built. With three kids, it was a struggle financially to keep us all fed and clothed and still pay a mortgage. And they had to move out for a while because Buck ended up losing his job through the aerospace industry, and we had to move out for roughly about five years.
Buck and Carlotta both went back to work, saved as much money as they could, ’cause they wanted to get back home. They wouldn’t sell the house; they decided they were gonna rent it, even though people told ’em, “Just sell it and get out of, you know, any financial problems you had.” But knowing my mom and dad, that was not an option. They loved that house. That was their home.
And MoCA happened and all of a sudden, we started getting more studio calls. Mom would get calls for movies; she would get calls for photography ads and TV shows, and even videos. So the house started, at that time, it started paying them back. After all the struggles to get the house built, they had to move out, they finally had enough to get back, and now they were getting paid by the house, and it really helped with their finances. And as they got older, it helped with their retirement.
So the house is really the film star in all this. It’s not us at all; it’s the house. And I think we’ve had about thirteen movies shot at the house. We’ve had three music videos, we had— These are the ones I know about. We had about ten television shows. We had commercials that are probably about in the numbers of twenty or thirty. We’ve had one documentary done on Julius Shulman that was— the house was included in. And we’re very thankful.
And now on top of that, we started offering scheduled tours back in 2009. And those are also helping with us to keep the house, to keep it renovated, to keep it up in maintenance, and just be able to share it with the world. And that actually makes us very happy because that was something Mom really enjoyed doing. She loved opening it up to the studios and she would love opening her front door to any students or guests that wanted to see the house. And now we’re just opening it up on a more scheduled basis, and it’s actually helping us with the renovations and the upkeep. And it’s very much appreciated, that we could do that and again, share it with the world.
CROSS: I just wanna jump in and say that, you know, the tours really started with Carlotta and how she would open her doors to anyone who wanted to see her house. And I think after the MoCA exhibition and after it started appearing in films and ads and all over the place—I believe it’s been published in something like 1200 different publications—after that happened, people just started making pilgrimages to the house from all over the world. And she would get strangers knocking on her door, and often they’d run into the street. But she always let them in. She’d welcome them in and say, “Hey, want a Coke?”
And what’s so exceptional about this is she just never turned anyone away. Imagine that many strangers knocking on your door. And in the research for this book, I tried to find every recorded interview with Buck and Carlotta that I could. And in one interview, someone asked her, “So Carlotta, how many people come to your house in a given month?” And she said, “Oh, in a typical month, no fewer than a thousand.” And I just went, oh, my goodness. Can you imagine? Julius Shulman said that Carlotta was one of the best ambassadors for Modernist architecture that there ever was because she opened her house to people. And so I think it made sense for the kids to start doing formal tours, which helped with the upkeep of such an expensive house. But it’s still just a continuation of Carlotta’s spirit, to let people in to enjoy this house. She loved showing it off.
Oh, the other thing I wanted to add is, I love the story of how whenever people would come, she would go and take all of the clutter off of the counters and shove it into the oven and the cabinets, so that people could enjoy the clean lines of the architecture without clutter.
CUNO: Tell me what it means that the house is listed on the National Register of Historical Places, which I gather it was in 2013.
GRONWALD: Both Bruce and I went—and actually, Mark was around—when it actually made the list for the National Register of Historical Places. We were very excited. And we had this feeling that we made it. We finally got on this register, after years of wanting to be, and also many years in the making by the Los Angeles Conservancy group. It just felt like the house finally got this honor. The house is a star; it’s now on the National Register. It was a very exciting time, because the National Historic Landmarks is just— It kinda puts a value to a piece of property or a structure, and it illustrates the history of Los Angeles. And it feels so good to be part of the history of Los Angeles. And the United States, actually.
CUNO: Well, thank you, Shari, Bruce, and Kim, for giving us so much time on the podcast again this morning. The house is, without a doubt, a classic, and a durable part of Los Angeles architecture history. So we thank you very much.
CROSS: Thanks for having us.
GRONWALD: Thank you. Thank you for having us.
STAHL: Thank you very much.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and more resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts/ or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
KIM CROSS: Buck wanted to stand in every room from his house, turn his head, and see every view. E...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824