Case Study House #17: Mid-Century Modern Meets Hollywood Kitch

Up next in the series, let’s take a look at architect Craig Ellwood’s “Hoffman House,” built as Case Study House 17 in 1956. At almost twice the size of all previous Case Study homes, the expansive layout included five bedrooms, three bathrooms, and featured a U-shaped plan that provided easy access to the pool terrace from all areas inside.

But, the lavish amenities included in this residence are what really topped the other Case Study homes built up to this point. The house came tricked out with a swimming pool, tennis courts, maid’s quarters, and a protected courtyard adjacent to the children’s bedrooms. It also came equipped with built-in ceiling lights to illuminate artwork in the main entrance, which doubled as a small gallery of contemporary paintings. The lighting created the perfect ambiance for large works of art that shine best amid gallery-style simplicity.

The luxe amenities don’t quite fit with the overall minimalist aesthetic of homes in the Case Study Program, but given Ellwood’s over-the-top personality, they make perfect sense.

Craig Ellwood built his career through charm and self-promotion while living the epitome of a Hollywood lifestyle. He drove a red Ferrari with the license plate “VR00M,” and his succession of wives brought him top dollar clients while expanding his social circle. Although he never graduated as an architect and held no professional license, his achievements stand as undeniable proof of an innate talent for good design.

A fiction of his own making, even the name Craig Ellwood itself was an invention. Born Jon Nelson Burke on April 22, 1922 in Clarendon, Texas, Ellwood moved west with his family and finally settled in Los Angeles. After he graduated from Belmont High School, Ellwood, as Johnnie Burke, joined the U.S. Army Air Corps with his brother Cleve and served as a B-24 radio operator based in Victorville, California until his discharge in 1946.

Shortly thereafter, he joined forces with his brother and two friends they met in the Army, the Marzicola brothers, to start the “Craig Ellwood” construction firm, named after a liquor store called Lords and Elwood located in front of their offices on Beverly Boulevard in LA.

By the 1950s, Ellwood had a thriving practice, and emerged on the national and international scene when three of his designs were included in the Case Study Program: Case Study House 16 (Salzman House) in Bel Air, Case Study House 17 (Hoffman House) in Beverly Hills, and Case Study House 18 (Fields House) in Beverly Hills. He was named one of the “three best architects of 1957” along with Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe.

His rise to public fame led to numerous commissions, and his subsequent residential designs won professional acclaim for fusing the stark “International Style” of Mies van der Rohe and the steel, cage-like structure of Charles Eames with a laid-back sensibility unique to California modernism. His open and elegant floorplans demonstrated a lifestyle which was both inspirational and distinctly attainable.

Before Case Study House 17 even became a reality, the original client voiced reservations about Ellwood’s preference for stark furnishings paired with glass and steel construction. According to Ellwood, the client’s rigid limitations sullied his original design to the point that he considered it the least good of his three Case Study Homes.

When the house changed hands in 1962, house decorator John Woolf and his son, Robert Koch Woolf, were not so shy about expressing their disinterest in Ellwood’s spartan design. They immediately ripped out the interior and added Doric columns to the steel uprights “in order to give this beautifully made contemporaneous building a patina of age.” The once unassuming exterior was transformed into a Greek temple with a Hollywood Regency street facade, and by the time they were done, the massive remodel altered the house beyond recognition.

House Beautiful magazine published photos of the reimagined house with rave reviews. Meanwhile, when asked about this building, Ellwood balked at the rinky-dink makeover.

“The new buyer for the Case Study House had bought it for speculation really, and he turned it into — if you know the Trousdale area of Los Angeles — this kind of phony, bastard modern style. They put pots on top of my steel columns and painted the nice brickwork pink, as I recall. I haven’t seen the house in many years. Last time I saw it, it was chaos,” he said.

Yet, the remodel did more to emphasize the simple genius behind Ellwood’s original blueprint than it did to obscure it. The “before” and “after” versions of the interior courtyard differed more in style than in content, and ultimately showcased the neoclassicism latent in Mid-Century design.

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