Lloyd Wright, son of America’s greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, built the Sowden House for friend and photographer John Sowden in 1926. The home reflects Wright’s philosophies as a landscape architect, emphasizing the elements of nature in an open floor plan where every room communicates via the central courtyard. Hand-cast, sand colored concrete blocks emblazoned with images of the harvest, water, clouds, and sun are stacked in homage to the pyramids of ancient Mayan civilization, while the pillared courtyard with multiple entries makes clear architectural reference to such Yucatec Mayan temples as Sayil and Uxmal.
In his book, “The Visionary State”, Erik Davis speaks of the Wright family’s “Mesoamerican palaces” that were built in a number of Southern California locations. He goes on to say that “…the home that Lloyd Wright built on Franklin Avenue… is easily the wildest of the lot, an Expressionist temple whose primeval exotica makes the visionary aspirations of the Southland’s neo-Mayan architecture clear.”
The Sowdens were artsy Hollywood folks who liked to party, and Lloyd Wright, who had spent a year or so designing sets for Paramount Studios, indulged their desire for the theatrical. The windowless main entrance lies below a canted cyclopean mass of zigzag rock that hangs like the roof of some antediluvian cave. After climbing a dark stairway, visitors emerge into an inner sanctuary: a high, airy living space surrounding a long outdoor courtyard lined with columns whose weathered wave-motifs and twining vines deepen the sense of elemental powers at play.
Originally, two massive ‘water organs,’ destroyed in a 1930’s earthquake, stood at the end of the courtyard like murmuring Pagan stelae. Today the courtyard is taken up with a large pool fed by a jacuzzi, part of a thorough renovation of the house in 2000 which enhanced the building’s air of almost savage spectacle and glamour with a sleek, modern edge.
Featured in Architectural Digest, the renovation ushered in a new era of activity as the Sowden House has become a favored location for celebrity fundraisers, movie shoots, TV shows, commercials, and corporate getaways.
In its modern incarnation, the Sowden House has served, among others, as the set for Martin Scorcese’s “Aviator,” episodes of “America’s Next Top Model,” and an American Express commercial featuring Ellen DeGeneres in deep meditation. The house has also been noted in some dark-themed articles in the Los Angeles Times as the former home of the notorious Doctor George Hodel, who may have been responsible for the even more notorious Black Dahlia murders.
Whatever the truth of ‘Hollywood history,’ the architecture is a stunning tribute to the interplay of shadow and light, nature and civilization, and the ancient Mayan temples by which it was inspired. The Sowden House continues to reveal new facets of Lloyd Wright’s intention to merge architecture and landscape and deepen the relationship between drama, creativity, and reflection.