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John Sowden House

Los Angeles, United States of America
1 of 3

John Sowden House, also known as the "Jaws House" or the "Franklin House", is a residence built in 1926 in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, California. Built by Lloyd Wright, the house is noted for its use of ornamented concrete blocks and for its striking facade, resembling (depending on the viewer's points of cultural reference) either a Mayan temple or the gaping open mouth of a great white shark.

Architecture and design

The original owner, John Sowden, was a painter and photographer who hired his friend, Lloyd Wright (eldest son of Frank Lloyd Wright), to build their home in Los Feliz. The house has been recognized as one of Lloyd Wright's most important works and a landmark in the Los Angeles area for its imposing Mayan-style front facade and temple-like features. When Lloyd Wright died in 1978, the Los Angeles Times wrote that Sowden house had been "hailed as the apogee of his residential work."

The house is also noteworthy for Lloyd Wright's continuation of his work in the early 1920s with textile-block construction and Mayan themes. His father had used the textile blocks in building the Millard House, Samuel Freeman House, Ennis House, and Storer House. On the Sowden House, Lloyd Wright used ornamented concrete blocks to decorate a distinctive entry that it has been said "challenges the street." From the street, the home has the appearance of a Mayan fortress or temple. The sharp ridges and lines of the facade have been said to resemble the gaping open mouth of a great white shark, resulting in the home's being known in Los Angeles as the "Jaws House." It has also been described as having a "cultic, brooding" appearance. The Los Angeles Times has also described it as a "quasi-Mayan-style mansion, an otherwordly apparition that looms over Franklin Avenue in Los Feliz." This Mayan style of a roof line was also used by Llyod Wright when he built the first "shell" for the Hollywood Bowl. (Photographs at Hollywood Chamber of Commerce) It was constructed out of wood and only lasted one year before being torn down. A guest arriving at Sowden House passes through sculpted copper gates and then up "a narrow, tomb-like staircase" to the house. Sowden wanted a house that would be a showplace where he could entertain his friends in the Hollywood film community. The Sowden house sits between two Frank Lloyd Wright designed houses: The Hollyhock House and the Ennis Brown home in the hills above Los Feliz Blvd. This is the only place where one can stand at the entrance of a Frank Lloyd Wright designed house and view another of his creations.

From 1945 through 1951, the house was owned by Dr. George Hodel, a Los Angeles physician who was a prime suspect in the infamous Black Dahlia murder, although he was not publicly named as such at the time. The doctor's own son, Steve Hodel, himself a retired City of Los Angeles homicide detective, argued in his 2003 book "Black Dahlia Avenger" that the Black Dahlia victim, Elizabeth Short, was actually tortured, murdered and dissected by his father inside of the Sowden House, in January 1947.

The house was used as a shooting location to depict the home of Ava Gardner in Martin Scorsese's film The Aviator.

Renovation by Xorin Balbes

The house, with seven bedrooms, four baths, and 5,600 square feet (520 m2), was listed on the market at $1,575,000 in 2001. It was purchased that year by Xorin Balbes for $1.2 million. Balbes, who said the house was "a wreck" when he bought it, spent $1.6 million to restore the house, though some of his alterations drew criticism from preservationists as well as Lloyd Wright's son, Eric Lloyd Wright. In addition to restoring the stonework, Balbes converted the three-room kitchen area into a large open kitchen, added new upscale bathrooms, and installed a pool and spa in the central court. Independent filmmmaker Bashar Shbib was hired to design and realize the landscaping in and around the house. On viewing the renovations, Eric Lloyd Wright praised the new kitchen and landscaping, but criticized Balbes' decision to install a pool and spa in the middle of the courtyard. All of the house's rooms open onto the long central courtyard, which was originally a lawn that was used for seating during performances at the home. Eric Wright felt it was a "mistake" to break up the courtyard space with a pool and spa. Dana Hutt, an architectural historian who has written on the works of Lloyd Wright, was also critical of Balbes' alterations. She objected to the pool, to the refinement of the entry staircase, and to the addition of Asian elements that were "completely wrong" for Wright's Mesoamerican design.

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lacuna, September 11th, 2017
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