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Creating the iconic Stahl House

Two dreamers, an architect, a photographer, and the making of America’s most famous house

Julius Shulman/Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust

In 1953 a mutual friend introduced Clarence Stahl, better known as Buck, to Carlotta Gates. They met at the popular Mike Lyman’s Flight Deck restaurant, off Century Boulevard, which overlooked the runways at Los Angeles International Airport. Buck was 41 and Carlotta 24. The couple married a year later and remained together for more than 50 years, until Buck’s death in 2005.

Working with Pierre Koenig, an independent young architect whose primary materials were glass, steel, and concrete, the couple created perhaps the most widely recognized house in Los Angeles, and one of the most iconic homes ever built. No one famous ever lived in it, nor was it the site of a Hollywood scandal or constructed for a wealthy owner. It was just the Stahls’ dream home. And it almost did not come true.

As a newlywed, Carlotta moved into the house Buck was renting—the lower half of a two-story wood-frame house on Hillside Avenue in the Hollywood Hills, just west of Crescent Heights Boulevard and north of Sunset Boulevard. From the house, Buck and Carlotta looked across a ridge toward a promontory that drew their attention every morning and evening. As Carlotta explained during an interview with USC history professor Philip Ethington, this is how the dream of building their own home started: simply and incidentally. Although they felt emotionally and psychically drawn to the promontory, they did not have the financial means to buy the lot, even if it were available.

For months they looked intently across the ridge. Then, in May 1954, the couple decided “Let’s go over and see our lot. We’d already claimed it even though we’d never been here,” Carlotta told Ethington, adding, “And when we came up that day George Beha [the owner of the lot] was in from La Jolla. He and Buck talked, then, I would say an hour, hour and [a] half later, they shook hands. We bought the lot and he agreed to carry the mortgage.” They settled on a price of $13,500. At the end of their meeting, Buck gave Beha $100 as payment to make the agreement binding.

There were no houses along the hillside near the site that would become the Stahl House on Woods Drive, although the land was getting graded in anticipation of development. Richard D. Larkin, a real estate developer, acquired the lots on the ridge in a tax sale from the city of Los Angeles around 1958 and arranged to subdivide and grade them. The city hauled away the dirt without charge to use the decomposed granite for runway construction at LAX. In the process, the city made the road for Woods Drive.

The Stahls’ chance meeting with Beha abruptly made their vision more of a reality, but building was still a long way away. After nearly four years of mortgage payments to Beha, Buck prepared the lot for construction. He did this without having building specs, but knowing it would be necessary to shape the difficult hillside lot. In the first of many do-it-yourself accomplishments, he built up the edges to make the lot flat and level. To create a larger buildable area he laid the edge of the foundation with broken concrete, which was readily available at no cost from construction sites and provided Buck with flexibility for his layout. He could also lift and move the pieces without heavy equipment. He constructed a concrete wall and terracing with broken pieces of concrete. But he was told by architects and others that his effort would not improve the buildability of the property.

Julius Shulman/Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust

The developer, Larkin, showed Buck how to lay out and stack the concrete, Buck recalled to Ethington. It was not a completely new concept, as photographer Julius Shulman, whose photograph of the Stahl House would later become internationally recognized, used broken concrete in the landscaping on his property. But Buck’s use was far more labor-intensive and consuming. On evenings and weekends he managed to pick up discarded concrete from construction sites around Los Angeles, asking the foremen if he could haul the debris away. He did this dozens of times before collecting enough for the concrete wall.

Buck used decomposed granite from the lot and surrounding area, instead of fresh cement, to fill in the gaps between the concrete pieces. The result was a solid form that remains intact and stable today, almost 60 years later. What had been the underlying layer for a man-made structure became the underlying layer for a new man-made structure—Buck’s layers of broken concrete added another facet to the topography of the house and the city, and this hands-on development of the lot connected the Stahls to the land and house.

As they completed their final monthly payments, Buck finished a scale model of their dream home, and the couple began to look for an architect. The central architectural feature of the model was a butterfly roof combined with flat-roofed areas. From the beginning, Buck and Carlotta envisioned a glass house without walls blocking the panoramic view.

Their frequent visits to the lot intensified their desire to build a home of their own design. Like an architect, Buck studied the composition of the land, the shape of the lot, the direction of light, and the best way to ensure the views. Perhaps most importantly, he considered the architectural style that would ideally highlight these qualities.

Carlotta told Ethington they decided to meet with three architects whose work they had seen in different publications: Craig Ellwood, Pierre Koenig, and one more whom she did not remember. She said Ellwood and the unidentified architect “came to the lot [and] said we were crazy. ‘You’ll never be able to build up here.’”

When Koenig visited the site with the Stahls, he and Buck “just clicked right away,” according to Carlotta. In the 1989 documentary The Case Study House Program, 1945-1966: An Anecdotal History & Commentary, Koenig recalled how Buck “wanted a 270-degree panorama view unobstructed by any exterior wall or sheer wall or anything at all, and I could do it.” The Stahls appreciated Koenig’s enthusiasm and willingness to work with them. They had a written agreement in November of 1957.

The massive spans of glass and the cantilevering of the structure, essential aspects of the design to Koenig, precluded traditional wood-frame house construction. To ensure the open floorplan, uninterrupted views, and the structure required to create those features, steel became inevitable. Steel would also offer greater stability than wood during an earthquake. The use of exposed glass, steel, and concrete was a functional and economic decision that defined the aesthetics of the house. In combination, these industrial materials were not then common choices in home construction, though they were materials Koenig used frequently. Exposing the material structure of the house illuminated its transparency as an indoor-outdoor living space.

Koenig kept the spirit of Buck’s model, but removed a key aspect: the butterfly roof. Koenig flattened the roof and removed the curves from Buck’s design, so the house consisted of two rectangular boxes that formed an L.

When he sited the house and drew his preliminary plans, Koenig aligned the house so that the roof and structural cantilever mirrored the grid-like arrangement of the streets below the lot. Once completed, the house visually extended into the Los Angeles cityscape. The symmetry enhanced the connection between the house and the land. In The Case Study House Program 1945-1966 documentary, Koenig says, “When you look out along the beams it carries your eye out right along the city streets, and the [horizontal] decking disappears into the vanishing point and takes your eye out and the house becomes one with the city below.”

With the design completed, the Stahls’ dream was closer to coming to life, but there were further obstacles. The unconventional design of the house and its hillside construction made it difficult to secure a traditional home loan; banks repeatedly turned down Buck because it was considered too risky. As Buck explained to Ethington, “Pierre [kept] looking [for financing] and he had his rounds of contacts.” Koenig was finally able to arrange financing for the Stahls through Broadway Federal Savings and Loan Association, an African-American-owned bank in Los Angeles.

Broadway Federal had one unusual condition for the construction loan: The Stahls were required to secure a second loan for the construction of a pool and would need another bank to finance it. They had had a yard in mind, but a pool would increase the overall cost of the home—for the bank, it added value to the property and made the loan less risky.

Julius Shulman/Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust

After more searching, Buck found a lender for the pool construction so both projects could proceed. Broadway Federal loaned the Stahls $34,000. The second lender financed the pool at a cost of approximately $3,800.

Broadway Federal’s loan is ironic and extraordinary. Although it was not a reflection of the Stahls’ own values, the area that included their lot had legally filed Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions from 1948 that indicated “the property shall not, nor shall any part thereof be occupied at any time by any person not of the Caucasian race, except that servants of other than the Caucasian race may be employed and kept thereon.” It was a discriminatory restriction against African Americans, and yet an African-American-owned bank made it possible for a Caucasian couple to build their home there.

When Pierre Koenig began work on the Stahl House, he was 32 years old and had built seven of the more than 40 projects he would design in his career. The Stahl House is the best known and is considered his masterwork, although Koenig considered the Gantert House (1981) in the Hollywood Hills the most challenging house he built. The long-term influence of the Stahl House is apparent in Gantert House and many of Koenig’s other projects.

Koenig built his first house in 1950—for himself—during his third year of architecture school at USC. It was a steel, glass, and cement structure. Although the architecture program had dropped its focus on Beaux Arts studies and modernism was coming to the fore, residential use of steel was not part of Koenig’s curriculum. But when he looked at the post-and-beam architecture then considered the standard of modern architecture, he felt the wood structures looked thin and fragile, and should be made of steel instead.

Koenig later told interviewer Michael LaFetra about a conversation with his instructor: “He said ‘No, you cannot use steel as an industrial material for domestic architecture. You cannot mix them up. The housewife won’t like [steel houses].’ The more he said I couldn’t do it, the more I wanted to do it. That’s my nature. He failed me. I got absolutely no help from him.”

But wartime production methods, particularly arc welding, were a source of inspiration for Koenig’s use of steel. Electric arc welding did not require bolts or rivets and instead created a rigid connection between beams and columns. Cross-bracing was not required, which opened greater possibilities: Aesthetically, it offered a streamlined look and allowed him to design a large open framework for unobstructed glass walls. The thin lines of the steel looked incidental compared to their strength.

His first house was originally designed as a wood building, but redesigned for steel construction. He commented years later that that was not the way to do it—he learned how to design for steel by taking an entirely new approach. There was little precedent to support his efforts: Such discoveries were an education for him, and he worked to resolve issues on his own. In Esther McCoy’s book Modern California Houses: Case Study Houses, 1945-1962, Koenig declares, “Steel is not something you can put up and take down. It is a way of life.”

From then on, Koenig continued to develop his architectural vision—both pragmatic and philosophical. Prefabricated housing was a promising development following the war, but consumers found the homes’ cookie-cutter, invariable design unappealing. Koenig’s goal was to use industrialized components in different ways to create unique, innovative buildings using the same standard parts: endless variations with the core materials of glass, steel, and cement. Koenig’s intention, as captured in James Steel’s biography Pierre Koenig, “was to be part of a mechanism that could produce billions of homes, like sausages or cars in a factory.”

“The basic problem is whether the product is well designed in the first place,” Koenig further explained in a 1957 Los Angeles Times article by architectural historian Esther McCoy. “There are too many advantages to mass production to ignore it. We must accept mass production but we must insist on well-designed products.”

Julius Shulman/Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust

Reducing the number of parts and avoiding small parts were ways to reduce costs and streamline construction. In the case of the Stahl House, the efficiencies generated by the minimal-parts approach led to an inventory of fewer than 60 building components. In 1960, in an interview for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Koenig said:

“All I have done is to take what we know about industrial methods and bring it to people who would accept it. You can make anything beautiful given an unlimited amount of money. But to do it within the limits of economy is different. That’s why I never have steel fabricated especially to my design. I use only stock parts. That is the challenge—to take these common everyday parts and work them into an aesthetically pleasing concept.”

Although Koenig completed a plot plan for the Stahl House in January 1958, he did not submit blueprints to the city of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety until that July. Due to the extensive use of steel and glass in a residential plan, combined with the hillside lot and dimensions and form that the department found irregular, the city did not consider the house up to code and would not approve construction. Instead they noted, “Board Action required to build on this site because of the extremely high steep slopes on the east and south sides.”

In a move typical of Koenig’s intellect and his ability to understand all details of construction, he prepared the technical drawings so he was able to discuss details with the planners. He spent several months explaining his design and material specifications to the city. Since they had not seen many plans for the extensive use of steel in home construction, the building officials asked him, “Why steel?”

In his interview with LaFetra, Koenig explained that he thought steel would last longer than wood and knew “building departments were not used to the ideas of modern architecture.” They would frown on “doing away with hip roof, shingles, you had to have a picket fence, window shutters.”

“The Building Department thought I was crazy,” Koenig said. “I can remember one of the engineers saying, ‘Why are you going to all this trouble? All you have to do is open up the code book and put down what’s in the code book. You could have a permit tomorrow.’ I asked myself, Why am I doing this?! I was motivated by some subconscious thing.” Koenig reduced the living room cantilever by 10 feet and removed the walkway around the house in order to move the plans forward.

He finally received approval in January 1959. Carlotta remembers, “One of the officials … said [there’ll] never be another house built like this ’cause they didn’t like the big windows. That was one of the things that bothered them more than anything, and the fact that we’re cantilevered.”

The city’s lengthy approval process contrasted with Koenig’s quick construction of the house. Due to its minimalist structural design and reduced number of building components compared to traditional wood construction, framing of the house was simplified. A crew of five men completed the job in one day.

The challenges of building were known, and they primarily related to the lot. “There’s very little land situated on this eagle nest high above Sunset Boulevard,” Koenig explained in the documentary film about the Case Study House Program. “So the swimming pool and the garage went on the best part, mainly because who wants to spend a lot of money supporting swimming pools and garages? And it’s very hard to support a pool on the edge of a cliff. The house it could handle. So the house is on the precarious edge.”

With the exception of the steel-frame fireplace (chimney and flue were prefabricated and brought to the site), Koenig used only two types of standard structural steel components: 12-inch beams and 4-inch H columns. The result is a profound demonstration of Koenig’s technical and aesthetic expertise with rigid-frame construction. The elimination of load-bearing walls on this scale represented the most advanced use of technology and materials for residential architecture ever.

Koenig’s success with steel-frame construction is partially due to William Porush, the structural engineer for the Stahl House. Porush engineered more than half of Koenig’s projects, beginning with Koenig’s first house in 1950.

A native of Russia, Porush emigrated to the U.S. in 1922 and graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1926. After working for a number of firms in Los Angeles and later with the LA Department of Building and Safety during World War II, Porush opened his own office in 1946 and eventually designed his own post-and-beam house in Pasadena in 1956.

Julius Shulman/Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust

The scale of his projects ranged from commercial buildings using concrete tilt-up construction in downtown Los Angeles to professional offices in Glendale, light industrial engineering, and a number of schools in Southern California—including traditional wood and brick, glass, and steel schools in Riverside.

When Porush retired at 89 years old, his son Ted ran the practice for several years before retiring himself. Speaking of both his and his father’s experience working with Koenig in 2012, Ted said, “Koenig was quite devoted and always had something in mind all the time without being unreasonable or obstinate, really an artist perhaps,” and added that he and his father “welcomed Koenig’s engineering challenges—whether related to innovations, materials, or budget constraints.”

General contractor Robert J. Brady was the other key member of Koenig’s Stahl House crew. Brady gained industry experience running a construction business in Ojai, California, where he was a school teacher. This was the only time Brady and Koenig worked together, as Koenig was dissatisfied, he later wrote, with Brady’s management of the Stahl House, as indicated in a letter to Brady himself in the Pierre Koenig papers at the Getty Research Institute.

In 1957, Koenig approached Bethlehem Steel about the development of a program for architects using light-steel framing in home construction. At the time, Bethlehem Steel did not see a market or need to formalize a program. Residential use of steel, while known, was still very uncommon.

“The steel house is out of the pioneering stage, but radically new technologies are long past due,” Koenig explained in an interview with Esther McCoy. “Any large-scale experiment of this nature must be conducted by industry, for the architect cannot afford it. Once it is undertaken, the steel house will cost less than the wood house.”

By 1959, Bethlehem Steel saw how quickly the market was changing and started a Pacific Coast Steel Division in Los Angeles to work specifically with architects. The division then shared their preliminary specifications with Koenig for architecturally exposed steel and solicited his comments and opinions.

To introduce Bethlehem’s new marketing effort, they published a booklet in 1960, “The Steel-Framed House: A Bethlehem Steel Report Showing How Architects and Designers Are Making Imaginative Use of Light-Steel Framing In Houses.” Koenig’s Bailey House (CSH No. 21) and the Stahl House both appeared in the booklet. Bethlehem promoted Koenig’s architecture with Shulman photographs and accompanying text: “What could be more sensible than to make this magnificent view of Los Angeles a part of the house—to ‘paper the walls’ with it?” and “Problem Sites? Not with steel framing!” The brochure showed multiple views of the Stahl House.

For architects, having work published during this time led to recognition and often translated to future projects. Arts & Architecture magazine and its publisher John Entenza played an essential role in promoting Koenig’s architecture. Entenza conceived of the Case Study House Program in the months prior to the end of World War II, in anticipation of the demand for affordable, thoughtfully designed middle-class housing, and introduced it in the magazine’s January 1945 issue. The purpose of the program was to promote new ways of living based on advances in design, construction, building methods, and materials.

After the war, an impetus to produce new forms emerged. In architecture, that meant a move away from traditionally built homes and toward modern design. The postwar availability of industrial and previously restricted materials, especially glass, steel, and cement, offered architects freedom to pursue new ideas. In addition to materials, the modern approach in home design resulted in less formal floor plans that could offer continuity, ease of flow, multipurpose spaces, fewer interior walls, sliding glass walls and doors, entryways, and carports. Homes were generally built with a flat roof, which helped define a horizontal feel. Interior finishes were simple and unadorned, and there was no disguising of materials.

The absence of traditional details became part of the new aesthetic. Both exterior and interior structures were simplified. This all contributed to perhaps the most significant appeal of postwar architecture in Southern California: indoor-outdoor living. By physically, visually, and psychologically integrating the indoors and outdoors, it offered a new, casual way of life that more actively connected people to their environment. Combined with year-round mild weather, these new houses afforded a growing sense of independence and freedom of expression.

Arts & Architecture presented works-in-progress and completed homes throughout its pages, devoting more space in the magazine to the modern movement than other publications. Trends with finishes, built-ins, and low-cost materials spread across homes in Southern California after publication in Arts & Architecture. The magazine’s modern aesthetic extended across the country, where architects developed new solutions based on what they had seen in its pages. And since it reached dozens of countries, the international influence of California modernism through Entenza’s editorial eye was profound.

Julius Shulman/Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust

The Case Study House Program provided a point of focus. As noted by Elizabeth Smith, art historian and museum curator, all 36 of the Case Study houses were featured in the magazine, although only 24 were built. With the exception of one apartment building, they were all single-family residences completed between 1945 and 1966.

“John Entenza’s idea was that people would not really understand modern architecture unless they saw it, and they weren’t going to see it unless it was built,” Koenig said in James Steel’s monograph. “[Entenza’s] talent was to promulgate ideas that many architects had at that time.”

In conjunction with the magazine, Entenza sponsored open houses at recently completed Case Study houses, giving visitors the opportunity to experience the modern aesthetic. Contemporary design pieces such as furniture, lamps, floor coverings, and decorative objects created a context for everyday living. The open houses took on a realistic dimension that generated a range of responses: “Oh, steel, glass and cement are cold.” “This is not homey.” “Could I live here?” “How would I live here?”

The program gave architects exposure and in many cases brought them credibility and a new clientele—although it was not a wealth-generating endeavor for the architects. For manufacturers and suppliers, it was a convenient way to receive publicity since people could see their products or services in use.

The Case Study House Program did not achieve Entenza’s goal: the development of affordable housing based on the design of houses in the program. None of the houses spurred duplicates or widespread construction of like-designed homes. The motivation from the building industry to apply the program’s new approaches was short-lived and not widely adopted.

Speaking many years later, Koenig stated in Steel’s monograph that “in the end the program failed because it addressed clients and architects, rather than contractors, who do 95 percent of all housing.” Instead, the known, accepted, and traditional design, methods of construction, and materials continued to prevail. Buyers still largely preferred conventional homes—a fact reinforced by the standard type of construction taught in many architecture schools during the postwar years.

However, today the program must be considered highly successful for its impact on residential architecture, and for initiating the California Modern Movement. The program influenced architects, designers, manufacturers, homeowners, and future home buyers. As McCoy reported, “The popularity of the Case Studies exceeded all expectations. The first six houses to be opened [built between 1946 and 1949] received 368,554 visitors.” The houses in the program, and their respective architects, now characterize their architectural era, representing the height of midcentury modern residential design.

The Stahl House became Case Study House No. 22 in the most informal way. With the success of Koenig’s Bailey House (CSH No. 21), Entenza told Koenig if he had another house for the program, to let him know. Koenig told him about his next project, the Stahl House.

In April 1959, months before construction started, Entenza and the Stahls signed an exclusive agreement indicating the house would become known as Case Study House No. 22 and appear in Arts & Architecture magazine. This also meant the house would be made available for public viewings over eight consecutive weekends and Entenza had the rights to publish photographs and materials in connection with the house. Additionally, he had approval of the furnishings. (He included an option for the Stahls to buy any or all of the furnishings at a discount.)

Julius Shulman/Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust

By agreeing to make their house CSH No. 22, the Stahls were making their dream home more affordable. Equipment and material suppliers sold at cost in exchange for advertising space in the magazine. The arrangement gave Koenig the opportunity to negotiate further with vendors, since he was likely to use them in the future. Buck estimated in his interview with Ethington that it “ended up saving us conservatively $10,000 or $15,000” on the construction.

The house was featured in Arts & Architecture four times between May 1959 and May 1960, in articles documenting its progress and completion.

Arts & Architecture only ended up opening the house for public viewings on four weekends, from May 7 to May 29, 1960. The showings were well attended, and the shorter schedule meant the Stahls could move into the house sooner.

The Stahl House is a 2,200-square-foot home with two bedrooms and two bathrooms, built on an approximately 12,000-square-foot lot.

Construction began in May 1959 and was completed a year later, in May 1960. The pre-construction built estimate was $25,000, with Koenig to receive his usual 10 percent architect’s fee. His agreement with the Stahls additionally provided him 10 percent of any savings he secured on construction materials. The budget for the house was revised to $34,000, but Koenig’s fee of $2,500 did not change.

The final cost was over $15 per square foot—notably more than the average cost per square foot of $10 to $12 in Southern California at the time.

During its lifetime, the Stahl House has had very few modifications. For a short time, AstroTurf surrounded the pool area to serve as a lawn and make the area less slippery for the Stahls’ three children. There have been minor kitchen remodels with necessary updates to appliances. The kitchen cabinets, which were originally dark mahogany, were replaced with matched-grain white-oak cabinets due to fading caused by heavy exposure to sunlight. A catwalk along the outside of the living room, on the west side, was added to make it easier to wash the windows. Stones were applied to the fireplace, which was originally white-painted gypsum board with a stone base. A stone planter was also added to match the base. The pool was converted to solar heat.

These changes maintain the spirit of the house. Perhaps without effort, Koenig activated what architect William Krisel termed “defensive architecture”: building to preempt alterations and keep a structure as originally designed. Koenig's original steel design, comprehending potential earthquake risk, remains superior to traditional building materials.

The Stahl House has served as the setting for dozens of films, television shows, music videos, and commercials. Its appearances in print advertisements number in the hundreds. By Koenig’s count, the house can be seen in more than 1,200 books.

At times, the house has played a leading role. Its first commercial use was in 1962, when the Stahls made the house available for the Italian film Smog not long after they moved in.

In Los Angeles magazine, years later, Carlotta recalled the production: “One of the days they were shooting, the view was too clear, so they got spray and smogged the windows.” The Stahls grew to accept such requests, and the result has been decades of commercial use.

Koenig explained its attraction in the New York Times: “The relationship of the house to the city below is very photogenic … the house is open and has simple lines, so it foregrounds the action. And it’s malleable. With a little color change or different furniture, you can modify its emotional content, which you can’t do in houses with a fixed mood and image.”

This versatility offers a wide range of settings, from kitsch to urbane, comedy to drama. The house has also been rendered in 3D software for various architectural studies and appears in the game The Sims 3, perhaps the most revealing proof of its demographic reach.

In nearly all appearances, the Stahl House conveys a sense of livability that is aspirational while remaining accessible. It reflects Koenig’s skillful architectural purpose. The architect is invisible by design. Understandably, Koenig was very pleased to see the frequent and varied use of the Stahl House. However, as he said in the New York Times, “My gripe is the movies use [houses] as props but never list the architect in the credits.” He added, “Architects, of course, get no residuals from it. The Stahls paid off the original $35,000 mortgage for the house and pool in a couple of years through location rentals, and now the house is their entire income.”

Once Buck retired in 1978, renting the house for commercial use became an especially helpful way to supplement their income. Today the family offers tours and rents the house for events and media activities. They also honor Carlotta’s restriction, noted in a 2001 interview with Los Angeles magazine: “I will not allow nudity. My Case Study House is not going to be associated with that.”

“Julius Shulman called. ... He’ll be there tonight. Call him at 6 p.m. and make arrangements for tonite. By then he’d appreciate it if you would know if Stahl could put off moving in until pictures are shot.”

This ordinary call logged in Koenig’s office journal eventually led to the creation of one of the most iconic photographs of the postwar modern era.

However, delays with completing interior details almost prevented Shulman from photographing the house and meeting his publication deadline, even after he negotiated with his editor to change it several times. The potential of missing an opportunity to promote the house frustrated Koenig. “As you know we were supposed to shoot Monday [April 18, 1960],” he wrote to his general contractor, Robert Brady:

“The deadline has been changed once but it is impossible to change it again. The die is set. Mr. Van Keppel is waiting to move furniture in. Shulman comes by the job every day to see when he can shoot. Mr. Entenza is shouting for photos so he can print the next issue. The president of Bethlehem is supposed to visit the finished house this Friday [April 22]. There is to be a press conference this week-end. Not to mention Mr. Stahl. This will give you some idea of the pressure being put on.”

After Brady completed the finishing work, and months after it was originally scheduled, Shulman photographed the house over the course of a week. There was still construction material in the carport, and the master bathroom was not complete.

Julius Shulman/Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust
Julius Shulman/Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust

The color image of the two women sitting in the house with the city lights at night first appeared on the cover of the July 17, 1960, Los Angeles Examiner Pictorial Living section, a pull-out section in the Sunday edition of the newspaper. The article about the house, “Milestone on a Hilltop,” also included additional Shulman photographs.

By the time Shulman photographed the Stahl House he was an internationally recognized photographer. He was indirectly becoming a documentarian, historian, participant, witness, and promulgator of modern architecture and design in Los Angeles.

The Stahl House photograph, taken Monday, May 9, 1960, has the feel of a Saturday night, projecting enjoyment and life in a modern home. Shulman reinforces the open but private space by minimizing the separation of indoor and outdoor. The photograph achieves a visual balance through lighting that is both conventional and dramatic. As with much of Shulman’s signature work, horizontal and vertical lines and corners appear in the frame to create depth and direct the viewer’s eye, creating a dimensional perspective instead of a flat, straightforward position. The effect is a narrative that emphasizes Koenig’s architecture.

“What’s so amazing is that the house is completely ethereal,” architect Leo Marmol said in an interview with LaFetra in 2007. “It’s almost as though it’s not there. We talk about it as though it’s a photograph of an architectural expression but really, there’s very little architecture and space. It’s a view. It’s two people. It’s a relationship.”

Shulman recalled how the image came about in an interview with Taina Rikala De Noriega for the Archives of American Art:

So we worked, and it got dark and the lights came on and I think somebody had brought sandwiches. We ate in the kitchen, coffee, and we had a nice pleasant time. My assistant and I were setting up lights and taking pictures all along. I was outside looking at the view. And suddenly I perceived a composition. Here are the elements. I set up the furniture and I called the girls. I said, “Girls. Come over sit down on those chairs, the sofa in the background there.” And I planted them there, and I said, “You sit down and talk. I'm going outside and look at the view.” And I called my assistant and I said, “Hey, let's set some lights.” Because we used flash in those days. We didn't use floodlights. We set up lights, and I set up my camera and created this composition in which I assembled a statement. It was not an architectural quote-unquote “photograph.” It was a picture of a mood.

The two girls in the photograph were Ann Lightbody, a 21-year-old UCLA student, and her friend, Cynthia Murfee (now Tindle), a senior at Pasadena High School. At Shulman’s suggestion, Koenig told his assistant Jim Jennings, a USC architecture student, and his friend, fellow architecture student Don Murphy, to bring their girlfriends to the house. Shulman liked to include people in his photographs and intuitively felt the girls’ presence would offer more options. As for their white dresses, Tindle explains, “… in 1960, you didn't go out without wearing a dress. You would never have gone out wearing jeans or pants.”

In a rare explanation of the mechanics of his photography published in Los Angeles Magazine, Shulman described how he created the photograph: a double-exposure with two images captured on one negative with his Sinar 4x5 camera. He took the first image, a 7.5-minute exposure of the cityscape, while the girls sat still inside the house with the lights off. To ensure deep focus, he used a smaller lens opening (F/32) for the long exposure. After the exposure, Leland Lee, Shulman’s assistant, replaced the light bulbs in the globe-shaped ceiling lights with flash bulbs. Shulman then captured the second exposure, triggering the flash bulbs as the girls posed. The composite image belies Shulman’s technical and aesthetic achievement.

The same technique was applied when he photographed the man wearing the light-blue sport coat looking out over the city with his back to the camera. This photograph creates its own mystique around the man’s identity: perhaps a bachelor in repose, or homeowner Buck Stahl. But in fact, he was neither. The photograph was a pragmatic solution.

“We had been working all day photographing the house,” Shulman explained. “The representative from Bethlehem Steel was at the house. Bethlehem Steel provided the steel, and he was there to select certain areas they wanted to show for advertising. Pierre [Koenig] suggested we photograph the representative in the house, but the man from Bethlehem Steel could not be photographed as an employee of the company, so he stood in the doorway with his back to the camera.”

Julius Shulman/Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust

Shulman routinely staged interiors using furniture from his own home, particularly when a house was just completed or vacant. He believed realistic settings created warmth and helped viewers imagine scale. Placement of furniture could convey a clearer sense of life in a particular house and highlight the architecture. Although the Stahl House was vacant, Shulman did not bring in his own furniture. Instead, designer Hendrik Van Keppel of the firm Van Keppel-Green furnished the interiors in keeping with Koenig’s feeling that “everything in the house should be designed consistently with the same design throughout.”

Keppel-Green’s popular outdoor furniture, made with anodized metal frames and wrapped with nylon marine cord, are seen around the pool of the Stahl House. Although VKG sold “architectural pottery” in their design gallery, many of the large white planters both inside and outside the house were Koenig’s, which he brought over from his own house along with several outdoor pieces. For the interior, Van Keppel selected a different line of metal VKG pieces to parallel the thin lines of Koenig’s architecture. The furniture and other household goods made of steel and aluminum reflected the materials used in the construction.

Other pieces included a couch; a coffee table; side tables by Greta Grossman, made by Brown Saltman; and a chair, ottoman, and chaise by Stanley Young, made by Glenn of California. For the kitchen, Van Keppel arranged a set of Scandinavian pieces: Herbert Krenchel’s Krenit bowls made by Normann Copenhagen, Kobenstyle cookware by Jens Quistgaard for Dansk, and Descoware pans from Belgium.

Van Keppel placed the high-fidelity audio player in the dining area. The unit was from the A.E. Rediger Furniture Company, which also provided the kitchen appliances. The Prescolite lighting company, whose products ranged from commercial and industrial products down to desk lamps, provided the three large white-glass hanging globe lights: two inside, one outside (more than 55 years later, only the outside globe has been replaced).

The Stahls had the option to buy the furnishings, but as their daughter later said in a Los Angeles Times story about the house, “My mother always said she wished they would have left it, but my parents didn't have the money at the time.”

The popularity of Shulman’s photograph with the two girls speaks to the era’s postwar optimism and could be said to represent aspirational middle class ideals. Shulman received a variety of accolades for the photograph beginning in 1960, when he won first prize in the color category for architectural photography from the Architects Institute of America—the first time the AIA gave an award for a color photograph. As part of a traveling program arranged through the Smithsonian Institution, hundreds of people saw the photograph at nearly a dozen museums and university art galleries across the country from 1962 to 1964.

Then, as now, the photograph with the two girls is more often associated with its photographer than with the architect. “People request the photograph, or an editor or publisher writing to me or calling me says, ‘I want the picture of the two girls,’” Shulman explains. “They don’t say the Pierre Koenig house. All they ask is the picture of the two girls. That’s what creates an impact. This picture is now the most widely published architectural picture in the world since it was taken in 1960.”

That was not always the case. After the photograph first appeared as the cover for the Los Angeles Examiner Pictorial Living section, it virtually disappeared. Koenig told LaFetra: “That was the last of it until Reyner Banham was going through Julius’s file and he saw the picture of the two girls and he said ‘Oh, I like this. Can I use this?’ and Julius said, ‘Sure.’ [Banham] used it in one of his articles and it took off, it just caught on like crazy.” The photograph resurfaced in Banham’s essential 1971 book, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.

Smog, the first Italian film produced in the United States, as noted by the New York Times, was shot entirely in Los Angeles.

The story’s central character is a formal, class-conscious, wealthy Italian lawyer played by Enrico Maria Salerno. En route to Mexico for a divorce case, he arrives at LAX for an extended layover. A representative from the airline encourages him to leave the airport and return later for his flight. He begins a 24-hour odyssey that involves meeting several Italians making new lives for themselves, having left Italy and its postwar political and economic struggles.

One of the expatriates Salerno meets in Hollywood is a woman, played by Annie Girardot, who is conflicted by her independence. The Stahl House features prominently as Girardot’s home. To varying degrees, the characters, especially Salerno and Girardot, struggle with the contradictions of modern life and tradition, resulting in feelings of alienation, hope, and despair. Emotionally, Smog is an Italian story transplanted to Los Angeles, where the characters’ psychological landscape parallels the topography of the city, incorporating the city’s air pollution as a character.

Curiously, the film credits an entirely different residence—the Geodesic Dome House designed by Bernard Judge—and that property’s owner, industrial designer Hendrik de Kanter. Neither the Stahls, their home, nor Koenig are acknowledged. Along with Judge’s appearance in a party scene, the error perpetuates the misidentification of the Stahl House in the film.

CSH No. 22 remains virtually unchanged since Smog was released. Its countless media appearances since then continue to convey the ideals and lifestyle represented by the house. Its influence is cross-generational and international: Instead of perpetuating an architectural cliche of residential living, the house is symbolic and inspirational; its identity and feeling are unmistakable. Rarely has a combination of client and architect, minimal use of materials, and uncomplicated design created such lasting dramatic impact.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler


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