Buck Stahl spent two years collecting broken-up concrete from construction sites and hauling it to the lot in his Cadillac convertible. He dedicated most weekends to building the retaining walls for what would be the front and back of the house. In the Life magazine article "Way Up Way of Living on California's Cliffs," dated Feb. 23, 1962, Stahl is shown dangling "1,000 feet above Los Angeles" from a rope tied around his waist, planting ivy around his concrete terracing to secure the hillside.
That might be the end of the story if it were not for a previously unpublished photo from the family album. Taken in July 1956, 16 months before Koenig received the commission, the image shows a shirtless Stahl posing with his nephew Bobby Duemler next to a large-scale model of a glass-and-steel house. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the iconic design attributed to Koenig.
Is it possible that Stahl deserves some of the credit for the house?
The children say the initial concept of the home was their father's, though it's possible he may have been influenced by Koenig's other work when building the model. Buck Stahl had seen photos of the architect's elegant steel and glass homes before the two men ever met. In a 2001 Los Angeles Magazine article, Carlotta remembered seeing a "pictorial section of the Sunday paper," most likely the Pictorial Living Section of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1956, which featured layouts of Koenig's work. The family archives include an article from Roberts News by Toni Edgerton in 1957 that talked about Koenig's steel homes.
"My dad always wanted to build his own house with a completely unobstructed view of the mountains to the sea," Bruce Stahl says. "I think he's not given enough credit for the initial design of the home. It's not exactly the same, but it's pretty darn close."
Brother Mark agrees, saying that their father played a larger role in the design than history has recorded.
"It was a collaboration," he says. "Pierre bought into my dad's vision but made alterations to make it buildable. In the end, he gave my dad what he wanted."
The CA Boom contemporary design show this weekend will include shuttle tours of the home, still considered by many the archetypal 20th century Southern California house. Show impresario Charles Trotter says the "aha" moment for attendees will be when they learn the extent to which Buck Stahl worked with Pierre Koenig "in this masterpiece of modern architecture."
However, the architect's widow, Gloria Koenig, dismisses the idea that the house should be credited to Stahl.
"Pierre used to say that every client thinks they designed their house," she says, "and this is a perfect example of that."
Architect and writer Joseph Giovannini, former architecture critic of the Herald Examiner, recalls Stahl telling him that he had "given Pierre the idea for the house."
"I dismissed it as typical owner hubris at the time," Giovannini says. However, upon seeing the photograph of the model, he changed his mind.
"The gesture of the house cantilevering over the side of the hill into the distant view is clearly here in this model," he says. "But it is Pierre's skill that elevated the idea into a masterpiece. This is one of the rare cases it seems that there is a shared authorship."
One thing seems certain: Koenig was the right architect at the right time. Others had turned down the project. The jagged-edged hillside lot was problematic, and Buck Stahl insisted on a 270-degree uninterrupted view. He also had Champagne tastes and a beer budget, the children say.
According to family lore, Koenig honed Buck Stahl's ideas into a masterpiece. In Stahl's model, the two-bedroom wing along the pool was curved, with the carport between the bedrooms. Koenig straightened out the curve, relocated the carport to the end and changed the butterfly-type roof to a flat tar-and-gravel roof.
"The design indeed shares certain similarities with what was later built, but Pierre Koenig would never have introduced curving forms into his work, and I'm struck by the pronounced arc of the house's wings in Stahl's model," says Elizabeth Smith, a former curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and organizer of the seminal 1989 exhibit "Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses."
"From this I can infer that Koenig adhered to the basic attributes of Stahl's concept but refined the design into something much more rigorous, geometric and 'pure' in its form and materials -- in essence adapting it to his own vocabulary."
One of Koenig's innovations was to use the largest possible sheets of glass available at the time for residential construction, reducing the presence of framing elements so that the house seems to float, Smith says.
Adds Giovannini: "Koenig suspended disbelief along with gravity when he designed the daring, transparent structure, capturing in a single building what modern life in a modern house could be."
In the end, Buck, Carlotta and their children got their home -- a modern dream house that lives on for them, as well as for other Angelenos for whom Shulman's photo represents the halcyon days of mid-20th century.
"My dad loved the house," Gronwald says. "He never wanted to leave."