Next-Best-Architect-on-Earth: John Lautner and the History of The Sturges Residence

BY FRANK ESCHER

“Good news! I have complete charge of building the Sturgis [sic] house for Mr. Wright—he was here the other day. It is a beautiful house.”

—JOHN LAUTNER, LETTER TO HIS PARENTS, JUNE, 1939

In November of 1963 John Lautner visited the Sturges House with a prospective buyer. The buyer, an accomplished organist, asked Lautner about raising the house’s famously low ceiling to accommodate a pipe organ. Lautner agreed it could be done. In the end, the organist instead had Charles Moore build a magnificent house around his pipe organ, and although the roof of the Sturges House stayed where it was, the episode illustrates Lautner’s belief that a house could and should be adapted to suit an owner’s needs.

John Lautner Portrait by Julius Shulman, © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

John Lautner portrait by Julius Shulman
© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

John Lautner, a Taliesin apprentice from 1933 to 1938, and Frank Lloyd Wright had a relationship of great mutual respect. Wright referred to Lautner in letters to clients as “my boy” and, according to photographer Julius Shulman, considered Lautner to be the “Next-Best-Architect-on-Earth.” Lautner, on the other hand, referred to his mentor respectfully to the end of his days as “Mr. Wright.” After leaving Taliesin and settling in Los Angeles in March of 1938, Lautner continued for years to work with and for Wright, supervising projects and designing—with Wright’s permission—buildings for Wright’s clients: the Bell (1941) and Mauer (1946) Houses both replaced earlier Wright designs. Of the Los Angeles projects Wright and Lautner worked on together, the Sturges House is the most important.

In September of 1938 the Sturgeses bought their land for $10. Lautner approved of the small and steep lot, and Wright produced his first drawings for the project in January 1939. He would call it “one of the simplest things we have done and one of the best.” A vertical mass of solid, brick-veneered concrete, its foundation and hearth connect earth, fire, and heaven, dramatically spreading to a horizontal timber structure. A few subtle refinements were made to the original design—support brackets for the great cantilever disappeared into the terrace’s sloped underside; the roof was extended to the south and beyond the terrace giving the small building compositional tension and elegance. After Wright visited Los Angeles in June of 1939, Lautner wrote enthu­siastically to his parents, “Good news! I have complete charge of building the Sturgis [sic] house for Mr. Wright—he was here the other day. It is a beautiful house.” By August 21, Lautner reported with great confidence: “We will start the Sturges house next week—should finish in three months.” The “Application for the Erection of a Building” lists Frank Lloyd Wright as the “Certified Architect,” Mark Falk as the “Licensed Engineer” and, originally, John Lautner as the “Licensed Contractor,” although he was not. Lautner’s name was crossed out and changed to Paul Speer, the contractor who subsequently built for Wright and Lautner various small projects on the Arch Oboler estate (1940–41), Lautner’s own house in Silver Lake (1940), and several of his post-war commercial and residential projects. A building permit was issued on August 29, 1939. Construction moved along quickly, and the Sturgeses were able to move in by the end of the year.

Jack Larson on the occasion of purchasing the Sturges Residence, c. 1967. Photo by Betty Freeman. Vintage print from the collection of Jack Larson sold to benefit The Bridges/Larson Foundation.

Jack Larson on the occasion of purchasing the Sturges Residence, c. 1967. Photo by Betty Freeman.
Vintage print from the collection of Jack Larson sold to benefit The Bridges/Larson Foundation.

James Bridges on the occasion of purchasing the Sturges Residence, c. 1967. Photo by Betty Freeman. Vintage print from the collection of Jack Larson sold to benefit The Bridges/Larson Foundation.

James Bridges on the occasion of purchasing the Sturges Residence, c. 1967. Photo by Betty Freeman.
Vintage print from the collection of Jack Larson sold to benefit The Bridges/Larson Foundation.

It is no great secret, however, that construction was not a smooth process. First and famously, Wright’s structural conception, which consisted purely of concrete, brick, and wood, was not acceptable to the building department: steel beams were introduced to replace the timber joists and diagonal braces. Next, the solid mass of concrete was re-engineered to comprise a series of hollow cells. While Falk’s name still appears on an additional permit (October 3), Lautner’s drawings were checked and revised by a new engineer, Sidney Bamberger. Bamberger is also listed as the engineer on a third permit (November 15), a small revision to add a “4 inch pipe column + 3 inch x 3 inch [angles] over stairway.” Wright, understandably, was not happy to compromise the purity of his design. But the necessary change also dramatically increased the cost from an estimated $7,000 to $11,000. Sturges, unfairly, complained that “John [Lautner] is not a great overseer! Money does not exist for him.” Almost immediately after completion a new problem appeared: the house leaked. Lautner did some repair work on the house in 1941, but ultimately Wright and several apprentices brought from Taliesin had to make the final repairs in March of 1942.

Photographs of restoration of the residence, supervised by John Lautner, 1972. Photographer unknown. Vintage prints from the collection of Jack Larson sold to benefit The Bridges/Larson Foundation.

Photographs of restoration of the residence, supervised by John Lautner, 1972. Photographer unknown.
Vintage prints from the collection of Jack Larson sold to benefit The Bridges/Larson Foundation.

It was then that Wright developed plans for an addition: a beautiful, small, and elongated building extending from the loggia would occupy the enclosed parking area (a new car shelter would be added along the westerly property line). The same battered wooden walls would enclose a double-height space with a large glazed alcove to the south, towards the view, with sleeping areas beneath and work areas on the mezzanine level above.

The Sturgeses remained in the house until 1951. It had three additional owners before it was finally acquired by Jack Larson and James Bridges, who had Lautner himself return to the house in 1969 to oversee restoration during the next several years. The wood, painted black by a previous owner, had to be sandblasted to return it to its original color, not without losing its smooth texture; a shade structure on the terrace, visible in Shulman’s early 1960s photos, was removed; and the kitchen area was slightly reconfigured. Lautner also installed a beautiful storage wall, comprising panels which slide and fold to reveal shelves and drawers, at one end of the living room. This work was probably done by Wally Niewiadomski, a master builder who worked on some of Lautner’s most important buildings.

The house was then at its most elegant, and Lautner’s career was at its zenith at the end of a decade that saw the completion of such designs as his Chemosphere (1960), the Wolff House (1961)—commissioned by interior designer Marco Wolff specifically to emulate Wright’s architectural language—the Silvertop and Sheats Houses (now Sheats/Goldstein) (1963), the Elrod and Stevens Houses (1968), and the Walstrom House (1969). In 1971 John Lautner was made a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects while working on one of his most important commissions: the Marbrisa House (1973).

The Sturges Residence is included in the Cultural Heritage Foundation  walking tour of Frank Lloyd Wright structures, May–June 1974.  Vintage brouchure from the collection of Jack Larson sold to benefit The Bridges/Larson Foundation.

The Sturges Residence is included in the Cultural Heritage Foundation walking tour of Frank Lloyd Wright structures, May–June 1974.Vintage brouchure from the collection of Jack Larson sold to benefit The Bridges/Larson Foundation.

Around ten years later Lautner returned to the Sturges House to oversee the reconstruction of the northeast corner of the terrace, damaged by a falling eucalyptus tree. This time the work was done by the young Robin Poirier, a trusted Lautner builder who would, years later, build Lautner’s exquisite Goldstein office (an interior space now awaiting reinstallation at LACMA). Poirier managed to source old redwood boards with the original and correct dimensions from the yard that had supplied the original lumber in 1939. Lautner’s last involvement with the house came in August 1981 as a series of studies for an extension occupying the approximate location of Wright’s 1942 addition. Sketches for two designs exist in the Lautner Archive, now at the Getty Research Institute. The first conceives of a linear attachment to the original carport with a studio for work, music, and guests, opening to a rectangular patch of grass within a brick terrace—falling in line with the brick support of the main house—from which cantilevers a rectangular pool. A second scheme shows a separate, squarish studio tucked against the southerly and westerly property lines with an orange grove and grass area set into the brick plinth from which, too, cantilevers a pool.

Jack Larson, 1978. Photo by Ulvis Alberts. Vintage print from the collection of Jack Larson sold to benefit The Bridges/Larson Foundation.

Jack Larson, 1978. Photo by Ulvis Alberts.
Vintage print from the collection of Jack Larson sold to benefit The Bridges/Larson Foundation.

In the Lautner Archive is also a pastel drawing of the Sturges House. For years this drawing hung on the wall of Lautner’s personal office opposite his desk, amidst a collection of favorite photos, paintings, and prints, giving a glimpse into Lautner’s inner world.

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