Step Inside Case Study House #16: The Salzman House

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Case Study House 16 The Salzman House by Craig Ellwood

Case Study House #16 - The Salzman House

Architect: Craig Ellwood (1922-1992)
Designed & Built: 1951-1953
Address: 1811 Bel Air Rd, Los Angeles, CA 90077
Property Size: 1,750SF (approx. 3,200 SF including covered patios) on a 8,408 SF lot
Landscape Architect: Eric Armstrong
Interior Furnishings: Stanley Young

“Seldom in the U.S. had architects concentrated so much attention on the small single-family house as in the Case Study program.” - Esther McCoy

The Clients

Similar to the trajectory of many architects’ careers, Ellwood’s involvement in the Case Study House Program was due to two factors; an earlier project with extensive positive media coverage, coupled with an influential personal connection. In Ellwood’s case, the noteworthy project was his first steel-framed residence, the Hale House of 1951, which – in large part due to Ellwood’s considerable public relations ability - was widely published and admired in the architectural community. The personal connection arose from Ellwood’s earlier stint as a cost estimator for the general contracting firm of Lamport, Cofer, Salzman, who built Case Study House No. 8, designed for themselves by Charles and Ray Eames, and Eero Saarinen’s Case Study House No. 9.  As a part of the contracting team, Ellwood met John Entenza, the Program’s mastermind, and the two men found themselves of similar temperament, remaining close friends for many years.  

Ellwood, though without architectural education or license to practice, nevertheless established his own independent office about 1951, using other architects on his staff for the legalities of production. With the Hale House receiving glowing reviews in the press and a model of the architectural style Entenza sought for his program, Ellwood was asked to produce three Case Study House designs, designated Numbers 16, 17 and 18 in Entenza’s Arts & Architecture journal. For the first house, No. 16, Ellwood’s commission was from one of his former employers, Henry Salzman, who was interested in financing a speculative house in Los Angeles’ stylish Bel-Air neighborhood. Ellwood’s office subsequently designed and constructed all three Case Study homes during the years 1951 to 1958, although only this initial home, No. 16, escaped the fate of ruinous remodeling by thoughtless later owners.

The House

“Of my three Case Study Houses, I think perhaps Case Study 16 is the best.” - Craig Ellwood

exterior of Case Study House 16 by Craig Ellwood

The overall siting and floor plan of this lovely house is simple. It was determined - as Arts & Architecture magazine told it – by the rational criteria of a “ lot size, certain restricting deed requirements, and the selection of view exposures...” As with most Ellwood floor plans, its simplicity lends itself to both ease of use and great elegance.  

The building – a rectangle surrounded by terraces, courts, and abundant landscaping - is entered off Bel Air Road from the east, either through an open carport or along a walkway between the carport and one of the home’s few solid masonry walls, where one soon encounters a north-facing door almost at the exact mid-point of the north facade. This leads into a generous (8’ x 12’) foyer ending in the only interior hall, where to the right (West), there is an immediate view out to the “Living Terrace” and where the public spaces of the home are found. On the north side are a kitchen (with bright white-enameled steel cabinets), an adjacent dining space (12’ x 12’), and a generous utility room. On the opposite, southern side is a broad open living area (16’ x 40’), glazed floor to ceiling across its entire length, encompassing dramatic southwestern views and integrating spatially with a large outdoor “View Terrace.”

interior bedroom of Case Study House 16 by Craig Ellwood

The opposite (East) end of the hall leads to the private rooms – two bedrooms, two bathrooms, closets and the private landscaped courtyards sheltering each bedroom from the road. Like Mies van der Rohe, whose work Ellwood clearly emulated, interior spaces are implied throughout with partial architectural gestures, rather than fully defined or enclosed as rooms. In this house, devices for flexibility are included allowing larger open spaces greater livability for family life; the kitchen and dining areas can be separated from one another with a folding “accordion” door. Similarly the west end of the living space can be closed off from the eastern portion, the “television room," allowing the smaller area to become a separate guest room.  

And to save space in what is a relatively small house, bedrooms utilize “revolving” closets behind their full-height mirrored glass doors (mounted on “Revolvador” panels) with a built-in dresser and vanity in the master bedroom.

The visual precision of this elegant architecture is partly the result of a strict four-foot planning module used throughout. The rhythm of the exposed structural steel frame, giving the house much of its character, is on display, colored with red lead-oxide paint - a terra cotta hue - and presents itself on a larger eight-foot module. The main framing members are 2 ½  inch square tube columns holding up 6 inch deep “I beams” 36 feet long, with 2 x 8 wood blocking between them. The blocking is held up above the top flange of the beams, by about six inches allowing a continuous horizontal mechanical chase above the ceiling.

To express this horizontal component of the frame without having the beams break up the space, Ellwood’s team exposed 2 ½  inches of the bottom flange of the beams, aligning them precisely with the identical column dimension below. This visually abstract neutral frame inside the building, continues into the bedroom’s outdoor spaces, in the form of 10 foot high steel frames enclosing private courtyards in frosted glass screens. The continuity of interior and exterior space is further emphasized in these spaces by the walls of 1x6 grooved vertical douglas fir paneling (Ellwood refused to use horizontal siding, stating wood “should stand upright as a tree”) that run uninterrupted from inside to out, a spatial-material technique the historian Esther McCoy saw as a clear indicator of Richard Neutra’s influence.

The steel frame components were chosen not only for aesthetics but for their practical advantages, as McCoy points out in her book on the CSH Program. The use of square columns instead of the more common H-sections saved $600 in material and labor cost and 3,000 pounds in weight (additional cost). This smoother profile also simplified detailing; fixed glass, door jambs and exterior flashing all required fewer, less complex connections.  

To maintain spatial continuity of the interiors, the solid birch doors are full-height to the ceiling, the same height as the wall panels, and all roof beams are contained within the ceiling-roof depth, to prevent visual breakup of the ceiling plane. The massive chimney-wall is designed to contrast with the smooth abstract quality of both the interior and exterior architecture. An open fireplace faces the living room and on the terrace side is an outdoor barbecue (equipped with electric “Rotir” spit). The wall is faced with a visually heavy, rough stone veneer of grey Palos Verdes in a random rubble pattern, something Ellwood later regretted as having too much contrast. His future homes used only more refined brick for these solid elements offset within the steel frames.  

black and white yard shot of Case Study House 16 by Craig Ellwood

Terraces and patios surrounding the home present subtle character differences according to their location and intended use. For the "Children’s Play" court (west of the carport and utility shed), the landscape architect Eric Armstrong (better known for his Master Plan of the UC Santa Barbara campus) designed a modern, abstract jungle gym of welded steel pipes attached to the hollow clay tile wall. The large west-facing “Living Terrace” with the barbecue, includes a reflecting pool, steel bowls for a variety of flowers and shrubs and, to reduce glare from the western sun, a red-painted steel pergola. At the same time, Ellwood’s all-glass enclosed homes were indifferent to environmental concerns, even during the latter part of his career when energy consumption was a serious concern for architects. As he somewhat cavalierly told Glenn Murcutt, the Australian architect famous for energy efficient modern homes, Ellwood thought “...reflective blinds and air conditioning” were good enough.

black and white interior of Case Study House 16 by Craig Ellwood

When Case Study House No. 16 opened for public viewing in the summer of 1953, it included some of the world’s finest Mid-Century furniture and decor; Eames chairs, Finn Juhl-designed credenza & chairs, table & chairs of Hans Wegner’s, Ellwood’s own design for a bed by Modern Color, and a number of fixtures and objects by luminaries such as Isamu Noguchi, Paul McCobb, Edward Frank, Alexander Girard, Folke Olsson for Dux, Malcolm Leland ceramics for California Clayware, and outdoor furniture by Van Keppel-Green, among others. These were selected by Ellwood and the interior “furnisher” Stanley Young, working then for Frank Bros, but a designer in his own right of crisp modern furniture for Glenn of California.

Neil Jackson, in his wonderful monograph on Ellwood, observes that Case Study House No. 16 was one of the few to successfully accomplish John Entenza’s primary goal underpinning the entire program; that a modest steel-framed modern house, carefully designed and constructed “...suggested a way of living which, for many aspiring Angelinos, was possibly attainable.”

Henry Salzman ultimately never lived in the house and the first known resident - other than Ellwood office staff who “house-sat” in the beginning -  was Muriel Norton who apparently purchased it in 1958 and remained in the house until it was sold in 2002. Sadly, this is the only one of Ellwood’s three Case Study homes to remain in nearly original condition. His designs for Case Study House No. 17 (1956) and No. 18 (1958) have been substantially altered to the extent that their original designs are completely unrecognizable. No. 16 is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the California Register of Historical Resources.

If you love the style of the Salzman House and other homes in the Case Study House Program, we invite you to view our curated selection of mid-century modern homes for sale today.

Further reading

The astonishing story of Ellwood’s life and work can be found in the meticulously researched and beautifully written (and illustrated) book by Prof. Neil Jackson, an architectural historian and professor emeritus, from which much of this article was derived. It is by far the most complete work on Ellwood and is highly recommended to anyone interested in these buildings and the people who created them. It is one of the most readable architectural biographies-monographs of anyone involved in the Case Study House Program.

If you don’t have the space on your bookshelf, or your library doesn’t have this book, there’s an excellent review and discussion about it online, written by the equally wonderful architectural historian, Thomas Hines, in an article for the LA Times dated 14 September 2003, from which I have also taken material.

Other excellent sources are the large format Case Study House Program by Elizabeth Smith (there is a small format version, but get the large one – it’s worth it),and two volumes by Esther McCoy: an early publication on the Program, and an early monograph on Ellwood.  Both are long out of print, but have fortunately been reprinted in affordable editions by the Los Angeles Publisher and Bookstore, Hennessey & Ingalls.

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