The story behind an icon of California bliss, featuring images from the new book The Stahl House.
In March 1954, Clarence “Buck” Stahl and Carlotta May Gates drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and got married in a chapel. They each worked in aviation (Buck in sales, Carlotta as a receptionist), had previous marriages, and were strapping, tall, and extremely good looking—California Apollonians out of central casting. Buck was 41, Carlotta, 24. Back home in L.A., as the newlyweds pondered their future, they became preoccupied with a promontory of land jutting out like the prow of a ship from Woods Drive in the Hollywood Hills, about 125 feet above Sunset Boulevard. It was as conspicuous as it was forbidding, visible from the couple’s house on nearby Hillside Avenue. “This lot was in pure view—every morning, every night,” Carlotta Stahl recalled. Locals called it Pecker Point, presumably because it was a prime makeout venue. For the Stahls, it became the blank screen on which they projected their dreams of a life together, a place to build a future, a family, and a house like no other.
About two months after their dash to Las Vegas, the Stahls decided to drive up to this mystery spot and have a look around. They found themselves gawping at the entirety of Los Angeles spread out below in a grid that went on for an eternity or two. While they stood there, the owner of the lot rolled up. He lived down in La Jolla and rarely came to L.A. In the kismet-filled conversation that followed, Buck agreed to buy the barren one-eighth-acre lot for $13,500, with $100 down and the seller maintaining the mortgage until the Stahls paid it off. A handshake later, the couple owned 1635 Woods Drive. On that site, they would construct Case Study House #22, designed by Pierre Koenig, arguably the most famous of all the houses in the famous Case Study program that Arts & Architecture magazine initiated in 1945. For generations of pilgrims, gawkers, architecture students, and midcentury-modern aficionados, it would be known simply as the Stahl House.
Sixty-one years since its completion, the modestly scaled L-shaped dwelling still exemplifies everything that is Californian and modern, a built metaphor in prefabricated steel and glass for Los Angeles itself. Yet the Stahl House—which began as a model that Buck fashioned out of beer cans and clay—transcends time and place. Its very image, as the architect Sir Norman Foster once wrote, embodies “the whole spirit of late 20th-century architecture.”
You probably know that image, the one Julius Shulman, the architectural photographer, created of the Stahl House in 1960, when the house was barely complete: black and white, twilight, a pair of seated women in conversation, the glass corner of the house cantilevering 10 feet out into nothing except a forever view of glistening, celestial L.A. In 2016, Time Magazine declared it one of the 100 most influential photographs of all time. “If I had to choose one snapshot, one architectural moment, of which I would like to have been the author,” Foster wrote, “this is surely it.” The image continues to hold sway over contemporary practitioners. “That photograph was pivotal in so many peoples’ lives,” the laureled Seattle-based architect Tom Kundig said. “I mean, is there any other photograph that captures in a single image the potential of architecture, the optimism of it? I don’t know if there is.”
Thanks to a seven-and-a-half-minute exposure, Shulman had managed to capture a serenely futuristic, even utopian, tableau. But the shoot, with plaster dust everywhere and a furniture delivery man taking a detour to visit his mother in Kansas City, was chaos. The backstory of that photograph is one of many spun out in The Stahl House: Case Study House #22, a sumptuous new book by two of the Stahls’ children, Bruce Stahl and Shari Stahl Gronwald, with the journalist Kim Cross. (Buck and Carlotta, and the youngest Stahl sibling, Mark, are no longer living.) “As kids,” the authors write, “we didn’t know our house was special. It was simply ‘home.’ ” Their book is a startlingly intimate document, chockablock with family snapshots, that goes beyond steel decking, glass walls, concrete caissons, and the geometry of H columns and I beams. It’s a love song to a global icon that was, for the residents themselves, no museum.
As the Stahls tell it, the house may have been a modernist glass bubble, but the glass had smudgy handprints all over it. The towheaded Stahl kids liked to roller-skate across the concrete floors and got up to the usual youthful japery—setting Barbies afire and the like. Jumping off the dramatic, oversailing roof into the swimming pool was an important rite, one eventually passed down to the Stahls’ grandchildren. Buck would shout for the kids to “aim for the drain,” meaning the deep end, and they would take flight, the turquoise water rushing toward them and sky all around. The pool was the center of everything. Shari once rode her tricycle into it, and Bruce developed into a champion swimmer who broke the world record for the 50-meter freestyle. Carlotta, for her part, made delicious treats in a kitchen outfitted with pink GE appliances. Adolf Loos’s dictum “ornament is crime” may have animated Koenig’s minimalist design, but she went to town on a tucked-away powder room: floral wallpaper, shag carpet, framed embroidery, and plastic daisies. Buck was the kind of dad who built the children’s nightstands himself; the Stahls’ decor was no high-end fantasia of Eames, Knoll, and Nelson. Like the prototypical postwar suburban family, the Stahls made do and got by.
Eventually, the Stahl House, like all midcentury houses, fell out of fashion. But in 1989 it was rebuilt, in replica, as the star attraction of the “Blueprints for Modern Living” show at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, a surreal experience for the Stahls, who strolled through a parallel-universe version of their family home that had been styled as if for a Hollywood production. And then, more and more, real productions began beating a path up to the real Stahl House: movies, television, Vogue shoots. In 1990, the vocal trio Wilson Phillips filmed the video for their hit “Release Me” there, with director Julien Temple evoking Shulman’s famous photograph. For Carnie Wilson, one of the singers, the experience was the apotheosis of all things Los Angeles. “Here we were in a house that overlooked all of L.A., thinking of the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas,” she said, referring to the group’s pop-royalty parentage. “It just felt all encompassing there.” Modernism came back in style and the Stahl House, owned by the Stahl family to this day and open to hundreds of visitors on guided tours every year, became one of the most photographed buildings in the world. The house was even a guest star on The Simpsons. It doesn’t get much more pantheonic than that.
“When I built in steel, what you saw was what you got,” the plain-spoken Koenig once said. What Buck and Carlotta Stahl got when they drove up to Woods Drive in 1954 was more than they ever envisioned. “They simply built their dream home,” their children write. It’s a dream that never ends.
Photos excerpted from The Stahl House: Case Study House #22: The Making of a Modernist Icon by Shari Stahl Gronwald, Bruce Stahl, and Kim Cross, published by Chronicle Chroma 2021.