How the Mansion From "The Big Lebowski" Wound Up in LACMA's Collection

Thanks to owner James Goldstein, a Los Angeles personality known for his eccentric style and obsession with basketball, the midcentury modern gem will be preserved by the museum for generations to come.

Thanks to owner James Goldstein, a Los Angeles personality known for his eccentric style and obsession with basketball, the midcentury modern gem will be preserved by the museum for generations to come.

One of artist Jenny Holzer’s famous truisms is “Money Creates Taste.” Taste can be defined as knowing exactly what you want. Yet the tastes of the wealthy are often not particularly original. Real estate investor James Goldstein, however, has paved his own stylistic path. The source of his wealth is shrouded in mystery, but his presence court-side at Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers games and at fashion shows—always in his distinct uniform of a cowboy hat and exotic animal-skin coats—is well-known. And now, his taste in architecture is in the spotlight. Over 40 years ago, he bought an iconic John Lautner house, best known today for its appearance as the residence of a pornographer in the Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski (1998). While countless other domestic architectural masterpieces have been torn down across L.A. over the years, Goldstein’s recent decision to gift his home to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), effectively turning it over to the public, may inspire other Angelenos to become patrons of architecture.

James Goldstein at the Sheats-Goldstein residence in Los Angeles.

The love story between Goldstein and his house—originally built in 1963 for architectural patrons Helen and Paul Sheats—began the moment Goldstein first set foot inside it in 1972. Lautner was a midcentury modernist stalwart whose style quickly became synonymous with L.A. The Sheats-Goldstein residence, with its dramatic hillside setting and cantilevered concrete roof, embodies Lautner’s dramatic flourishes, which were loved by Hollywood as both personal residences and settings for films. “Even though it was in horrible shape, I immediately knew this was it,” he says. The decision changed his life, he recalls, speaking from a tennis tournament in Indian Wells: “The house has definitely become an extension of my persona. I’ve worked diligently on it for 35 years and am still working on new projects for the property. I’m involved in every little detail and design decision.”

Growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the son of a clothing retailer, Goldstein’s interest in design emerged early on. As a teenager, he remembers, “I always tried to be ahead of my high school class in terms of wearing the latest styles.” In the absence of any notable fashion figures—his hometown had its limits—Goldstein carefully cultivated a personal look all his own. What Milwaukee did have to offer, however, was a wealth of modern architecture close at hand. One of Goldstein’s best friends’ houses was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and his father’s business was close to another Wright building, the Johnson Wax headquarters. Years later, he would purchase the home designed by Lautner, who had been one of Wright’s apprentices, and work closely with Lautner to bring the house up-to-date.

Interior shot of the home.

Goldstein’s gift of the residence to LACMA, along with a $17-million endowment, reflects his wish that L.A. be a city that supports great design. “I don’t think there’s enough new architecture in Los Angeles, which is very disappointing,” he says. “For the most part, people in Los Angeles seem to want period-style houses as opposed to something modern and creative that hasn’t been done before.” Goldstein notes that a city like Dubai has no equal in terms of encouraging forward-thinking designs on a grand scale. While L.A.’s most avant-garde architectural designs have largely been domestic spaces, recent projects such as The Broad museum (Diller Scofidio + Renfro) and LACMA’s forthcoming redesign (Peter Zumthor) may well be shifting this emphasis. Goldstein’s bequest has the potential to play a similar role. “As more architects and students see my house, I’m hoping the awareness of modern architecture in Los Angeles becomes stronger.”

The decision to donate the house was more than 10 years in the making and involved many potential institutions. He built a strong rapport with LACMA’s director, Michael Govan, in whom he found an ally with a similar vision for the home’s future. “Michael demonstrated that he wanted to continue operating the house in the same way [I did],” Goldstein says. “It was a meeting of the minds.”

Some of those operations are an abundance of parties and photo shoots—events that Goldstein vets himself, and that have given the home an incalculable aura. Since the addition of an entertainment facility, and as the house becomes better known, there are always more requests to use it. Lautner may not have foreseen such an active future for his original design, but Goldstein’s decades-long commitment to the residence certainly stands as one of the success stories of an architectural gem remaining relevant.

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