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Philip Lovell: The Eccentric Health Guru Behind Neutra's Lovell Health House

The Lovell "Health House," designed by Richard Neutra is featured in "Sun Seekers: The Cure of California." | J. Paul Getty Trust / Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles / Julius Shulman photography archive, 1936-1997
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In December 1929, work was completed on what would become one of Los Angeles’s most iconic modern homes. It was built for the naturopathic doctor and Los Angeles Times health columnist Dr. Philip Lovell and was called the Lovell Demonstration Health House, or sometimes just the Health House. The house boasted sleeping porches, areas for nude sun bathing, an outdoor gym and schoolroom, windows that let in extra UV rays and a kitchen designed for a strict vegetarian diet. The architect was Richard Neutra, whose named was quickly launched into worldwide renown. He revered as one of Los Angeles’s most famous architects today. As for the visionary patron, Dr. Lovell (born Morris Saperstein), his biography is less well known. What follows is a modified excerpt from Lyra Kilston’s Sun Seekers: The Cure of California, a book that highlights Southern California's lesser-known histories (such as the first helio-therapeutic modern home and the world’s first raw vegan cafeteria) to trace the colorful and surprising origins of how the region became a famed magnet for healthy living.

In mid-19-teens Manhattan, a young upstart named Morris Saperstein pushes into a crowded lecture hall to drink in the rhetoric of Scott Nearing, the radical economist, pacifist and vocal advocate of vegetarianism. Saperstein was a fan of Nearing and zealously read the speeches and manifestos of his milieu, like Eugene Debs, the labor organizer and Socialist Party presidential candidate, or Upton Sinclair, the journalist and activist from far-away California who had exposed the vileness of the meatpacking industry.

After the lecture, feeling galvanized, Saperstein may have bought an issue of the popular magazine Physical Culture from a newsstand. He admired its charismatic publisher, the famed vegetarian bodybuilder Bernarr Macfadden. The magazine was filled with pulpy tales of physical and mental transformation, promoting Macfadden’s homebrewed health evangelism which regularly railed against the sins of doctors, prudery, corsets, physical weakness and white bread.

Such radical ideas captivated Saperstein. He was raised by Russian Jewish émigré parents in a household that was neither health conscious nor politically iconoclastic. A typical Saperstein family meal was a heavy affair: brisket, noodles and cabbage, lacquered in butter. As it turned out, Macfadden’s promotion of natural healing, bodily vigor, and no small dose of self-promotion, would light an unusual path forward.

May 1920 cover of Physical Culture | Ball State University Digital Media Repository
May 1920 cover of Physical Culture | Ball State University Digital Media Repository

Soon, Saperstein attempted to put some of the exhilarating political ideas he’d been hearing about into practice by organizing a labor walkout at the insurance office where he worked. But too few agents and clerks were willing to stand up to the vocally anti-union management. Discouraged, the headstrong young man quit his job and turned his back on the city, heading west to pursue new horizons and what he likely hoped were broader minds.

Halfway across the country, Saperstein saw an opportunity to explore the natural healing he’d read about in Physical Culture. He enrolled at a college in Missouri, probably the one founded by ‘magnetic healer’ Andrew Taylor Still, a Midwestern doctor well-versed in hydrotherapy, homeopathy and other nature-cure treatments. It seems that Saperstein soaked it all in. By the time he continued west to launch his career he wielded an arsenal of strong opinions on diet, exercise and drug-free cures. Once he reached Los Angeles, Saperstein decided to set down roots. But first he changed his name to Philip M. Lovell — Dr. Philip M. Lovell, ND (ND for Doctor of Naturopathy). Legend has it that he saw the benign Anglo surname ‘Lovell’ on a billboard, added the palatable ‘Philip’ to it, and like so many others in the young city before and afterward, was reborn.

In 1923 at the age of 28, the newly minted Dr. Lovell opened an office in Downtown Los Angeles advertising himself as a “Drugless Practitioner.” While there was a glut of doctors — either drug-pushing or drug-disdaining — in the area, his business took off, attracting more patients than he could see. Luck was on his side: one of his first patients was Harry Chandler, the powerful publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Chandler had come to Los Angeles to combat his tuberculosis with its famed climate and he retained a thirst for natural cures of all stripes. His fondness for Lovell proved profitable.

Lovell was tall and athletic, with a strong profile, barrel chest and bronzed tan. He was not only a popular doctor, but a loquacious one, ever-ready with confident advice. Thanks to his relationship with Chandler, he took over the weekly health column in the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine called “Care of the Body.” As it turned out, writing about his beliefs was a natural vocation.

The header of Lovell’s column featured a trustworthy, paternal portrait of him from the shoulders up, in a dark suit, tie, and neat, round glasses. His claims may have been eccentric, but he maintained the familiar look of a traditional family doctor. His portrait was bookended by drawings that cheerily illustrated his dietary philosophy: heaps of fruits, vegetables, and leaves. The column itself shared the page with a riot of advertisements for local vegetarian restaurants, doctors, regional sanatoriums and other salubrious products, from Firmola cream (for sagging chins) to NOK-KA-TAR syrup (for congestion).

Lovell wrote prodigiously, offering sermons, meat-free recipes and answers to readers’ letters on topics that ranged from blisters to gout, childbirth to carrot juice. His tone was pedantic, evangelical, and occasionally condescending; his advice tumbled down from the great temple of health and discipline he claimed to inhabit. At other times he was disarming and good-humored. But Lovell’s guru-like desire to share his enlightenment was unflagging. Here he is on sun baths in the Los Angeles Times:

“If you have never taken a sun bath, start slowly. Take three minutes the first day, then increase the time two or three minutes daily until you are taking from 20 or 25 minutes to an hour.<br> <br> Never overheat yourself. The modern solarium should be equipped with a shower. When the body becomes warm or the temperature rises even to a slight degree, get under the shower. If there is no shower, give yourself a cold-water sponge or a simple cold water rub-down.<br> <br> The sun bath is as precious a part of your daily routine as any bathing hygiene.”
On climate cures:
“The ideal environment for one with tuberculosis is the country, especially the dry mountain or desert country where he may bask nude in the sun for hours at a time and where the home environment is such where he may recover his health.”

And on fruit candy:

“Grind walnuts, dates, figs and raisins together. Re-grind two or three times. Roll in finely shredded coconut and form in cubes, balls, or any desired shape.”

In addition to his column, Dr. Lovell broadcast health talks and an exercise show on a local radio station and delivered well-attended weekly lectures in the auditorium of his Downtown office building. His assistants mailed out free health pamphlets to anyone who requested them. His empire of natural health was thriving.

Philip Lovell's author photo published April 4, 1926 | The Los Angeles Times Historical Archive
Author Lyra Kilston has never been able to find a photo of Philip Lovell. This is his image published April 4, 1926 alongside his column | The Los Angeles Times Historical Archive

Lovell met and married Leah Press, a progressive teacher whose ideas about child-rearing and healthy living were in sync with his own. A native of Omaha and a graduate of New York University, she was an acolyte of the learn-by-doing educational philosophies of Angelo Patri and John Dewey. When an informal school was formed at a private estate in East Hollywood, Leah was invited to help run it. The land was owned by oil heiress and social progressive Aline Barnsdall, who had commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build her a home, a complex for avant-garde theater, and a school her daughter and other children could attend on a serene hill flecked with olive trees.

At the kindergarten, Leah met another progressive educator, Pauline Schindler (née Gibling), the wife of Viennese émigré architect Rudolph Schindler. The Schindlers had come to Los Angeles at Wright’s request for Rudolph to oversee the construction of Barnsdall’s complex. Pauline, a fiery composer and social activist who had been living in Chicago, taught with Leah for several years, guiding their own children as well as those of other like-minded families. A photograph of Leah and Pauline shows an idyllic scene in a sundrenched garden where they are holding hands in a circle with their young students (including two sons of the photographer Edward Weston). Most of the children are barefoot and naked but for underwear. Not surprisingly for the wife of Dr. Lovell, it appears that sunbathing was part of the school’s curriculum.

Pauline Schindler, Leah Lovell and children in Leah's "School in the Garden," Argyle Avenue, Hollywood, California, circa 1925 | Courtesy of Atelier Éditions
Pauline Schindler, Leah Lovell and children in Leah's "School in the Garden," Argyle Avenue, Hollywood, California, circa 1925 | Courtesy of Atelier Éditions

The Lovells regularly socialized in a small archipelago of bold new homes around the Hollywood Hills. There were Wright’s buildings for Aline Barnsdall, his house for Leah Lovell’s sister Harriet Freeman and her husband, and a house designed, built, and occupied by the Schindlers on Kings Road. The families gathered for their children’s lessons, as well as political meetings and artistic salons. Such convergences were not unusual — clients of modern architecture were often progressives who had departed from social norms in one way or another (such as a single mother of means like Barnsdall). There was a strong sense that new ways of living demanded new architecture — and that new architecture would in turn mold a new, improved humanity.

The Lovell "Health House," designed by Richard Neutra is featured in "Sun Seekers: The Cure of California." | J. Paul Getty Trust / Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles / Julius Shulman photography archive, 1936-1997
The Lovell "Health House," designed by Richard Neutra is featured in "Sun Seekers: The Cure of California." | J. Paul Getty Trust / Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles / Julius Shulman photography archive, 1936-1997
The Lovell "Health House," designed by Richard Neutra is featured in "Sun Seekers: The Cure of California." | J. Paul Getty Trust / Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles / Julius Shulman photography archive, 1936-1997
The Lovell "Health House," designed by Richard Neutra is featured in "Sun Seekers: The Cure of California." | J. Paul Getty Trust / Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles / Julius Shulman photography archive, 1936-1997

As Lovell grew accustomed to the unusual, austere spaces his friends were building, he paid particular interest to the relationship between domestic space and physical health. This became evident in his “Care of the Body” column. Take, for example, this passage from 1924:

“Besides the value of the outdoor sleeping room as a children’s playground, a flat, open roof can be of immense value as a sun parlor. The value of sun bathing for anemia, tuberculosis, and practically all of the wasting diseases has been shown repeatedly. An open roof with a view-tight fence solves this problem without offense to the neighbors. There, for several hours per day, the children may play nude in the healthful sunshine. There the sick and the suffering may get the benefit of life-giving rays of the sun without the expense of the sanatorium. There man may get in touch with the cosmic forces of nature far better than in closed rooms and confined spaces.

Healthful housing soon became a regular feature of Lovell’s writing. “When we consider that we spend at least half of each day’s hours in the home, the importance of building a structure for health purposes is evident,” he noted. “In the past, such elements as beauty, convenience, and comfort have played the dominant parts. Houses for health are even yet relatively unknown.” He noted how difficult it was to find an architect or builder who understood “fundamental health principles.”

When the Lovells decided to commission their own avant-garde dwellings in the early 1920s, wrought in the service of healthful ideology, Schindler was a natural choice. They hired him to build three unusual vacation houses, each in natural settings driving distance from the city — in the mountains, the desert, and by the coast. The desert house burned down (through no fault of Schindler’s), and the mountain cabin’s roof collapsed under the first heavy snow. But Schindler’s masterful and pioneering house in Newport Beach, south of Los Angeles, remains. Employing new materials and unusual forms, the angular concrete house, completed in 1926, expressed the doctor’s ethos with a dramatic open-air sunbathing and sleeping porch facing the gleaming Pacific waves.

The Lovells and their growing family (they would have three sons) enjoyed the beach house, but they also wanted a mainstay in the city, closer to Philip’s Downtown office. They began looking at sites in the hills of Los Feliz and thinking about ways to further express their ardent health and lifestyle beliefs through design. While Schindler had a deep understanding of their values, his experimental buildings always went over budget and hadn’t functioned well. Meanwhile, the Lovells had gotten to know the other intriguing Viennese architect who had recently arrived at the Kings Road house.

Richard Neutra and Schindler had similar backgrounds and mentors. But as they learned after trying to collaborate, their styles, temperaments and work habits differed greatly. Schindler was a consummate and intuitive artist, whereas Neutra had a more disciplined bent. Schindler was inspired by earth notions of the cave and the tang of sticky California spa, while Neutra had absorbed nine more years f an evolving European Modernism that espoused a rationalistic, machine aesthetic. For Neutra, a building could only be considered ‘modern’ if it took full advantage of industrial technology.  What might he design for the naturopath?

Clockwise from top left: Richard Neutra, R.M. Schindler, Dione Neutra, and Dion Neutra, at the Kings Road house they briefly shared, West Hollywood, California. | R. M. Schindler papers, University of California, Santa Barbara
R. M. Schindler papers, Architecture & Design Collection. Art, Design & Architecture Museum; University of California, Santa Barbara

Top Image: The Lovell "Health House," designed by Richard Neutra is featured in "Sun Seekers: The Cure of California." | J. Paul Getty Trust / Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles / Julius Shulman photography archive, 1936-1997

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