The Black Dahlia Murder and the Sinister Past of the Sowden House
One of the great mysteries of Los Angeles is how a house that has a long history of sexual abuse and murders – including the infamous Black Dahlia Murder – to its credit could end up being named a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. While it was built by one of the most noteworthy architects in Los Angeles, you would think the designation would be reserved for the monuments we want to remember, not the sordid tragedies we would prefer to forget!
The Sowden House began life in 1926. It was designed by Lloyd Wright, the son of the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright fo the artist John Sowden and his wife Ruth. Before we move on, Lloyd Wright worked with his father on a number of projects in Los Angeles including the famous Hollyhock House in Los Feliz. He then went on to design the orchestral shells for the Hollywood Bowl, the Wayfarer’s Chapel in palos Verdes and the Samuel Novarro House in Los Feliz.
The Sowden House is a Mayan Revival style “fortress”. The massive decorative concrete blocks surrounding the entrance have caused the house to be nicknamed the Jaws House. The house is a fortress blocking off the outside world, but opening up inside to a large courtyard. It also has a secret room.
Perhaps that’s why the house was so attractive to Dr George Hodel who purchased it in 1945. Many thought it was strange that the doctor would buy such a property. Hodel ran a VD clinic that catered to the elite in Los Angeles. He was joined in the home by his ex- wife Dorothy and children.
One of his children described the early days of growing up in the house of being like living in a fairy tale castle. But this fairy tale castle turned out to be quite sinister!
Hodel threw wild parties, or orgies with lots of drugs… something that as a doctor he had easy access to. He also frequently beat his sons in the basement.
His daughter ran away in 1949 and was questioned by police. She said she ran away because of all the sex parties and accused her father and party guests of raping her. Police raided the home and found pornography and “questionable objects.”
Hodel launched a smear campaign against his daughter and was acquitted in court. He sold the house and left the country afterwards.
That would have been the end of the story and the house would not have developed such a reputation were it not for a chain of events that occurred after Hodel’s death in 1999. His son Steve, a retired LAPD detective was going through his fathers possessions and found pictures of a woman he believed to be Ellizabeth Short. Short is the real name of the woman mutilated and killed in the Black Dahlia murder of 1947. The case was still unsolved.
Memories of his father’s evil past returned to him. Other family members filled in the missing pieces linking George Hodel to the murder of Elizabeth Short and his secretary. Steve also came to believe his father was connected to a number of heinous unsolved murders that had occurred in LA in the 1940s.
Though he published his beliefs in a 2003 book entitled Black Dahlia Avenger, I don’t believe there was more than circumstantial evidence. That soon changed. A Los Angeles Times reporter read the book and went through old police transcripts involving the Black Dahlia murder. He found that Hodel was indeed a suspect in the Elizabeth Short murder.
He also learned that police had secretly bugged the house after he trial for rape and incest. One of the recording transcripts, revealed that a woman was being assaulted in the basement followed by the sound of shoveling or digging. Another was of Hodel on the phone speaking to a friend. He said “Supposing I did kill the Black Dahlia. The can’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she is dead.”
Unfortunately (or fortunately) so is the good Doctor Hodel so that is as far as this mystery will unravel. You can’t put a dead man on trial to sort it out.
We close with one final mystery. In was in 2003, when the full scope of the house’s sordid past came to light, that the City of Los Angeles declared it a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. Why the city would declare something we would rather forget a monument is a mystery.
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