Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Case Study in the Mechanics of Fame: Buff, Straub & Hensman, Julius Shulman, Esther McCoy and Case Study House No. 20

(Click on images to enlarge)

"The Three Amigos," Conrad Buff  III, Calvin Straub & Donald Hensman, (from Hensman archive).

Readers are referred to Wikipedia,_Straub,_and_Hensman and Buff & Hensman edited by James Steele published by the USC Architectural Guild in 2002 (see below) for background material prior to the design of Case Study House No. 20, 1958, Saul Bass House, 2275 N. Santa Rosa Ave., Altadena.

The team of Conrad Buff III (USC 1952), Calvin Straub (USC 1943) and Donald Hensman (USC 1952) joined forces from 1956 through 1961 for a very fruitful span in their careers. Buff & Hensman had previously teamed up while still in their formative undergraduate days beginning in 1948. By the time they graduated in 1952 they had designed over 6,000 tract homes for developer Harry Brittain in Lakewood and Orange County in subdivisions such as Lake Marie Homes and Dow Knolls. Straub, former Buff & Hensman instructor and mentor in the post-and-beam design vocabulary and now USC teaching colleague, recommended that they form the partnership to avoid competing for the same jobs. (Steele, p. 24).

Straub (with erstwhile teacher and partner, USC School of Architecture Dean Arthur Gallion) was the first of the team to use Julius Shulman's services on his Sedlachek Residence at 3385 N. Beverly Glen Blvd. (Shulman Job No. 491, June 1, 1949).  By this time Shulman's photos had already appeared 125 times in the L.A Times Home Magazine, thus he had no problem getting the work published under his byline in the November 27, 1949 issue with the title "The house with the swinging walls" which included 9 of his photos. (see below).

Sedlachek House, Beverly Glen, Calvin Straub, 1949, Shulman Job No. 491 (from my collection).

Straub's personal residence on Sunny Oaks Circle in Pasadena completed in 1950 was also listed in the 1951 A Guide to Contemporary Architecture in Southern California edited by Frank Harris and Weston Bonnenberger, with design by Alvin Lustig, and with all photography by Shulman. Shulman's marketing skills were highly evolved by the late 1940s as were his relationships with a wide variety of publication editors. He had learned how to create a steady stream of income from his back-catalog of prints, especially for architects whose work he admired. His exposure to Richard Neutra's masterful and relentless self-promotional techniques and contacts developed with editors Neutra courted all came into play as he resold the prints from many of his assignments to the same publications. 

Shulman later placed Straub's Sedlachek House with Architectural Forum and again in the April 1952 issue of House & Home in a 4-photo article titled "On a Los Angeles hillside: three-level house." This was the period that Shulman's Raphael Soriano-designed residence was under construction so he was undoubtedly hustling everywhere he could to finance that project for which he reportedly paid cash. He had at least a dozen feature articles with his byline published in L.A. Times Home during the late 1940s and early 1950s before the sheer volume of his workload precluded continuing authorship.

Revered architectural critic and freelance writer Esther McCoy was a go-between with Shulman and R. M. Schindler during her days as Schindler's draftsperson in the mid-1940s. Shortly after leaving Schindler's employ, beginning in 1947, she and Shulman started collaborating on articles for such publications as Madamoiselle, Living for Young Homemakers, L.A. Times Home Magazine and Sunset. 

McCoy stated in her Smithsonian oral history that all of the Los Angeles architects wanted to appear in the L.A. Times Home and Sunset Magazines. (see p.65).  Through McCoy, Sunset commissioned Shulman to photograph Straub's Brandow Residence for a June 1955 article titled "This is truly a garden house." (Job No. 1877, 11-02-1954 and 01-09-1957).  The article was later anthologized in Sunset's "New Homes for Western Living" in 1956. Shulman pitched the Brandow house yet again to another frequent collaborator, Barbara Lenox, who produced  a 4-page L.A. Times Home Magazine cover story titled "This house was built to fit its landscape" which ran in the April 10, 1957 issue. (see below).

Brandow Residence, San Marino, Calvin Straub, 1954 (from Julius Shulman's press clippings archive). 

During this period McCoy highlighted two of the firm's principals, Calvin Straub and Conrad Buff in her widely followed "What I Believe...A Statement of Architectural Principles " monthly column featured in the L.A. Times Home Magazine in the mid-1950s. Straub appeared in her April 17, 1955 column which also included three Julius Shulman photos of his work. Her feature on Buff followed in the May 5, 1957 issue. 

The Brandow House was on display once again the following month in the highly publicized and well-attended "Arts of Southern California - Architecture" exhibition at the Long Beach Museum of Art. The 40-page exhibition catalog was a veritable "Who's Who" of Southern California's best modernist architects including Thornton Abell, Welton Becket, Jones & Emmons, Ray Kappe, Killingsworth, Brady & Smith, Carl Maston, Richard Neutra, Palmer & Krisel, Pereira & Luckman, Smith & Williams, Raphael Soriano and others. Again, two-thirds of the photos in the exhibition catalog were provided by Shulman. This must have been a heady time indeed for Straub.

All three partners were still teaching at USC at the time the Bass commission was realized in 1957. Braced with his previous publishing success with Shulman, it seems probable that Straub was instrumental in the firm hiring him to photograph the Bass House model as Buff & Hensman had not used Shulman prior to this. This extremely prescient commission was completed on August 25, 1957 as Shulman Job No. 2450. 

It is fun to speculate how BS&H and the Bass House caught the eye of John Entenza for use as House No. 20 in his Arts & Architecture Case Study House Program. Had Entenza been aware of the firm's work through Shulman's photos of Straub's work, had he seen B&H's work in L.A. Times Home Magazine with photos by others, had he seen Straub's Brandow House in the above Home cover story, had Shulman and/or McCoy recommended the firm, had the firm approached Entenza, and/or did Saul Bass approach Entenza? 

In any event, recognizing the well-established relationships between John Entenza and Julius Shulman (listed as A&A staff photographer on the masthead since 1942) and Esther McCoy (frequent A&A contributor and listed on the masthead as an Editorial Advisory Board member since January, 1952), it can easily be assumed that when the invitation came to participate, BS&H leaped at the chance. They probably had very little trouble convincing well-known graphic designer Saul Bass and his wife to offer up their home to the rigors of what participation meant in the form of tours and public open houses.

Case Study House No. 20 was designed, scrutinized and publicized to the world through the pages of Arts & Architecture Magazine throughout 1958. The firm had gradually been making a well-respected name for itself but nothing catapulted the trio to instant fame like being featured as Case Study House Program architects in Arts & Architecture, the chic, avant-garde magazine of the era subscribed to by all the modernist leaning architects and designers of the day.

The 1958 cover art from  pp. 54 of the Supplement to "Arts & Architecture 1945-54: The Complete Reprint" by Taschen (scanned from my collection).

Photos of the model and a floor plan appeared in the January 1958 issue of A&A as the beginning salvo in Entenza's well-orchestrated publicity campaign. (see below).

Bass House Model, Julius Shulman Job No. 2450, 08-25-1957, Janurry 1958 issue of Arts & Architecture (from my collection).

The Arts & Architecture roll-out continued with a two-page spread in July with 11 uncredited construction photos, a floor plan and rendering. (see below).

July 1958 issue of Arts & Architecture (from my collection).

The next appearance was three pages in the September issue which included 5 Art Adams construction photos and a landscape plan by Eckbo, Dean & Williams (see below) and list of Merit-Specified products used in construction and furnishing of the house plus 3 pages of ads for various products.

September 1958 issue of Arts & Architecture (from my collection). 

The October issue included a Shulman photo announcing the upcoming public open houses. The A&A publicity reached a crescendo with an 11-page article in the November issue featuring 22 Shulman photos (Shulman Job No. 2675, 09-22/25-1958).  Ads followed sporadically over the next year but by then the publicity baton had been passed by Shulman to other respected, high circulation publications.

L.A. Examiner Pictorial Living, Nov. 30, 1958 (from my collection).

November 1958 was a big month for BS&H with the above cover story also appearing in the November 30 issue of the L.A. Examiner Pictorial Living Magazine. Shulman's contacts again paid off as he had previously collaborated with long-time friend Dan MacMasters on 13 feature stories in both the Times Home Magazine and the Examiner Pictorial Living going back to 1951. This 6-page cover story "Pavilion under the Pine" included 11 Shulman photos and a floor plan.

House & Garden, February 1962, (from Julius Shulman clippings archive).

Shulman was also able to use his position as west coast contributing photographer for House & Garden to position CSH 20 on the cover of the February 1960 issue as part of a feature titled "New Life for a Cherished Tradition: Wood" for which he also contributed photos of BS&H's Edwards Residence and others.

Published by Reinhold, 1962 (from my collection).

CSH 20 received a nice 12-page spread with 10 Shulman photos and other illustrations in Esther McCoy's now classic groundbreaking compilation of program dwellings completed through 1962, Modern California Houses: Case Study Houses 1945-1962, published by Reinhold. (see above). Shulman provided the lion's share of the photography. The book is still in print with the third edition available at Hennessey & Ingalls. (See my related article Selected Publications of Esther McCoy, Patron Saint of Southern California Architectural Historians for more on this book).

Other large spreads publicizing the house mainly through the marketing efforts of Shulman included: the March 1959 issue of House & Home (12 photos), the March 2, 1959 issue of Bauwelt (7 photos), the December 1959 issue of Pacific Architect and Builder (5 photos), Book of Homes 16 (1959, 7 photos), the June 1960 issue of House & Home ("15 AIA Award-Winning Custom Homes, 6 photos), the June 1961 issue of Bauen + Wohnen (14 photos), the 1962 book Einfamilienhauser in den USA (5 photos), the 1962 book The Modern House, U.S.A.: Its Design and Decoration (4 photos), the 1963 House & Garden Building Guide (An Experimental Design in Wood with 10 photos), and the 1964 book Beautiful Homes and Gardens in California (6 photos of CSH 20 and also 1 photo each of the firm's Mirman and Frank Houses, and 4 of the Thompson House).

Additional significant appearances of Case Study House No. 20 are in the very important 1989 Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses organized by Elizabeth A. T. Smith and published by the MIT Press in conjunction with the much-publicized exhibition of the same name on display at the Temporary Contemporary of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles from October 17, 1989 to February 18, 1990 and the massive Case Study Houses: The Complete CSH Program 1945-1966 by Elizabeth A. T. Smith, edited by Peter Goessel and epilogue and principal photography by Julius Shulman published by Taschen in 2002.

My Shulman and Buff & Hensman bibliographies list 70 publications in all of Case Study House No. 20, the latest being the 2009, 25-Year Anniversary abridged edition of Taschen's Case Study Houses edited by Elizabeth A. T. Smith. (see below).

Published by Taschen, 2009 (from my collection).

Julius Shulman's first assignment for Buff, Straub & Hensman, Case Study House No. 20, was definitely a watershed event in the firm's history. It was a harbinger of the recognition and accolades to come resulting from 44 subsequent assignments including Case Study House No. 28 that Shulman performed for the partnership, the last being the 1984 Schultz Residence in Pasadena. These assignments resulted in over 200 articles and 40 covers in a wide variety of publications. The Shulman-BS&H combine netted 60 feature stories and 10 covers in L.A. Times Home Magazine alone. 

One can't help but wonder what fate would have provided the partners if they hadn't hooked up with Shulman on that eventful day in 1957. The same can be said for Pierre Koenig, Albert Frey, Raphael Soriano, Gregory Ain, and yes, even Richard Neutra. We are all the richer and more appreciative of our Southern California architectural history and legacy because they did. (See my related article The Post-War Publicity Partnership of Julius Shulman and Gordon Drake: Gordon Drake for more on Shulman's star-making ability).

Closing Sidebar

Oct. 15, 2005 Tour Brochure (28 pp.), Friends of the Gamble House, Pasadena & Foothill Chapter - AIA, and USC School of Architecture, Julius Shulman Job 2675, Getty Research Institute. (from my collection).

Case Study House No. 20 had fallen into a major state of disrepair over the years as documented by Ethel Buisson and Thomas Billard in their The Presence of the Case Study Houses published in 2004 by Birkhauser. The CHS 20 chapter heading "Sacred Temple, Aged Body" said it all and was backed up by 8 depressing images of the decay. Thankfully, preservation-minded new owners lovingly restored the house to respectability in time for the October 15, 2005 tour celebrating the firm's work. (see catalog above). 

I attended this tour and spent a couple of memorable hours in the house entranced by how evolved a simple post-and-beam grid/framework could become. It was amazing to me how the alternating indoor and outdoor sections and use of glass could elevate the senses. Their addition of the circular design elements in the plywood vaulted ceiling/roof panels and brick fireplace added a new slant to the post-and-beam design vocabulary. That visit cemented this house in my memory bank as my favorite among all of the Case Study Houses. Kudos to the new owners!

Also highly recommended is the Shelly Kappe chapter Calvin Straub (Buff, Straub, and Hensman) in:

Toward a Simpler Way of Life: The Arts & Crafts Architects of California edited by Robert Winter, University of California Press, 1997. (from my collection).

For a compendium on the published work of the firm see my Buff and Hensman: An Annotated Bibliography

For more on the firm go to

For more on Calvin Straub and his Arizona work go to

For more on Case Study House No. 20 and Buff, Straub & Hensman visit the blog