A Mayan temple, a murder mystery, and a semi-famous architect. That’s not a movie pitch—it’s the backstory of a recent home listing in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles.
The nefarious John Sowden House, a brooding Mayan-inspired estate designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son Lloyd Wright, is on the market again for $4.8 million. The unusual mansion has been a popular Hollywood shooting location for projects like the Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator, The Rocketeer, and the Showtime series Californication, but it’s infamously known as the alleged crime scene of the gruesome, unsolved 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. “The Black Dahlia”—a subject that’s inspired countless books and movies. Only in Hollywood.
The infamous house was once owned by George Hill Hodel, considered a prime suspect in the notorious murder. As recent as 2013, a cadaver dog detected the “scent of death” (human decomposition) in the home’s basement—all these years later. Until the crime is solved, the murder will likely overshadow the curious architectural story.
The 5,600-square-foot home certainly has a unique pedigree and the new owner will have many stories to tell while entertaining nervous guests. The estate boasts four bedrooms and six bathrooms with stone fireplaces, glass walls that open to an extravagant courtyard garden—lush with beautiful flowers and vegetation—that connects to all areas of the home. A pool and koi pond (formerly occupied by water fountains which were destroyed in a 1930s earthquake) adds a nice touch just off the master bedroom.
Designed in a peculiar “Mayan Revival” style, the Sowden estate is considered one of Wright’s architectural masterpieces (a far better legacy than the wood roof shell he originally constructed for the Hollywood Bowl which only lasted one year). Built in 1927, the home makes extensive use of textile block to create its iconic Mayan-style façade—created to resemble a Mayan temple (or fortress) from the street. Locals often call it the “Jaw’s House” because it resembles an open mouth of a great white shark. Others see a sinister eyes façade which evokes a cultish aura.
Wright’s world famous architect father, Frank, often employed similar ornamented concrete block techniques, a method that surely rubbed off on his son. Coincidentally, the Sowden estate sits between two Frank Lloyd Wright-designed houses in the hills above Los Feliz Blvd.—the Hollyhock House and the Ennis Brown house.
Completely renovated for modern living, the Sowden home at 5121 Franklin Ave. is named for Wright’s friend, painter and photographer John Sowden. Sowden often showcased the house to entertained his Hollywood friends, who upon arrival walked through sculpted copper gates and up “a narrow tomb-like staircase. The Sowden mansion also has Mills Act tax exemption status which offers the owner reduced property taxes if the savings are used to rehabilitate, restore and maintain the landmark home. Troy Gregory of Sotheby’s International Realty has the listing.
The Sowden estate may be in need of stigma rehabilitation considering its Black Dahlia connection. But as they say in Los Angeles, even bad publicity is good publicity. The notorious property is far from the safest fortress in town, but it is nonetheless profitable. In Hollywood, notoriety sells.