“Turn the world on its side and everything loose will end up in Los Angeles.” ~Frank Lloyd Wright.
As you stand at the entrance to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House located in Barnsdall Art Park, the Hollywood sign and Griffith Observatory peer down from the hills. They are iconic images of the City of Angels, but so too is Wright’s recently restored residential masterwork. After $4.4 million spent over six years, Hollyhock House, the only Frank Lloyd Wright property you can visit in Los Angeles, is once again open to the public.
Though many people would prefer it not be known (including Bill Maher, and probably Wright himself) the house was used in the 1989 film, Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death in which Maher starred alongside Shannon Tweed. The exterior suggests a Mayan temple (we assume that might reference the “avocado jungle” but we’re not sure) and though film shoots are no longer allowed, this ‘house-museum’ has garnered respect not only for its renovation and imperious design, but Hollyhock is now on a tentative list of the first modern architecture nominations from the United States as a UNESCO world heritage site - and since there are fewer that 25 UNESCO sites in the entire U.S., that’s a pretty damn big deal.
A UNESCO nomination would absolutely bring validation to Los Angeles, which constantly fights against perceptions it is a cultural wasteland. “We’re not as Philistine as we’re made out to be,” Jeffery Herr curator for Hollyhock House tells me. Wright’s initial concept included a residence for owner Aline Barnsdall, a theater, a director’s house, dormitory for actors, studios for artists, shops and a motion picture theater. Most of that never materialized, but the residence stands as a promise of what might have been. Barnsdall, a Pennsylvania oil heiress, wanted to produce theater in her own venue and she purchased a 36-acre site known as Olive Hill in 1919, and commissioned Wright to build a theater where she could produce avant-garde plays. “The house is unconventional, built for an unconventional client,” says Herr, who toured me through the house on opening day. “It’s disorienting and at the same time it mystifies people,” he surmised. A long rectangular tunnel leads you up to the formidable cast concrete doors, which are not at all welcoming. To your left is a small triangular metal plate, a tiny doorbell dead center. It seems completely out of place given the cold imposing concrete structure. But like much of Hollyhock, it is indicative of the playful use of volume and scale that Wright seemed to find amusing. The hollyhock flower was Barnsdall’s favorite so Wright crafted an abstract symmetrical block version of the flower used throughout the exterior and interiors including furnishings. The cool thing is that the renovation also planted hollyhocks, which were in bloom the day I visited. It’s no secret that Barnsdall herself barely lived in the house and when visiting L.A. she most often stayed at the Biltmore rather then her one-off Mayan temple. Yes, she fired Wright because of cost overruns; yes, he was difficult - a childish genius of whom you forgave his faults because he exuded copious inspiration and creativity.
But restoring an iconic house from a nearly mythic architect isn’t easy. The restoration was like “detective work,” Herr says. He had to rely on mangled, faded architectural blueprints and old photos as clues to what Wright had originally envisioned. The recently completed restoration allows visitors to experience the house in much of its original handcrafted elegance. Floors, windows, doors, decorative molding, and long-forgotten paint colors have been recreated. Gone are the sliding glass doors leading away from the living room, which were erroneously installed during the 1970s renovation, something that Wright would have abhorred, and frankly speaking, so too would I. In its place are the correct wood accordion-folding doors, which add an angled depth and historical accuracy. Even exposed screw heads reflect the original work in spite of their seemingly unfinished state. Water intrusion has always been one of the hallmarks of Wright’s design failures. In this case the hollow clay tiles covered with stucco that formed the building blocks were not the issue (unlike the Pasadena Millard House), nor Hollyhock’s flat roof; no, it was 90 years of clogged drains both inside and outside the home that proved to be the culprit. Water goes where it will and if a drain is clogged, water will nonetheless find the lowest point it can.
Architectural failings aside, the house is a wonder of design, space, light and shadow, and Art Deco imagery. The bas-relief fireplace made of cast concrete blocks is the central unifying image, one that can’t be ignored, though Wright never interpreted its meaning. “It’s a theatrical statement,” Herr told me, a modernist landscape commanding the living area. Flanked by oak sofas with verdant green pillows designed to take in the stage, and a three foot pool at the foot of the fireplace with a skylight above, it ties in the classic and spiritual four elements: earth, water, fire and air. Yes, Wright designed all the furniture and you notice the library, living and dining areas are comprised of very precise angles on his designs including the chairs. Having sat in several of Wright’s original chairs, I can personally tell you they were never designed for comfort, but were set pieces for the theatre of any Wright home: cool looking but not comfy.
It used to be that tours were lead by docents but Herr has abandoned that formula in favor of “self guided” - allowing people to spend as much time as they want ambling about the home. Docents are on hand to answer questions and each room has handheld notes, almost like a theatre program, that give the specifics of each room. But the advantage of allowing people time to meander though Hollyhock is that there truly is a sense of discovery. Perhaps someday the remaining 60% of the house that is still unseen and unrestored might get its due. For now one of the most creative West Coast residences is finally accessible in which to bask in the revelation that is Frank Lloyd Wright.
“Walk Wright In” tours run Thursday through Sunday, 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Last admission is 3:15 p.m. Cost: $7 for adults, $3 for students and seniors. There is free parking. www.barnsdall.org
(NOTE: The original version of this article first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, March 2015)