Earthbound UFO Up for Sale

Times Staff Writer

In 1961, Dwight Eisenhower turned over the presidency to John Kennedy, gasoline was 35 cents a gallon, computers were as big as trucks and the Chemosphere House was named by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as the "most modern home built in the world."

It could probably win the same title if it were built today, 24 years later.

The house, which looks like a UFO hedgehopping the Santa Monica Mountains above Studio City, has become a Los Angeles landmark and an internationally known architectural treasure.

It is now for sale for $1.05 million. That may be steep for a two-bedroom, 2,200-square-foot house, but its owners are putting a high value on its reputation.

The house is one of the best-known works of John Lautner, a Hollywood architect renowned for his unique designs and stubbornly individualistic personality.

Used in 'Body Double'

Long a familiar sight in architectural magazines and books, it went before a new audience recently as the temporary home of the voyeuristic protagonist of the murder-mystery film "Body Double." In fact, the house was the scene of a real murder eight years ago.

The house stands above a steep slope, mounted on a single concrete column, which appears to be all that keeps it from soaring away. To those inside, the height, panoramic view and absence of any visible means of support give the impression of being in a penthouse floating in the sky or on the command deck of a flying saucer swooping down to strafe North Hollywood with laser cannon.

The house actually has been reported as a UFO, Lautner said in an interview. Although flying saucers were in fashion when it was designed in the late 1950s, that had nothing to do with the design, according to the architect.

Rather, he said, it was an effort to deal with an architectural problem, the 45-degree slope of the lot, which was a gift to the owner because it appeared to be worthless.

"It's a practically unbuildable hillside with no access from the top," Lautner said. "The typical way to approach it would have been to bulldoze out a lot and put in 30-foot-high retaining walls to try to hold up the mountain, which is just insane."

John Phillips is asking $1.05 million for his striking two-bedroom home in Studio City.

He was glad the client was an engineer, Lautner said, because an engineer "wasn't afraid of an original idea. If he was a banker, he would have insisted on a colonial house on a bulldozed lot." Lautner, a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright who sometimes designs swimming pools that wander through the living room or homes built around trees or rocks, is not the sort of architect who does colonial houses on bulldozed cuts.

Lautner deliberately angled the house pod back from the lower edge of the wraparound windows, he said, so that those inside would not be able to see anything beneath them, to emphasize the feeling that they were floating over the hill.

The house is reached by a funicular, a cross between an elevator and a cable car, that rises about 120 feet up the hillside in 45 seconds. For privacy, the residents can simply raise and lock the funicular, the modern equivalent of raising the drawbridge to the castle.

"The house has an overpowering personality," said the current owner, John Phillips, an attorney active in liberal causes who has lived there for eight years. "When I first came to Los Angeles and was driving along Mulholland Drive and saw it for the first time, I was just bowled over by it."

He bought it some years later after "an architect friend told me it was on the market."

Mountain-to-Mountain View

"You'd think you'd get used to the view, but I never have," Phillips said. The mountain-to-mountain view, from Glendale to the west end of the San Fernando Valley, looks down on the roofs of the tallest office buildings in the East Valley and even on airplane and helicopter traffic.

Phillips and his wife want to sell the house because they have a baby "and may have more," he said, "and this is no house for small children. My wife is always worried about the baby falling down that slope.

"But wherever we move to next is going to be a comedown after this."

One drawback to living in a widely publicized work of art, however, is that architects, architectural students and the just plain curious from around the world want to examine it, he said.

"We will show it to some people if they have an architectural background and write for an appointment in advance," he said, but they do not cater to gawkers.

The house has been written about in publications from Architectural Digest to Newsweek and in German, French and Russian magazines. It was featured in last year's landmarks calendar by the Los Angeles Conservancy and in books including "Architecture of Los Angeles" and "A Guide to Architecture in Los Angeles and Southern California."

"It's regarded as an example of Lautner's way of dealing with a difficult lot and also as a typical example of a far-out, L.A. way of designing a house," said Alson Clark, director of USC's Art and Architecture Library.

There are constant requests to use the house in films and commercials, Phillips said, but he rejects almost all of them. He made an exception for "Body Double" because director Brian De Palma was "very persuasive, and they offered me a lot of money--$30,000 for four days, and it's all tax free because of the IRS code that you don't pay taxes on rental income of less than 14 days."

He said he agreed only on condition that the movie makers not only treat the house well, but that the house not be the scene of any "graphic sex or violence . . . or anything very negative, anything that would do damage to the character of the house."

The movie makers complied, he said.

1976 Murder

Ironically, the house was the scene of a real-life murder in 1976, when its second owner, Dr. Richard F. Kuhn, was stabbed to death in a robbery by two men, one of them a homosexual lover of the doctor's. The lover, Garland Danny Campbell, then 19, and Alfred Toliver, 20, were convicted of the slaying and sentenced to life in prison.

The house has picked up other legends through the years. One is that it was originally constructed for a pilot or aerospace engineer, as an appropriate residence for man who dealt with speed and flight.

That is not true, said the first owner, Leonard Malin, now a Yucca Valley real estate broker.

He was a mechanical engineer at the time he asked Lautner to design the house, Malin said, with no connection to aviation or aerospace.

Several years later, after he was living in the house, he took a job as payload integration manager for the Titan III missile program at Aerospace Corp., he said, which probably began the legend that "the flying saucer house" had been designed for an aeronautical or rocket fuel engineer.

The house had its origin when his father-in-law, who owned a house up the hill, gave him and his wife the "unbuildable" slope, Malin said. A TV newscaster lived nearby in a Lautner-designed house. Through him, Malin met others who lived in the distinctive houses created by Lautner "and I decided that was the man I wanted to design my house," he said.

He presented Lautner with his problem lot and "John thought he could foist this design on me because I was stupid enough to build it," Malin joked.

Built for $140,000

"The lowest bid from a general contractor in 1957 was $525,000, so I quit work for 18 months and built it myself with John de la Vaux for $140,000. When anyone asks me why I built that house, I tell them it was because I had a total lack of comprehension of what I was getting into."

He and De la Vaux, a builder, first had to construct a system of utility poles and cables, like a ski lift, to haul material to the site, he said.

When they ran short of funds after spending about $93,000, he said, the house's startling appearance, with its already apparent appeal to advertisers, attracted financial help to finish it.

The Southern California Gas Co. provided about $25,000 in material and appliances in return for an agreement to outfit the house as a showcase for gas-using appliances, and rights to use both the house and Malin for promotional purposes, he said.

"I had to go around giving talks for six months and take tours through the house," Malin recalled. "Heck, I was an exhibit at the county fair, standing in a booth with pictures of my house."

He said the house was named the "Chemosphere" for promotional purposes by the Chem-seal Corp. of America, which contributed material used in the roof coating and other parts of the house.

Besides its two bedrooms, the house has a den, kitchen, two bathrooms and a large living room, with a fireplace in the center. Phillips added a 550-square-foot, one-bedroom guest house at the foot of the slope.

The pod is not actually circular, as it appears to be at a distance, but has eight sides and is 65 feet across.

It sits on a column of steel-reinforced concrete, 30 feet tall and five feet thick. The column goes four feet below the ground, where it expands into a steel reinforced concrete pad 20 feet in diameter, which goes another three feet down into the bedrock. The weight of the 31-ton pad, and the earth compacted above it, hold the house up, like a barbell with one end buried in the earth.

Lautner and De la Vaux argue that the house is safer in earthquakes than conventional houses because it is free to react to shock waves without constraint and move as a unit, bobbing like a cork on the ocean.

"It's better to have one point than to have four points moving different directions in a quake," Lautner said. "A wave movement, which is what an earthquake is, cracks up a conventional house at the corners."

In the 1973 Sylmar quake, the house "waved around about 2 1/2-feet on each side," but the only damage was a broken glass that fell off a counter, said Malin, who lived there at the time. Nearby conventional homes suffered minor structural damage, he said.

Phillips said the house is also slightly off balance to the rear, and the beams that tie the rear of the structure to the hillside are designed to break under great pressure, so that, even if a "cataclysmic" quake broke the column, the pod would fall backward against the slope instead of tumbling down the hill.

Is the house worth more than a million dollars? What about criticism that it is more of an oddity than architectural pioneering, an ego trip for the designer that cost six times as much as other 2,200-square-foot houses built in the area at the same time?

"That's a lot of baloney," responded Lautner. "It's the best living condition from every standpoint that you could get on that site.

"I don't think anyone understands good architecture. There's so much b.s. written about 'post modern' and 'facades' and gimmicks and styles that there is no understanding of real architecture at all."

He is not interested in the judgment of a real estate market that he sees as dominated by "speculative real estate bankers. Their values are completely different from mine."

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