Populuxe Palace – The 1957 Research House

A Julius Shulman view of Case Study House #22 (Stahl House)

Between 1945 and 1966, a series of “Case Study” houses were built in the Los Angeles area that were intended to serve as something of a laboratory for new ideas and methods in modern home construction and design. The brainchild of John Entenza, venerable editor of Arts & Architecture, the Case Study houses were planned as a way to provide prototypes of high quality modern homes that could be built at low costs. To design the houses, Entenza invited a group of the finest modernistic architects of the day, names like Neutra, Saarinen, Eames, Koenig and Ellwood, who brought to bear their considerable talents to the project. The result was some of the most significant residential architecture ever built in Los Angeles during the post-war period. A generation later, the lessons and ideas that evolved from the Case Study houses continue to influence modern architecture and provide inspiration for new and better ways to build homes.

The great success of the Case Study houses naturally caught the attention of others in the building and design field and starting in 1954 another publication, Architectural Products magazine, began its own series of “Research” houses. Like the Case Study houses, the Research houses started out loftily as a way of experimenting with new materials, products and design methods, but before long an element of rank commercialism crept in with the so-called “Research” houses being used as model homes for the latest Valley subdivision and showcases for the newest in gas ranges and furniture by Barker Bros. Perhaps this is the reason the Research houses are not well remembered today, which is unfortunate because some of them were rather interesting and a few designed by some very good architects.  Honnold & Rex designed the 1954 Research House at 1514 Rising Glen Road in the Hollywood Hills and the following year, the highly regarded Edward H. Fickett F.A.I.A. was chosen to design the 1955 Research House, which was in fact, two houses. Identical twins of Fickett’s design were built at 3624 Woodcliff Road in Sherman Oaks and at the corner of Sunset Avenue and Merced in West Covina (the latter since demolished).  But even at this stage they were used as come-ons for subdivisions.

By 1957 it appears all pretense of noble aims had given way to flashy showmanship, which is what makes the 1957 Research House perhaps the most memorable of all. It certainly seems to be the most fun of the group, a sort of Googie meets I Dream of Jeannie swinging party pad, an eye-popping mashup that may have pleased the thousands of visitors who traipsed through it in 1957, but earned for it no lasting honors from an architectural standpoint. It wasn’t because there wasn’t a good architect behind it. John C. Lindsay A.I.A. was a very adept designer of both homes and commercial structures during the period and was well versed in hillside houses.

High flying architect John C. Lindsay A.I.A. with the third Mrs. Lindsay, film and television star June Lockhart and her two daughters, about to board the inaugural flight of Western Airlines’ “Champagne Flights” up the coast. Lockhart inaugurated the service, appropriately, by smashing a bottle of champagne on the nose of the new 707, something she no doubt later wished she’d done to her future ex-husband.

Handsome, talented and with a seeming devilish charm with the ladies, John C. Lindsay appears to have let his playboy persona drive the train when it came to designing the 1957 Research House. In between movie star wives at the time, Lindsay may have taken to the drawing board after a Mad Men-esque three martini lunch. His house is visually arresting, if not somewhat disconcerting. As Pictorial California wrote, “It is a house that demands attention,” which it most certainly gets. Sited on a steep hillside lot in the hills of Flintridge, the 1957 Research House, located at 1401 Sugarloaf Drive, was, and remains, a dramatic sight to behold. From the streetside, it is deceptively innocuous, but from below – well. Wow. ln some ways it looks as if it was never completely finished. At one point, the house appears to end, but the cantilevered piers holding it up continue on, looking somewhat like the legs of a giant spider in one of the space age horror films so popular during the 1950’s. Beyond that, the house awkwardly picks back up again with a boxlike section of absolutely zero charm that doesn’t relate in any way to the main structure. Maybe it was four martini lunch?

Fifty feet below the house was an “Anthony” pool designed to resemble the State of California.  Surrounding the pool was a rather bizarre group of pool and patio furniture provided by Bob Anderson that Pictorial California stated was “as exciting as the view.” This may not have been mere hyperbole. The odd colorful cabana tents, circus tent tables and strange metal art pieces most certainly steal the focus of even the most sublime vistas beyond by virtue of their sheer strangeness. The item floating in the pool was particularly noteworthy. How could you look at anything else? In what was perhaps his most inspired moment in designing the house, Lindsay arranged for access to the pool to be made by either stairs in the old-fashioned way or by slipping into an “exclusive” miniature elevator. Why go any way else? Just be 150 lbs. or less.

For the record, “the basic contemporary theme is dramatically highlighted by furniture and accessories from France, Italy, Portugal, Persia and the Orient. Firth’s ‘Tribal Fabrica,’ a hand-loomed carpet in linen white, echoes the linen white of the walls. The extravegantly-proportioned Dunbar sofa is in a striped fabric of watermelon pink, crayon pink and orange. The Persian colorings are continued in the pair of Louis XVI chairs covered in flame-colored leather.”

The interior of the house was equally fascinating, with mammoth walls of glass to take in the spectacular views afforded from the site. Lindsay also sloped the wood-beamed ceiling upwards from the streetside in order to make, not only the rooms bigger, but to lead the eye upwards and outwards towards the view. This was actually a very good and well-considered idea that shows Lindsay did know what he was doing, most of the time. But there, right in the middle of the airy open floorplan space that constituted the main room of the house, Lindsay added a fireplace, or at least that is what it purported to be. A semi-circular wall of Palos Verdes stone, which in itself was not so bad, enclosed a sunken hearth, but then Lindsay added a huge cone and funnel plopped seemingly indiscriminately on top that would do the Tin Woodsman proud. One one side is a jumble of what I’m sure are plastic plants and on the other, something that looks like a globe or, more likely, a portable bar, which would be needed at that point. In between these landmarks were a set of five custom-made fireplace benches “in a galaxy of Persian-inspired pinks, amethysts and coral colorings.” These, or course, could not be blamed on Lindsay but rather on his partner in crime, the home’s interior decorator, an equally dashing young man with the Ted Casablanca-ish name of Gregg Juarez.

Juarez in work clothes preparing his “subtle” designs for the Research House.

One of the hot young designers at Barker Bros., Gregg Juarez  was the child of an old California family, born of wealth, taste and culture. Before entering the design field he had done time as an actor and publicity man, both of which, no doubt aided in his decorating efforts. For the 1957 Research House, Juarez, along with partner Robert Esterson, pulled out all the stops with a highly colorful and eclectic mix of modern and antique pieces, which were combined “in a clever and subtle manner.” Clever? Perhaps. Subtle? No. No. No. But please, don’t trust my opinion. Let’s take a stroll through the 1957 Research House together, shall we? And you can decide for yourself.

You’ve seen the living room. Here’s the dining room, which opens to an outdoor dining terrace, another good move by John Lindsay. The color scheme here is off-white carpet with an antique French cast iron table surrounded by Louis XVI chairs painted pale pink and upholstered in pink and orange striped taffeta. Oy! Lots of gold accents, fake plants and mirrors complete the effect, described in the press of the day as “great delicacy and beauty.”

The home featured ten large rooms. Here is the master suite, done in a style befitting one of the queens on a playing card. The main color scheme here is gold. The French Toile bed of Louis Philippe style is covered with a custom-made spread of gold brocade. The trompe l’oeil desk is of Venetian design. A large plastic palm tree presides over the room. Please note the “subtle” lamp design.

Another view of the master suite showing the floor-to-ceiling windows. The corner room has views in two directions, credit to John Lindsay for that touch.

The guest room featured an antique French Directorie bed with a cover of green and blue stripes. The room is carpeted in gold broadloom. It is uncertain whether it is John Lindsay or Gregg Juarez who should get the credit for the large clover-patterned alumium screens that pop up indiscriminately in different parts of the house.

The home’s “New Freedom” kitchen featured double gas O’Keefe & Merritt ovens. The floor is walnut parquet and the tile work is a sort of spumoni color of mottled ochre with faint tracings of green. Lindsay made sure the kitchen received plenty of natural light from a band of windows running above the “Tempo” bleached wood kitchen cabinets.

Now, here I think Juarez scores a decorating triumph by facing the walls of the master bath with a collection of old keys. The wallpaper is watermelon pink.

After 1957, there were several other “Research” houses, but they appear to have run their course by the second year of the 1960’s. While not necessarily groundbreaking in any way, the Research houses nonetheless provide some fascinating examples of mid-century modern at its most exuberant and make for really swinging party houses.

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2 Responses to Populuxe Palace – The 1957 Research House

  1. PDQ says:

    Would The Post War House (Home of Tomorrow) – 4950 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA – Built: 1946 (Architects: Walter Wurdeman and Welton Becket) be considered one of these houses also?

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/midcentarc/sets/72157622869490406/detail/

    • Steve says:

      No, it was a separate deal done by Fritz B. Burns and J. Paul Campbell, but that was a good question and it reminded me that I had wanted to do a piece on the Post-War House, which was pretty interesting in itself. Hopefully, I’ll can pull one together at some point in the foreseeable future. Thanks so much!

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