Business

Marijuana millionaire turns LA’s infamous Sowden House into cannabis oasis

Mariano, a Persian cat, appeared unimpressed as he gazed down on bustling Franklin Avenue from inside a home — a concrete temple, really — that Lloyd Wright dreamed up when he wasn’t busy designing orchestra shells for the Hollywood Bowl.

Likewise, Mariano didn’t seem to care that, as he groomed his stone-grey coat, he was sitting near the very same fireplace where Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Beckinsale filmed a scene for the 2004 movie “The Aviator.”

And when it all got to be too much, Mariano escaped to a narrow passageway hidden behind the living room bookshelf, connecting to a basement where many believe the Black Dahlia murder took place.

It’s fitting that Mariano roams freely through the $4.7 million-dollar landmark Sowden House. Because if it wasn’t for the 10-year-old cat, his owner, Dan Goldfarb, wouldn’t have had the motivation or the means to buy the infamous Los Feliz property.

Dan Goldfarb pets Mariano, one of several cats at his residence, the famous Sowden House, in Los Angeles on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, The Cannifornian)

Goldfarb made his money selling cannabis products for pets.

“Our goal was not to start a business or proselytize cannabis or anything else,” said the 42-year-old New York City native, who talks fast and rarely sits down. “Our goal was to help animals.”

Thousands of customers across the country say his Canna-Pet products have done just that. But Goldfarb says he’s just getting started.

As part of an ongoing mission to educate people about cannabis, Goldfarb and his wife, Jenny Landers, have started opening the landmark Sowden House for marijuana-friendly events and fundraisers that support causes close to their hearts.

“I just feel like this house is meant to be shared,” Landers said.

And it all started with a sick Persian cat.

The business

Goldfarb has been a cat lover for as long as he can remember. And he’s had a love affair with cannabis since he started studying film, media and economics at MIT when he was just 17.

He was consuming marijuana recreationally then. But at the time, in the early 1990s, his prestigious university was also on the forefront of studying how cannabis actually works in the body. And even as he went on to pursue a career in computers, the plant’s potential stuck with him.

Dan Goldfarb stands on the balcony of the famous Sowden House in Los Angeles on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, The Cannifornian)

Landers was working as a graphic artist and doing post-production TV work when she married Goldfarb 10 years ago. A short time later, their adopted rescue cat Mariano — named after Yankees closer Mariano Rivera — began battling a myriad of health issues. Drugs prescribed by the veterinarian were causing Mariano’s fur to fall out, and Landers said he still wasn’t much better.

So, in 2013, Goldfarb started treating Mariano with an early version of the cannabis products he now sells.

Canna-Pet capsules, oils and dog treats don’t have any THC, the compound in marijuana that makes people high and pets uncomfortable. Instead, his products are made from Kentucky-grown industrial hemp, a strain of the cannabis plant that’s heavy on CBD, the chemical thought to have the most therapeutic benefits.

Since Canna-Pet products aren’t psychoactive, people don’t need a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana to purchase them, and they don’t have to worry that they’re making their animals stoned. The products can be sold outside marijuana dispensaries, even in states that haven’t legalized cannabis for any human uses.

Check out The Cannifornian’s special report on pot for pets

Commercial success, according to Goldfarb, was “instantaneous.”  But much like with the famous home he now owns, controversies have popped up.

In 2014, Goldfarb’s original business partners in Seattle sued him, claiming he’d stolen formulas they’d developed. The case was dismissed a few months later, court records show, and both parties declined to discuss it.

In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration sent Goldfarb a warning letter that said Canna-Pet had to stop marketing its products as a treatment for health conditions in animals.

Today, Canna-Pet is going strong. Goldfarb said they sell products online and in stores and vet offices across the country. And, while testimonials on his website tout how the products have helped cats, dogs, horses and more with everything from arthritis to seizures, he’s careful not to make any such promises himself.

The home(s)

As Goldfarb and Landers plotted to expand their business and charity work, he said he knew he wanted to be in Los Angeles – though he’d never previously visited the city.

“I’m here because it’s a hub for talking about cannabis,” he said. “We want to be part of the conversation.”

A friend sent him a Zillow listing for the Sowden House, likely as a joke.

“She called it ‘the Lex Luthor house,'” said Goldfarb, who wore a button-up shirt over a graphic tee as he toured his fortress. “But I think that only made it more appealing to me.”

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Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright, built the house in 1926 for retired artist John Sowden. But the Sowdens didn’t live there long, with reports that they resented the criticism their Mayan Revival-style home received.

More controversy was in store. After Dr. George Hodel purchased it in 1945, the house became known for hosting drug-fueled orgies. Hodel reportedly beat his sons there and drove his daughter to run away. In 2003, Hodel’s son Steve, who was a retired L.A. Police Department detective, wrote a book claiming his dad had killed several women in the basement. He said one of those alleged victims was Elizabeth Short, who in death became known as the Black Dahlia.

The property was in disrepair in 2001 when real estate mogul Xorin Balbes bought it for $1.2 million. He promptly began restoring and renovating it, with some uproar as he built a pool in the courtyard, added a modern kitchen and overhauled the bathrooms.

Chef Taryn Garcia of Boulder, Co. prepares marijuana-infused desserts at the Sowden House in Los Angeles on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, The Cannifornian)

The Sowden House has changed hands several more times since then, until it was listed for sale in spring 2017 for $4.7 million.

Goldfarb fell in love at first photo, calling the property a “thing of beauty.” He doesn’t drive thanks to his New York City upbringing, so he jumped on an Amtrak train with an offer already in hand. On July 1, the home was his.

Since Balbes designed custom furniture that came with the house, Landers said they basically rolled up with some suitcases and their cats. And the only thing they’ve changed since they began dividing their time between the Sowden House and their second home in La Jolla has been to take down bougainvillea and other landscaping that had swallowed some concrete pillars, replacing those bright plants with more understated succulents.

Despite rumors that the home is haunted from its Hodel days, Landers said she’s never felt any bad vibes, even when she’s stayed overnight by herself.

“I feel peaceful here, in fact,” she said.

Hollywood has long come calling to use the Sowden House for filming. Along with its appearance in “The Aviator,” the home has been used as a backdrop for a season of “America’s Next Top Model,” with scenes shot in its tomb-like entryway, by the koi pond in one of the bathrooms and in front of the eel-filled fish tank in the sitting room. The band The xx also played on the home’s “creepy” reputation as it filmed a recent music video starring Millie Bobby Brown of “Stranger Things” fame and Michael Jackson’s daughter, Paris Jackson.

Those Hollywood gigs cover expenses for the home, Goldfarb said. That allows Landers, who manages the property, to offer it up free to nonprofits like Kindred Spirits Care Farm, which works with troubled youth to rescue animals and promote sustainable farming. The Winnetka-based charity is holding a fundraiser at the Sowden House on Feb. 10.

Event coordinator Katie Partlow now curates gatherings at the home under the name Black Dahlia.

On Sunday, some 250 people gathered at the historic property for Partlow’s Afternoon Delight, an exclusive event celebrating cannabis. Chef Taryn Garcia cooked up treats like infused macaroons and the band October’s Child performed while experts offered classes and health treatments for a chic crowd.

Mariano and his siblings get to attend most of these swanky events.

He’s healthy now. And he’s typically quite willing to pose with guests who are eager to Instagram shots of the cat that inspired a cannabis empire.


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