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The sordid and possibly murderous secrets of Los Angeles’s Sowden House

A short history of the Lloyd Wright-designed fortress

From any room one could step into a central courtyard full of exotic foliage and beautiful giant cactus plants reaching straight into the sky. Once inside this remarkable house one found oneself in absolute privacy, invisible to the outside world. —Steve Hodel

It has been a source of mystery and chatter since its construction in 1926. The enigmatic Sowden House is an anomaly on otherwise charming and SoCal-bright Franklin Avenue in Los Feliz. Designed by Lloyd Wright, the Mayan Revival style house has been called “cultic,” “brooding,” “a gothic pile out of ‘Vathek,’” like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and the “Jaws house.” In recent years it has gained a new, much darker notoriety—as the alleged murderous lair of the Black Dahlia’s killer.


This story is essentially a story of fathers and sons. In the late 1910s, the young architect Lloyd Wright came to Los Angeles at the request of his father, the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright. Over the next few years, the younger Wright worked with his father on many commissions, including Los Feliz's famous Hollyhock House. In 1924, the elder Wright left LA, telling his son, “I'm fed up here. You're young enough to take Los Angeles.” Take Los Angeles Lloyd did.

Determined to emerge from his father's shadow, Lloyd Wright would go on to a distinguished career, designing avant-garde orchestral shells for the Hollywood Bowl, and creating spectacular buildings like Wayfarer's Chapel in Palos Verdes, the Samuel-Novarro House in Los Feliz, and the Otto Bollman House in the Hollywood Hills.

During the 1920s, Los Feliz was a flower-filled enclave of silent movie stars and middle-class professionals. Retired artist John Sowden and his wife Ruth commissioned Lloyd to design a unique showplace where they could throw parties and put on amateur theatrics.

The result was a Mayan Revival-style fortress, complete with a stage, secret room, central courtyard, and ornamented concrete blocks. The blocks were actually an improvement on the senior Wright's experiments with the form (seen at the nearby Ennis House), leading him to praise his son's “treatment of the block that preserves the plastic properties of concrete as material.”

The unique house quickly became a Los Angeles curio. In a 1938 article in the Los Angeles Times, a writer profiled the home, which “sure makes persons from the hinterland stop and stare on their trip to Hollywood”. According to the Times:

“It's the sculptural style of architecture,” explains Mr. [Lloyd] Wright. Sculptural architecture, it seems, fits the building right into the landscape. One of the striking features of the Franklin Avenue structure is the mass of stone and cement which project out from the roof line. “My goodness, I wouldn't want to live in a place like that,” one viewer gasped.

“That darned stuff might come tumbling down on you while you was trying to open them gates to get in the house.”

“Them gates," are huge, iron affairs constituting what would be the door into an ordinary home. There is no danger of the mass of stone and cement tumbling down. The entire building is constructed of steel placed both horizontally and vertically.

In 1945, Dr. George Hodel purchased the already iconic house, which was so confusing to most average mortals. There was nothing average about Hodel. The suave, brilliant doctor's VD clinic catered to many elite Angelenos, and his friends included Surrealist artist Man Ray and director John Huston.

Hodel moved into the “gothic pile” on Franklin and his ex-wife Dorothy and their children soon joined him. Hodel's son Steven remembered the magic of growing up in the labyrinth-like home:

Once through the gate, you turned immediately to your right and continued up a dark passageway, then made another right turn to the front door. It was like entering a cave with secret stone tunnels, within which only the initiated could feel comfortable. All others proceeded with great caution, not knowing which way to turn. Growing up in that house, my brothers and I saw it as a place of magic that we were convinced could easily have greeted the uninvited with pits of fire, poison darts, deadly snakes, or even a giant sword-bearing turbaned bodyguard at the door. Right out of Arabian nights.

But like many fairytales, life in this secluded fortress was not all white knights and fairy godmothers. George frequently beat his sons in the basement. He also threw drug-infused, hedonistic parties and orgies in his gold bedroom.

In 1949, Hodel’s beautiful teenage daughter Tamar ran away from the house. When questioned by the police, she said she had left because “her home life was too depressing,” on account of “all the sex parties at the Franklin House.” Tamar then accused her father and other adults of raping her during a party at the house.

When questioned by police, George responded bizarrely, stating that he had recently been “delving into the mystery of love and the universe,” and that the acts of which he was accused were “unclear, like a dream. I can't figure out whether someone is hypnotizing me,” he insisted, “or I am hypnotizing someone.” When police raided the home, they seized pornography and questionable objects.

George was acquitted after launching a smear campaign directed at his daughter. He soon sold the Sowden House and left the country. For decades, the house was quiet—the home of the upstanding Mazur family. George Hodel died in 1999. But this was not the end of the story of George Hodel and the Sowden House. Not by a long shot.

After George died, his son Steve, a retired LAPD detective, was going through some of his father's possessions when he found two pictures of a lovely dark-haired girl. He soon became convinced that the photos were of Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia, whose unsolved 1947 murder and mutilation had long been the stuff of Hollywood legend.

Memories of whispers and drunken accusations linking his father to many evil deeds flooded back to Steve. Family members and old friends then filled in the gaps, suggesting his father may have participated both in the murder of Short and that of an an unidentified “secretary.”

Over the next few years, he became convinced that not only had his sadistic father murdered the Dahlia, he had also been responsible for a number of unsolved, brutal murders that had taken place in Los Angeles in the 1940s. And he believed that some of these murders had taken place in the Sowden House’s basement. In 2003, Steve made these allegations public in the book Black Dahlia Avenger.

As is often the case, the sordid new story only increased the house’s profile and market value. Its transformation from private family home into hip showplace had already happened in 2001, when flamboyant real estate entrepreneur Xorin Balbes bought the home from the Mazur family for $1.2 million.

“When I walked into this house, I didn't move,” he told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “I said, ‘I have to buy this house.’ I turned around and walked out and got my checkbook. There's some connection for me.”

In 2003, the house was listed as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. Balbes transformed the house, spending $1.6 million dollars in the process. He added a pool in the central courtyard, covered the interior walls in metallic bronze and silver, opened up the kitchen, and added Asian-inspired statuary and ornamentation.

Lloyd Wright’s son Eric, also an architect, gave his final verdict on the new, improved structure. “It's a mixed bag,” he said, “but most of the work he did is very good.”

In 2011, after almost a decade of hosting society parties, fashion shows, and reality TV productions, living in a bedroom where the original stage once stood, Balbes sold the 5,600-square-foot house to a man named Stephen Finkelstein for $3.85 million. In spring 2013, it was listed for sale for $4.888 million dollars.

So is the legend of the monstrous doctor in the roadside fortress true? After Avenger was published, LA Times reporter Steve Lopez went through long-forgotten police transcripts related to the Dahlia's murder. Not only did he find proof that Hodel was a suspect in the murder, he also discovered that the Sowden House had been bugged by the DA's office in the months after the incest trial.

A transcript appeared to record a woman being assaulted in the basement, followed by the sounds of digging. Later that night, the DA’s microphone recorded George on the phone with a German friend.

“Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia,” the good doctor said. “They couldn't prove it now. They can't talk to my secretary anymore because she's dead.” (No concrete proof of the secretary's existence has ever been found.)

In 2013, Steve Hodel claimed that a cadaver dog had indicated that human remains had been or were present in the basement and behind the house. As of fall 2015, there have been no excavations at the house.

But perhaps the best answer to the question can be found in the following tale. Decades after George Hodel left the country, a transient woman appeared at the back door of the house. She had detailed recollections of George Hodel's all-red kitchen and his all-gold bedroom, and seemed intimately familiar with the layout of the house. “She looked quite old,” the owner at the time told Steve Hodel. “I spoke to her and she said, ‘this house is a place of evil.’”


Sowden House

5121 Franklin Ave., Los Angeles, CA