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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:

Judith Lautner
3500 Bullock Lane #57
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401

Memories (in reverse order):

Gootgeld residence and store | Harvey House | On getting an internship | James Bryant remembers working with John | Steve Lamb on getting to know John

Steve Lamb:

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 1990]

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 him.

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 was he.

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 decent budgets.

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
Kirkland, Washington

Lawrence Tobe

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 Nouard Gootgeld

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 its place.

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 women.

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 them.

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 to be:

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 described below.

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 described below.

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 Perfect Client.

I hope my very personal reminiscence fleshes out the history of your 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, proof positive!

With best regards for continued happiness in the house you care so much about,

Elizabeth Honnold-Harris





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