We Remember John
The Foundation is compiling essays and thoughts on John Lautner,
his life and work, to be presented here. If you have comments
you'd like included here, please send your submission to the foundation .
If you don't have an email address, send it by mail to:
3500 Bullock Lane #57
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
I first heard of John Lautner when I was reading the liner
notes to Larry Norman's Only Visiting This Planet album. The
liner notes talked about an Architect who had his office in
the same building as Larry Norman's studio in Hollywood. The
description was of someone who studied with Frank Lloyd Wright
and was working at the Artistic and technological edge of Architecture
and Art. It didn't list John's name, but I longed as a sixteen
year old to know that Architect.
As a young man, some three years later, I began a career restoring
homes by significant Architects while restoring Greene & Greene's
Bolton-Bush house for Ken Ross. I immersed myself in the whole
Architectural world. I worked on many Greene & Greenes
and loved them as art, but always found the floorplans a point
of consternation. I came to know Harwell Harris as a friend,
and to work on buildings by him, Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright,
Lloyd Wright and many others. As I was studying I came across
John Lautner's work. It was just breathtaking. I asked many
of my older Architect friends if they knew John and if he was
still alive. They said he was alive, but that they would not
introduce me, he was a very difficult person.
For about four years I would drive out to Hollywood, park and
stand outside of John's office trying to get my courage up
to meet him. One day I figured "Well the worst that can
happen is he can kick me out and that will make a great story
for my Grandchildren." I walked into a small antechamber
that had Johns signature in gold on glass, through a door and
was faced with a receptionist who coldly asked if I had a appointment
and why I was there. I told her I had no appointment, that
I desired to apprentice to Mr. Lautner and that I considered
him to be the greatest living Architect. She dismissively told
me Mr. Lautner would not meet me. I was so stunned at neither
being received ,nor thrown out violently by John that I stood
frozen and stunned. Suddenly behind me, I heard the flushing
of a toilet and a man washing his hands while whistling a jazzy
tune. [Steve later remembered this was about 1985-88]
John Lautner emerged, looked down down and said "Well,
what have we here?" I introduced myself and told John
I wished to apprentice to him because he was the greatest living
Architect. John said "Follow me" as his receptionist
thrust icy daggers towards me with her eyes. John took me into
his office and we spoke for several hours about Architecture
as a practice, as a philosophy, as a way of life and enlightenment.
He asked about my experience and upon discovering I was a restoration
contractor, let me know that virtually all contractors, probably
including me, were unworthy, He spoke of his experience building
FLlW's Johnson house with old proud German Craftsmen, the best
in the world and certainly better than me. He was delighted
when I failed to object. It was well past dark and the office
empty when I left. I never did manage to apprentice to John.
I did keep trying.
I visited John several more times over the years and attempted
to get the County of Los Angeles to allow him to design the
redevelopment district in Altadena. In fact I went with many
a local City Department Head to meet with John every time I
heard there may be a Public Works project. They were always
delighted and charmed, but they never did hire him. The public
is much the poorer for that.
When I went back to school and was taking basic drafting at
Pasadena City College, I was President of the School Architecture
Club and got John to speak for us. He wore a cream colored
suit, white shirt and iridescent parrot green tie. John spoke
about his work and philosophy in very plain spare terms while
showing his slides. The students were silent at the end of
the presentation. Meeting afterwords, across the street at
a diner, many were dismayed. They had seen REAL ARCHITECTURE. [approximately
The next Monday as I arrived at class, my teacher Richard Rose,
said the Department Head wanted to see me right away. I figured
he was going to thank me for arranging to have John come speak.
Instead he was very very angry with me. It turned out that
about twenty five students saw John's presentation and figured
they would never measure up and they quit. A different bunch
of students were also in class and refusing to do anymore of
these neo Colonial drawings. It was said that I was ruining
the program and there would be an end to the lecture series.
The Department head then cancelled the lecture David Gebhard
was to give the next month. I called John and told him what
happened. That he had single handedly saved the world from
twenty five bad Architects and acres of hardiboard and plastic
bricks. John laughed long and hard over that, it really tickled
I don't know how or where John got the reputation for being
very difficult. In all the years I knew him, he was always
gracious and kind to me and to my friends.
I was the Chair of Altadena's Land Use Committee in the mid 1990's. One of my
mentors in Preservation and Land Use was also a Lautner client, Astrid Ellersieck.
Before our meeting I said to her " Astrid you have that house John did the
preliminaries on, that you never built. I"ll tell you what lets go down
and see him and I'll propose to do the working drawings and supervise it if he
will allow that.?(Still ,of course, trying to worm into apprenticeship) She turned
to me and said " Steve, John died last week". I was stunned and devastated.
I never thought anybody as big and brilliant, as creative, as humanely human,
as John could die.
Frank Lloyd Wright was correct when he said "when a man builds, then you
have him". Today when I go see one of John's buildings, I can see the twinkle
in his eye as he is about to tell you a small joke, I can see his intellect in
the even now daring and new methods he has used, I can see his grace and love
for his clients in his spaces. You can almost hear his deep joyful voice greeting
you as you walk towards an entrance.
James Bryant, AIA:
Some Recollections of My Association with John Lautner
In the Fall of 1959 I attended a lecture sponsored by the
Architectural Guild. The place was the unfinished Silvertop,
and the speaker was John Lautner. I was in my first semester
in the School of Architecture at USC, having entered after
two years of undergraduate work in Liberal Arts. The building
needed no narrative, even though John spoke about it in the
midst of it. For me it instantly expanded my awareness and
comprehension of architecture and the idea of space. Not long
thereafter, early in November, I went to John’s office
on El Cerrito and told him that whatever was going on in his
office, I wanted to be a part of it. I came determined not
to leave with out some kind of employment, even if it was only
emptying waste baskets and sharpening pencils, and not expecting
to get paid. He said to Guy “Give him something to do,” and
so I found myself seated at a drawing board. Since I had satisfied
all my non-architectural academic requirements before enrolling
in architecture school, I was able to work 20 plus hours a
week. At the end of the year John handed out Christmas bonuses.
I came to work the week after Christmas, and a check was on
my drawing board. Every two weeks thereafter, I had a paycheck
along with everyone else.
The group in the El Cerrito office was a tight-knit bunch.
One evening at a social event at the Zebert home, I made a
remark about working in a garage. One of the other employees,
quite German, got very indignant with me insisting that we
did not work in a garage and that I had insulted John. I half
expect to be hauled away by some suddenly appearing SS type
compatriots of his, or wind up in a duel, so defensive of John
Prior to coming to work for John, I had worked during the
summers for a cement contractor, and grew to love being out
on the job while a building was going up. Spring vacation of
1960, I worked at Silvertop, returning to the office afterwards
for the rest of the semester.
When summer came along, after talking to John, it was arranged
that I would work for Johnny de la Vaux on the Malin Residence
for the summer. When I arrived after school was out, the roof
was framed, and my first job was to help hang the siding on
the slanted portion of the exterior below the windows. As I
remember, there was suspended from a 2x4 framework from the
overhang, two 2x12s upon which we walked and did the work.
It was a long way to the ground on the downhill side.
The crew consisted of Johnny, his son-in-law Len, Odie (Otis
Montgomery), and myself. If memory serves me correctly, Odie
was from Texas. He wore white bib overalls, and had a hundred
stories. He could frame anything, with or with out drawings.
Often, working on John’s jobs, it was without certain
drawings or details. That is where people like Johnny and Wally
came in. One of John’s standard notes in those days consisted
of two regular phrases, “CUT TO SUIT” and “SEE
DETAIL LATER.” Usually, when we got to one of those notes,
Johnny would call, and John would come out on the job.
Johnny’s houses were well built. Johnny would not tolerate
anything less than KD select structural framing material. Every
2x4 and its blocking fit exactly, along with every other piece
of lumber. A 16 ounce framing hammer was considered a club,
not to be tolerated on the job. I acquired all the correct
hand tools including a 14 point finishing hand saw which was
hard to find. Years later I built a wooden tool box for my
saws and hand tools exactly like the one Odie hauled around.
Len Malin was also involved in the construction during that
time, and he and his wife were expecting another child. My
dad was an obstetrician, and presided over the delivery of
the Malin’s baby.
I went back to work in the office after the summer, and the
following summer worked for Johnny on a big house in Palos
Verdes (not one of John’s), the Malin house having been
completed, at least Johnny’s part.
While working for John, I built the first model of the Sheats
Residence, the first presentation floor plans and some of the
working drawings; the working drawings for the Akers Residence
(not built- floor plan shown on p. 267 of the Frank Escher
book); some details on Wolff, Tolstoy, and Garcia; an office
layout for Ingo Preminger.
From John I learned about space, and that an idea or concept
was the key. I remember John saying about designing, that “without
an idea, you don’t have anything.” Another phrase
that came up often in the course of figuring out how to put
John’s concepts to paper was “All you gotta do
is do it.”
John’s work seemed to get better and better as he was
afforded the opportunities to do work of larger scope with
Since 1971 I have lived and worked in the Seattle area, rarely
getting to Los Angeles. In 1982 my wife and I made a trip to
LA and spent some time with John, taking him to Musso & Frank
on Hollywood Boulevard for lunch (which had been there with
the same chef for 50 years at that time), and having dinner
with him and Francisca one evening. We had the privilege of
visiting many of the houses John had completed since I had
left LA, and visited with Wally out on the big “Pacific
Coat House” under construction north of Malibu. That
was the last time I saw John, although I spoke to him on the
phone once or twice afterward.
James Bryant, AIA
says: I have a funny letter I wrote to him trying to get
an internship with the Master. He wrote back "no work and all business is a farce" and
wow how the latter rings true.
Carolyn Levine, daughter of
about the construction of a house and store for her father, about life in the
house, about John Lautner, January 2001:
Hello fellow Lautner admirers.
I was born in 1948 and raised, from age three, in a Lautner
home that was located high on a hill in Beverly Hills, California.
I believe our house was John's first residential project, which
is not to say it was any less spectacular than his later work.
The time I spent in that home was absolutely amazing, and the
magic has stuck with me for the past 48 years, as if infused
into my soul. It was similar to residing within a many faceted
crystal. John's creations were not merely buildings. They were
wonderful, profound energies, the likes of which I have not
seen or experienced anywhere else.
Although the house was placed on a flat lot and built solidly
on bedrock, those inside enjoyed an illusion of being suspended
in space. There was never a feeling of being "inside," separated
from nature, due to creative use of glass, curves, and angles.
A perception of endless dimension was achieved through the
incorporation of magnificent landscaping into structural design.
The sun & moon, clouds, stars, trees, plants and visual elements
of weather telescopically encircled outside through lushly
planted heated patios and lawns, eased inside through glass
walls, around and through indoor plant life, and continued
back out, joining inner and outer space in a full, never-ending
circle. Various uses of wood hues and textures, such as deep
redwood ceiling beams, further added to the dimensional quality
of the interior.
Rooms were separate, yet one's field of vision was never blocked.
Each and every room was graced with a spectacular view of some
sort, through floor-to-ceiling windows which seemed to be "not
there." Even with all the glass, we enjoyed total privacy,
as the house was secluded within an acre of mature, lush trees
and exotic plants, and the lot itself was visually inaccessible
from the street above. From the living room looking west, we
enjoyed a view of Beverly Hills, Westwood, and the Pacific
Ocean (even though we were a good hour of driving time from
the beach). There wasn't much smog in those days. So, on a
clear day, we could just make out the impressions of sailboats.
The drama of this room was offset by a cozy fireplace at one
end. We enjoyed a panoramic view of Los Angeles, stretching
as far as the eye could see, from the kitchen window. The bedrooms
were more like quiet, deep velvet, with their adjoining patios
and insulating gardens, sometimes framed with slight hints
of city twinkle. Each bathroom was a different color, with
fixtures and tile to match, and windows, windows, windows!
The den, which was John's favorite room by far, was designed
specifically for my father. It was an oddly shaped room with
a lovely brick fireplace, lined with square windows placed
above eye level. The floor was made of cork, which presented
a textural departure from the carpeted adjoining spaces. A
360 degree revolving circular bar was built into one wall,
and was completely undetectable to the eye when closed. It
was quite spectacular, with its mirrored shelves and walls,
housing all my father's gourmet beverage collectors' items.
(My father owned the first gourmet food, wine, silver, china,
crystal, etc., store in the United States, and invented a way
of wrapping various items nested into baskets that were covered
with cellophane and tied with beautiful bows. John's stepdaughter,
Elizabeth, remembers doing this, as she worked with my father
for a short period of time.)
My father died of a sudden heart attack in 1958 and, soon
after, we came upon hard times. My mother sold our house to
a family with the last name of Cameo. They eventually sold
it to someone in the Rothchild family. When they moved out
and put the house up for sale, I went and looked at it. Much
of the plant life had died off and the interior of the house
was a mass of stark white – white marble floors, whitewashed
walls, white draperies. A gigantic leaded crystal chandelier
hung from the dining room ceiling, and a white bust of Caesar
stood on a pedestal in one corner. I cannot imagine why this
family went to the trouble of acquiring a Lautner home, as
the treatment they chose totally did not translate! A Lautner
house must be left "as is" in order to preserve the integrity
of the design. For the last twenty years or so, Priscilla Presley
has lived where I grew up, albeit in a different house. A few
years after moving in, she, unfortunately, razed the structure
right down to the steel beams, leaving only the fireplaces
and plumbing standing, and built a pseudo- Italian villa in
Regardless of the fact that the work of art that was once
our home is no longer standing in physical form, it will exist
forever in my mind's eye, and I go there whenever the mood
strikes. For, like all John's creations, it was an energy first,
and a building second. I am not alone in my feelings about
this house. Everyone who visited was transported to worlds
beyond your garden variety of "life as we know it."
Recently, I found myself in Barnes & Noble leafing through
a gorgeous coffee table edition of John's work. I was, of course,
in "another world," as is usually the case when I am reviewing
Lautner creations. Within 5 minutes, I had a crowd of people
looking over my shoulder, in a sort of trance-like stupor.
I now reside in Raleigh, North Carolina. People in this part
of the country generally have not been exposed to anything
even close to John's designs.
I have a few lucid memories of John, The Man, from my early
childhood, as he and his former partner, Doug Honnold, were
guys my dad hung out with. John taught me how to draw simple
shapes, such as boxes & circles, dimensionally, as opposed
to flat. Boy! I was sure able to wow! my first grade classmates
with that! I remember tripping around the foundation of our
soon-to-be house, as my father and John bantered endlessly
about how to combine sound structure with heavenly illusion.
It meant nothing to me until after we moved in. Even at that
tender age, I was in awe! Lastly, I remember John sitting endlessly
in the den, staring out through his first masterpiece, in deep
reverie. I often wondered what he was thinking. I know now,
he was not thinking. He was traveling!
Last, but not least, my mother, who is now 87-years-old, has
begun speaking of John and Doug much more than she used to,
which inspired me to type "Lautner" into a search engine on
the internet a couple of weeks ago. That put me in touch with
John's daughter, Judith. Judith in turn, put me in touch with
John's stepdaughter, Elizabeth. These two contacts have taken
on other-worldly qualities all their own, as our lives have
crisscrossed back and forth in very interesting ways. I have
learned that Elizabeth actually worked for my father when I
was 2-years-old, before John built our house, and before my
father had even met John, as Elizabeth's father, Doug Honnold,
was a close friend of my father's before I was born. Elizabeth's
description of my father is the only one I have been privy
to, other than those my mother has offered. It is sort of amazing.
I am so glad to have electronically met these two wonderful
Hopefully, more Lautner memories will begin to fill this web
page. I am waiting in the wings to be one of the first to enjoy
Good bye all.
Sincerely, Carolyn Gootgeld-Levine
Elizabeth Honnold-Harris, daughter
of Douglas and Elizabeth Honnold
Letter to Mitch Glazer and Kelly Lynch, March 30, 2000, discussing
how the Harvey house came
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Glazer,
This will be forwarded by the kind people at "Vanity Fair",
where I saw that superb article about your Lautner house. I
am personally delighted that you are its new owners, and from
what the article said about your conscientious & caring
efforts in its restoration, you have honored John Lautner indeed.
To introduce myself, I am the stepdaughter of John Lautner,
the daughter of his second wife Elizabeth. She and John married
when I was 14, and between my various schools and colleges,
I was a member of their household from age 14 until my marriage
in the late 1950's. Our wedding reception was in the garden
I thought you might like to hear a reminiscence of the true
birthday of your house. At the time, John was having what the
family termed "a thin time"...i.e., only about half a job on
the boards and nothing coming in whatsoever. My mother had
a deep and abiding faith in John's work, and a total confidence
that the good angels of architecture would, in time, provide.
Her rock-solid faith, along with many pots of stretchable meals & deferred
payroll moments with two or three loyal draftsmen (one of whom
room/boarded with us to keep it all going) led to the moment
Since John's drafting room/office was on the same lot as our
house on El Cerrito Place in Hollywood, a conversion of a 3-car
garage at the end of the driveway, we could sit at the french-windowed
dining room and see out over the garden and into the drafting
room windows. We were having lunch one day, probably garbanzos
with the last bits of ham, and John said that a possible new
client was coming to see him at 1:00 o'clock. We all said Ohhhhhhh
GREAT, let's hope-a-hope. As we were finishing lunch, we saw
a sturdy business-suited short stocky fellow with his hat on
straight and a determined gait come marching down the driveway.
John folded his napkin and went down to the drafting room while
we kept our fingers crossed. Time passed...mother invoked the
Architecture Angel...and after we saw (what turned out to be)
Leo J. Harvey march back down the driveway away from the drafting
room, we all piled outside and said WHAT HAPPENED. John, with
an amazed grin and with an upraised big hand flashed that loveliest
of items....The Retainer Check. Further information was that
Leo J. had seen one of John's houses in a publication and had
decided that the best was just right for Harvey of Harvey Aluminum.
He wanted the best, he wanted a house that nobody else could
have or imagine, and he was exacting, picky, firm and totally
committed right from the first. He paid the various increments
of the fee as they came due without protest or second-guessing,
he pored over materials catalogues and took John's judgements
on everything as The Way It Ought To Be. He was, in sum, a
I hope my very personal reminiscence fleshes out the history
of your house...you are indeed worthy successors to Leo J.
Harvey, whose 'clienthood' broke the thin time days and opened
up John's professional successes for the years that followed.
My mother always maintained to her last days that Leo J. Harvey
was, in fact, the Architecture Angel...that he should march
down the driveway with a checkbook and commitment is, for us,
With best regards for continued happiness in the house you
care so much about,