Knowing the Sturges House
BY THOMAS S. HINES
I first encountered Frank Lloyd Wright’s Sturges House in courses in the History of Architecture at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where I was a graduate student in the 1960s. This was indisputably “FLW Country.” He had been born nearby in 1867 in Richland Center, Wisconsin and had lived as a child and teenager and had gone to high school in Madison and had then matriculated as “special student” at the University of Wisconsin. Long after that he had built “Taliesin,” his great longtime home and studio in Spring Green, Wisconsin, northwest of Madison. In 1937, also in Madison, Wright had built his first so-called “Usonian” house for Herbert and Katherine Jacobs, a small, wood and brick, two bedroom, flat-roofed, moderately-priced structure that took its name from various sources, including a play on “US-ian.” It was followed, in the late 1930s and 1940s, by other Usonians in Wisconsin, and in neighboring Illinois and Michigan. Wright’s similar, though distinctive, Sturges house (1939) in the Brentwood district of Los Angeles is generally considered to be his “California Usonian.”
Selma Sturges on the roof of the residence, 1940.
Image used with permission, courtesy of the Sturges family. Photographer unknown.
When, in 1968, I received an appointment at UCLA to teach urban, architectural and cultural history, I was fortunate to live first in the 1937 Strathmore Apartments in Westwood, designed by Richard Neutra, one of Wright’s already famous former apprentices—about whom I would soon begin to write a book. At the same time, I began to explore Los Angeles architecture, including ten Neutra structures in Westwood alone and not far away, in neighboring Brentwood: Wright’s great Sturges house. Unlike the generally flat sites of the Usonians in the Middle West, I was surprised to find the Sturges residence perched high on a steep lot among rolling hills. Eager to explore this treasure, I unabashedly knocked on the door one day and was cordially welcomed by its owners, the film director James Bridges and his longtime partner, the actor and writer Jack Larson.
Bridges (1936–1993) directed such acclaimed films as: The Paper Chase (1973), The China Syndrome (1979), and Urban Cowboy (1980). Larson (1928–2015) was best known–to his eternal dismay–for his role as Jimmy Olsen, the cub reporter, in the long-developing series Adventures of Superman. He always lamented that he was not as well known for the libretto he wrote for his and Virgil Thomson’s opera Lord Byron (1972). The couple acquired the house in 1967 and lived there together until Bridges’ death in 1993. Larson continued to inhabit it alone until his death in 2015.
Jack Larson as ‘Jimmy Olsen’ and Noel Neill as ‘Lois Lane’ (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images), c. 1951. Vintage print from the collection of Jack Larson sold to benefit The Bridges/Larson Foundation.
Film Director James Bridges on location. Vintage print from the collection of Jack Larson sold to benefit The Bridges/Larson Foundation.
Jim and Jack were the first to tell me of how the Sturgeses were told that it was medically impossible for them to have children and how, as a consolation, they decided to commission a house by Wright, whom they had long admired. It was an ideal cottage for two people, but soon after they moved in, Mrs. Sturges realized that she was, in fact, pregnant. Wright altered the house design to accommodate a nursery. But after another child came along, the couple gave up their dream house and moved around the corner to a larger residence. Their name, however, would always be attached to their Wright-designed home as it went through several owners until Bridges and Larson acquired it.
Robert Imandt photograph of the residence, c. 1946. Vintage print from the collection of Jack Larson sold to benefit The Bridges/Larson Foundation.
Built of steel, concrete, brick and wood, the house is approached from the west at the rear just off the carport at the top of the hill. Visitors could either proceed around the encircling deck to enter through the living room on the eastern side or, as most did, through the small kitchen to the west. With less square footage than the Usonians in the Middle West, the house contains a relatively large living-dining room, two small bedrooms, and one bath on the main level. Tiny stairs lead up to the roof deck and down into the windowless basement, which Bridges used as a dark room and studio. In 1939, Wright had deputized his recent Taliesin disciple, John Lautner, to complete final details of the design and to supervise construction. Both Wright and Lautner created specially designed furniture and other accouterments, such as lamps. Small cabinet spaces were cleverly concealed behind fold-out wall panels. Larson and Bridges would also enjoy pointing out various movie treasures they had acquired over the years such as the actual wrench used by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936).
Sturges Residence appears on the cover of California Arts and Architecture magazine, April 1940. Vintage magazine from the collection of Jack Larson sold to benefit The Bridges/Larson Foundation.
The house was long enjoyed by such Hollywood visitors as writer Gore Vidal and director John Houseman as well as by actors Jane Fonda and Debra Winger, who starred in Bridges’ films and continued to be friends. Jack and Jim also seemed happy to open the house to admiring architecture people such as historians Vincent Scully and Colin Rowe, museum curators Arthur Drexler and Carter Brown, and architects Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Richard Weinstein, Jaque Robertson and Frank Israel. The house thus had several incarnations in the public imagination, first, as it was initially published in the Forties and Fifties and again in later years after it had become so famous that it seemed indispensable to any publication on Wright or on modernist Los Angeles.
It remains a vitally significant monument in the history of both.
Pedro E. Guerrero photograph of the residence, 1947.
Vintage print from the collection of Jack Larson sold to benefit The Bridges/Larson Foundation. © 2016 Pedro E. Guerrero Archives.