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The Legacy of the Stahl House

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

By Rachel Lehmann-Haupt

Over the weekend of May 22 and 23rd, MOCA+ worked with Palm Springs Art Museum to host a first look at a major exhibition, slated to open in November 2022, celebrating the legacy of Swiss-born architect Albert Frey, who has been called the “father of Desert Modernism.” The two-day event included a VIP tour of Frey House II, a screening of a film by Jake Gorst about Frey’s all-metal Aluminaire House, and a viewing of drawings and artifacts from Frey’s archives in the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center.

The Weekend of Architecture also featured a first look at a new book about Case Study House #22, the most famous of the Case Study Houses and the only one still in the care of its original owners. The Stahl House: Case Study House #22: The Making of a Modernist Icon, to be released by Chronicle Books this fall, is the official biography of the Stahl House and the family who made it their home. On our panel, author Kim Cross interviewed siblings Shari Stahl Gronwald and Bruce Stahl, who grew up in Case Study House #22 and serve as stewards and hosts for the 7,000 people who tour the house each year.

MOCA+ recently sat down with Kim Cross, a New York Times Best-Selling author, journalist, and historian known for meticulously reported narrative nonfiction. Kim offered her perspective on the value of design, preservation (See: What Would Albert Frey Do? The Value of Preservation and Good Design) and working with Bruce and Shari on the book.

There's this magical interaction between humans and built spaces—I call it “the geometry of home.” An empty house is a structure, but when you put people in it, it becomes a home.

MOCA+: Tell us about the panel you were part of ?

The first panel was about architectural preservation. Filmmaker Jake Gorst talked about his documentary on the Aluminaire House, the first all-metal prefab house, which debuted in New York City in 1931. Much like the Case Study House Program, it was an experiment in affordable housing and modern design with new materials—in this case, aluminum. The iconic house was forgotten and vandalized on a college campus for years, and two architects spent decades trying to rescue it and find a new home for it. It was disassembled and transported to Palm Springs, where it will be rebuilt as part of the museum’s permanent campus. Bruce Stahl and I talked about how tours really allow people to connect with architecture in a way that’s not possible in photos or films. When people visit the Stahl House, they’re often moved to tears. Storytelling and tours are an important part of preservation, because you can’t save what you don’t love. No one understands this better than our moderator, George Smart, founder of the US Modernist Archive, a not-for-profit through which he has set out to assemble the largest open digital archive of 20th century U.S. architecture magazines.

MOCA+: What was the highlight of the conversation?

Bruce Stahl focused on the importance of letting people go inside a house and experience the architecture for themselves. His and Shari’s parents, Buck and Carlotta Stahl, opened their doors to strangers for five decades, and Julius Shulman called Carlotta the ultimate ambassador for modernist architecture. Being in that house is so different from seeing photos or reading about it in a book. There's this magical interaction between humans and built spaces—I call it “the geometry of home.” An empty house is a structure, but when you put people in it, it becomes a home. Bruce talked about this moment when visitors walk into the Stahl house, and look out of the windows. The city of LA opens up and rolls out like a carpet to the sea in front of them. People gasp and Bruce calls it “the wow moment.” That's what our book is really about: the intersection of people and architecture.

MOCA+: Is that why the family story is such an important part of the book?

Yes. Bruce has said that if you ask visitors to the house why they loved it, they always say they love the family story. The number one question for tour guides is, “What about the family who lived here? What were they like?” Many people assume that it was home to someone rich and famous, but the Stahls were just a regular middle-class family. They raised three kids in a 2-bedroom, 2,300-square-foot house. For a long time, they struggled financially. When Buck lost his job, they had to move in with Carlotta’s mom and rent their house out to cover the mortgage. It's the only mid-century Case Study house that is still in the hands of the original owners. Bruce and Shari talk about being the stewards of the house. No one knows who they are, but the house they grew up in is famous. Shari books all of the tours and manages the photoshoots and filming days. She jokes that she sometimes feels like the personal assistant of a high-maintenance celebrity.

MOCA+: Why do you think visitors become so enamored by the story of the house?

It's the story of a blue-collar family with a white-collar dream. The Stahls were living in a little apartment in the Hollywood Hills, which were relatively undeveloped in the early 1950s. There were a lot of empty lots. From their apartment they could see a ridge that was being graded for development. On its nose was this one tiny lot that looked like an island in the sky. They’d look at it and say “We’re going to live there one day!“ They started calling it “our lot.” One day, they drove up there to visit it, and they were standing there, drinking in the view, and all of a sudden, they heard tires crunching on gravel and this car drove up. By total chance, it was the owner of the lot who lived in La Jolla. They bought it on a handshake for $12,500, and the owner agreed to carry the mortgage. It took them four years to pay it off. During that time, Buck graded the lot by hand and built a model of the house he dreamed about. Several architects told him the lot and his dream house were unbuildable. Then he found Pierre Koenig, who was just finishing Case Study House #21. Koenig knew how to build with steel, and he knew how to take off-the-shelf parts and combine them in a way that was not only economical, but beautiful. He took Buck’s ideas and elevated them into a masterpiece.

People love the house because they can relate to Buck and Carlotta—regular folks who worked really hard to build their dream house. I think their story makes people feel like they can chase their own crazy dream.

Rachel Lehmann-Haupt is the founder of StoryMade Studio, a boutique storytelling studio that works with brands and thought leaders.

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