Inside the Infamous Black Dahlia House
The most famous house in Los Angeles has a sordid history. On the cold, sunny morning of Jan. 15, 1947, a woman walking her 3-year-old daughter in the Leimert Park neighborhood found the mutilated corpse of Elizabeth Short, aka the "Black Dahlia."
Thirteen miles away from the crime scene is where many experts believe Short's murderer lived — and possibly where he killed her. This mansion, known as the Sowden House, is an architectural masterpiece designed by Frank Lloyd Wright's son, Lloyd Wright. And it still stirs up mystery.
Come take a tour inside the 5,600-square-foot mansion and learn all about its dark past.
A Mayan Temple
Built in 1926 for the artist John Sowden, the Sowden House is one of the most striking properties in the entire city. A steep set of stairs lead up to the front gate, mirroring a Mayan temple.
Tan concrete blocks and a large glass window make up the only architectural details on an otherwise flat concrete exterior.
Some residents call it the "Jaws House" because of its maw-like look.
An ornamental copper gate, which is original to the house, protects the main entrance.
Beyond it are three flights of stairs in a narrow passageway leading to the house.
Those stairs lead to the hallway which, as you can see, is less of a hallway and more of a covered footpath to tour the mansion's rooms.
This historical picture from the Sowden House website shows the home during the 1940s.
Sowden only lived here for a few years. The property had three other owners by the time that George Hodel bought the home in 1945.
George Hodel was a genius and a monster. Born in 1907 in Los Angeles, he impregnated the wife of a professor at the California Institute of Technology when he was 14.
He earned a medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in 1936 and worked for the Los Angeles Board of Health where he specialized in venereal disease and illegal abortions.
A Well-Connected Man
Hodel became known among prostitutes to perform abortions. According to author Sheila Weller, writing for Du Jour in 2015, "desperate women sought him out, providing him all sorts of ammunition" against LAPD officers and their hookers.
He had blackmail on the cops, and in turn, protection from them.
George moved in here with his second wife, Dorothy Huston (whom he called Doreo to differentiate her from his first wife, Dorothy Anthony), shortly after their marriage in 1940.
George was fascinated with surrealist art and made friends with Man Ray, one of the country's leading artists in the Dada and Surrealist movements.
While George lived here, the mansion was known for hosting wild, drug-fueled sex parties.
'It's an Evil Place!'
Life at the Hodel household was a nightmare for Hodel's children, which included Tamar and Steven (George is known to have fathered 11 children with five different women over his lifetime).
Tamar was sexually abused by her father at the age of 12.
"It's an evil place!" photographer Edmund Teske said of the house in an 1978 interview. "Women were tortured for sport there. Murders happened there. It's an evil place."
According to Steven Hodel — a Los Angeles Police Department detective who would later be certain that his father was the Black Dahlia killer — Teske was once George's friend.
Made with Theatrical Flair
Lloyd Wright designed the house with dramatic flair in mind. The center of the home used to house a fountain, but that was torn out before the Hodels moved in.
In 2001, the house was purchased by luxury home flipper Xorin Balbes for $1.2 million. He installed the pool, spa, and made other renovations.
The Old Courtyard
The courtyard looked like this in the 1940s. It's just a simple courtyard, with one stone block pathway crossing the middle and a candelabra tree reaching well beyond the roof.
Eric Lloyd Wright, Lloyd Wright's son, told the Los Angeles Times that Balbes putting in the swimming pool and spa was a "mistake."
The younger Wright added that the courtyard was meant to serve as a seating area for guests, with a "stage" occupying what is now the master bedroom.
"It's a mixed bag," Eric said. "But most of the work he did is very good."
The Master Bedroom
This is the room that used to be the home's stage.
While the current design might not be in line with Lloyd Wright's original intention, how realistic is it to have a home designed around a courtyard for guests and a stage for events?
The master bathroom has been completely remodeled as well. It was also met with some criticism when Balbes unveiled the newly designed home in 2003.
Dana Hutt, an architectural historian, said that there were alterations made to the property that suggest an Asian influence, which was "completely wrong" for Wright's Mesoamerican/Southwestern design.
She objected to the new bathroom, although it's not clear which one. Chances are, it's the master.
Off to the side, the master bathroom has a koi pond.
Balbes listed the house 13 months after he purchased it, putting it on the market for $4.2 million.
It finally sold in 2011 for $3.85 million.
Would You Want to?
Those who believe in evil energy and other such things may want to stay away from it.
George Hodel was accused of raping his 14-year-old daughter, Tamar, in 1949. The scandal made front-page news.
Despite two eyewitnesses to the crime, Hodel's wealth afforded him top criminal defense lawyers, and whatever other strings he pulled, George got off completely free.
'I am Afraid He Will Find Something Wrong with Me'
Even more damning was what Hodel said to the arresting detectives.
According to Steve Hodel's 2009 book, "Most Evil," George told detectives that Tamar and he "have been studying the mysteries of sex" and that "these things must have happened. I need to talk to my psychiatrist, but I am afraid he will find something wrong with me."
Hodel also believes a $10,000 payoff may have been involved to secure the not guilty verdict.
The Suspicious Death of Ruth Spaulding
This was not the only time that George came under police investigation. On May 9, 1945, Hodel's 27-year-old secretary, Ruth Spaulding, was found dead (not at this home) from a barbiturate overdose.
George had recently broken off an affair he had been having with Ruth. But Ruth may have had some dirt on some of Hodel's illegal business practices — like misdiagnosing women to clear them of diseases they didn't have — and it's very possible that George injected her with an overdose.
Tracking the Black Dahlia Killer
George was investigated for the murder of Spaulding and cleared, but the rape trial of 1947 put him under new scrutiny.
During the trial, Tamar said she believed that her father killed Elizabeth Short (pictured), the Black Dahlia. Tamar was, of course, berated by the defense attorney and branded a liar.
But it caught the attention of the LAPD, which knew they were dealing with something evil.
The House Was Bugged
By 1950, George had become the main suspect in the Black Dahlia murders.
Eighteen detectives and cops bugged the Sowden House from Feb. 15 to March 27, 1950.
'Suppose I Did Kill Her'
Transcripts produced from the operation revealed Hodel openly talking about law enforcement agency payoffs and how "two men in the D.A.'s office" were out to get him.
The most damning evidence, though, was this near-admission of guilt:
"Supposin' I did kill the Black Dahlia," he told an unidentified German man over the phone. "They couldn't prove it now. They can't talk to my secretary [Ruth Spaulding] anymore because she's dead."
Then, later, talking again over the phone: "Anyway, now they may have figured it out. Killed her. Maybe I did kill my secretary. They must have enough on him to be guilty or he wouldn't have confessed. Time for research."
George Flees the Country
Less than a month after the wiretap, George fled the country, eventually moving to the Philippines where he started and ended several marriages.
But why Elizabeth Short? Eight people say that Hodel had some kind of relationship with Short, although it's not clear what.
Letters discovered by Steve in 2018 seemingly show that his father was the murderer of the Black Dahlia, as well as a killer of two other women.
Steve says an LAPD police informant named W. Glenn Martin kept a handwritten letter identifying a "G.H." as the killer of the Black Dahlia.
The letters were sealed in an envelope and seemed to be written as a failsafe in case "G.H." — believed to be George Hodel by Steve — went after Martin's family.
The Orignal Fireplace
Here's a shot of the Mayan revival fireplace from the 1940s.
Tamar says her father "used to stand at the mantel and read poetry to everyone and inform us this was God speaking."
As Seen on TV
Sowden House has been in several television shows and movies. It was featured as Ava Gardner's house in "The Aviator" and appeared in "L.A. Confidential." The XX shot the music video for "I Dare You" here, "Ghost Hunters" inspected the place, and it was in season six of "America's Next Top Model."
Most notably, it was featured in "I Am the Night," a 2019 TNT mini-series based on a memoir written by Fauna Hodel, George Hodel's granddaughter.
Tamar is Fauna's mother. However, the miniseries implies that Fauna's father and grandfather is George. In reality, Tamar had an abortion and did not give birth to her father's child.
Fauna Hodel was put up for adoption by Tamar. Her birth certificate named only an "unknown" Black man as the father.
Believing she was multiracial, Fauna was raised in Reno, Nevada, by a Black family.
Years later, she would investigate her family and discover her true roots.
The house has a simple rectangle layout, with the side halls leading to individual rooms. There are few windows, as most of the light comes in from the open courtyard.
The Dining Room
The dining room is a no-frills affair. Recessed lighting has been added, and the ceiling has a curious glass panel that isn't a skylight.
The kitchen was a major part of the renovation.
What used to be three small rooms has been transformed into one large space with a long metal kitchen island that doubles as a bar, several ovens and a wine cooler.
The flat, yellow-colored cabinetry is a nod to the home's architectural roots.
One of the home's rooms has been transformed into an office.
Hodels office — where he was caught talking about possibly being the Black Dahlia killer — used to be in one of the other large rooms at either end of the house.
Another controversial update is the updated bathrooms.
This one is all metal and modern, which matches the kitchen but is also somewhat of an odd choice, given that it's a clear departure from Lloyd Wright's style of using natural materials and integrating nature.
This bathroom also has been redesigned, although it has a vaguely temple-like design.
The Old Bathroom
A picture of one of the bathrooms from the 1940s. It was clearly in need of an update, although the block design flows with the home's design.
Another of what was likely a once-empty room is now a library or sitting area with a large aquarium.
We wonder if the floors are original to the house.
No Pictures of the Basement
One of the things that the Sowden House site does not show is the basement. The basement is where George performed illegal abortions and is believed to be the place where he murdered Elizabeth Short.
In 2013, chemical analysis found that the soil samples contained evidence of human decomposition at the front and rear of the property. Buster, a cadaver dog, alerted the humans to something going on in the basement, although the room has not been excavated.
Still Seeking Justice
George Hodel died in 1999 at the age of 91. He had returned to the United States and died in San Francisco.
Fauna Hodel died of breast cancer at the age of 66 in 2017. She was a writer, producer and motivational speaker on the topics of racial equality and human rights.
Tamar Hodel died in October 2015.
Steve Hodel has written several books attempting to prove that his father was the Black Dahlia murderer. The case is still unsolved.
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