Frank Lloyd Wright Hits the Block in L.A.

Frank Lloyd Wright Hits the Block in L.A.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Sturges Residence, designed 1939.
(Grant Mudford)

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) has announced that Frank Lloyd Wright’s George Sturges House will be among 75 lots from the estate of the actor and playwright Jack Larson to be auctioned on February 21. Best known for playing Jimmy Olsen on the original Adventures of Superman television series in the 1950s, Larson passed away in September of 2015.

Presented as part of the house’s larger seasonal sale of modern art and design objects, the Sturges House was designed by Wright in 1939. This is the first architectural property that LAMA has auctioned and the highest valued lot that they have ever presented, with an estimate of $2.5 million to $3 million. The property is being offered in a unique partnership with Sotheby’s International Realty.

LAMA’s owner and founder, Peter Loughrey, took some time to speak to Art+Auction’s Danielle Whalen about the Wright house and the new partnership.

Who was Jack Larson?

Larson may be best known for playing Jimmy Olsen, but he went on to have a varied career as playwright and producer, sometimes collaborating with his partner Jim Bridges, who was a director; one of his projects was Urban Cowboy. They were extremely connected to the community of gay artists and talent in Hollywood, and were something of mentors for a lot of artists, actors, and directors.

When did Larson acquire the George Sturges House?

When a house like this became available in 1967, Larson and Bridges were looking for something that exemplified their interests in all things artistic, it was very exciting for them to acquire. It was a trophy. It will be a trophy, probably, for the next owner.

One of the most interesting things about this house is that Jack lived there for 48-and-a-half years. Living the better part of 50 years in a Frank Lloyd Wright house is unheard of. What it says is this house is livable. People don't tend to live in Frank Lloyd Wright houses very long because they can be difficult to adapt to, but it was perfect for a pair of gentlemen like Jack and Jim.

Jack was extremely private, he rarely allowed anyone into the house. If you come across anybody who's a Frank Lloyd Wright fan or geek, like I am, most people tell you, “That's the one house I've never been in.” Just experiencing it is a big get. All of us have very creative ways of getting into these rare architectural properties. It's kind of like trainspotting for architecture fans.

Where does the George Sturges House fit in Frank Lloyd Wright’s career?

The house is mid-to-late career, after the period when he first came to Los Angeles in the early 1920s and concentrated on textile block houses like the Hollyhock House, the Storer House, and the Samuel Freeman House.

In the late ‘30s, he was more interested in the engineering behind architecture. The most famous house from this time period would be Fallingwater. When he designed Fallingwater he was preoccupied with the idea of the cantilever. The cantilever in architecture is one of those devices that an architect can use to very dramatic effect, where you have something visually that doesn't seem possible because it continues off in one direction and it doesn't look like there's anything supporting it. Of course, through clever engineering, you're using heavy steel beams to project part of the architecture out into the distance. That was not possible with just wood and masonry, but once he started using steel he could develop something like Fallingwater and the George Sturges House, which has an extremely dramatic overhang.

At the same time, he was developing an idea that would dominate the last 20 years of his life. Wright was devoted to a concept called “Usonian.” In the 20th century, Wright felt that America had come into its own and needed a unique style of architecture. This is pre-World War II, before we were seen as a dominant world power. He knew that this is what the future was. In 1939 it was very prescient to him to build the first Usonian house on the West Coast, and that was the Sturges House.

The beginning of the rest of his career is marked by this house because it's different than the masterpiece that is Fallingwater. This is something that was supposed to be for every man and for the masses. The fact that it's only 1,200 square feet and was built on a $9,000 budget was part of the whole idea of this being the architecture for the common man who identifies as an American.

What goes into determining the value of a property like this?

Location is very important. [The Sturges House] is in Brentwood, in West L.A. It’s a neighborhood that, after World War II, became a haven for architectural properties. A. Quincy Jones, the dean of USC’s School of Architecture, and several other architects looked at this neighborhood and decided that it would be an ideal place to create an architectural zone. There are houses by almost every important architect in this area, but in 1939 the Sturges House was the first major architectural property built in this area. It is the beacon of an already well-known architectural neighborhood.

Condition is also important, but not as critical as you might think. The condition of the house is not great, it needs a lot of work. When Jack and Jim bought it in 1967, they hired John Lautner to restore it. Lautner worked for Wright and was the architect on this specific project. It now needs to be restored again, but the good news is that it has all the right things wrong with it. It needs decisions to be made by somebody like a Lautner.

The size is actually interesting. It's only 1,200 square feet, and that makes it very valuable. If this was an extremely large house, then you're limited to who can buy it. There are few people who are willing to live the way that an architectural house forces you to conform. Bachelors or couples without children are ideal for this type of house. Also, the type of person who just wants a trophy and might want a pied-à-terre in Los Angeles that doesn't take a tremendous amount of upkeep once the restoration is done.

It's on one of the largest lots in the neighborhood and has an amazing view of the ocean and Catalina. The fact that it's small enough to appeal to so many different buyers, the location, that's all what informs us to come up with a value.

This is the first property Los Angeles Modern Auctions has sold. What helped you make the decision to take on the sale of this house?

Our brand is known for selling art and design, often design that is closely associated with architects and architecture. We had an entire sale of just the furniture of R.M. Schindler and we've sold the interiors of very important properties. We have a track record of doing exactly this. We've never sold a property before, but there is a precedent for that. Extraordinary houses have come up and sold at art auctions. We thought, if we're ever going to do this, it has to be the exact right property that really fits our brand. This was tailor-made for us.

We are also going to be working with Sotheby's International Realty. Barry Sloane, who is an architectural specialist and is one of the top sellers at Sotheby's Realty, has agreed to handle the legal listing of the property. Sotheby's International Realty is the largest real estate firm in the world for these types of high-end artistic properties. They have thousands of agents in offices around the world and each of those offices is going to have literature on this that they'll be able to show to their clients. We anticipate that Sotheby's International Realty combined with the fact that it's going across the block at our live auction should be the architectural story of the year, if not of the decade.

Nobody knows more about selling this type of architecture than Barry Sloane, nobody knows more about the history of the architecture, interiors, and furniture than LAMA, and it just made sense to everybody to work together on this.

Do you see this partnership continuing in the future, perhaps with other properties?

I don't, it's a special case. There aren't any other opportunities like this out there. Will we do something again in 5 years or 10 years if the right property comes up? Of course, but this is not the beginning of LAMA’s entry into the architectural property business. But this property, an important work by Frank Lloyd Wright, was too good not to get involved in.