The Modernist Tourists used to live in Los Angeles, but the first time we attempted to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House we couldn’t even see it. Somewhat frail since new, it was badly damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake and subsequently declared a safety hazard. Hidden behind scaffolding and hoardings for 20 years the house was an intriguing but off-limits mystery. Happily, after a lengthy and expensive restoration, it is once again open to the public. We visited in December 2015. It was hot.
The house sits within Barnsdall Art Park on top of a fairly nondescript looking hillock. Its immediate neighbourhood is a rather grungy section of Hollywood Boulevard, and one side of the site has long been marred by a run-down strip mall, but don’t less this discourage you.
On reaching the crest of the hill one immediately sees why it was chosen by Aline Barnsdall as the site for her house and arts complex. The views of the Hollywood Hills are stunning, and the surrounding trees are sufficiently dense to quieten the traffic noise (which must have been considerable even in 1919) and provide fresher (if not cooler) air. One can also see the famous Hollywood sign and the Griffith Observatory, though neither existed when Hollyhock House was built.
It is important to say a little about the building’s client – Aline Barnsdall. She was an oil heiress and fabulously rich by anyone’s standards. She was also a first-rate eccentric and world-class bohemian with total contempt for convention. She was also an enthusiastic dog owner and apparently demanded the right for her dogs to defecate whenever and wherever they saw fit. One of her requirements for the house was therefore an extensive kennel block, a stable block in miniature, and possibly the only one that Wright designed. Once Aline took ownership of the plot she had proceeded, in the time-honoured tradition of Hollywood, to erect huge hoardings to annoy passing drivers. In Aline’s case however these were not to advertise products but instead alerted folks to the various liberal causes she supported. Her plan for the park was to create a progressive arts and theatre complex to rival those she had seen on her travels in Europe.
The house was Wright’s second in Los Angeles and largely completed by his assistant Rudolph Schindler and son Frank Lloyd Wright Jr, his own focus being the Imperial Hotel in Japan. Work commenced in 1919 and was eventually finished in 1921. The house is built in what became known as the ‘Mayan Revival Style’ and mimics various features from the Palenque ruins in Mexico. Wright called it ‘California Romanza’. The site is indeed redolent of a temple complex. Might the house also be said to be rather proto-brutalist?
Wright employed a hollyhock motif which is best seen in the furniture he designed for the house, much of which has been painstakingly reproduced where it was missing. Indeed the furniture is rather spectacular. We were not allowed to take photographs inside during the tour (disappointing) but you can view some here in LA Curbed.
The various roof terraces were very much a functional part of the design given the building’s rather confined interior spaces, and were designed to take full advantage of the elevation, light and surrounding views. Sadly, none of these are accessible to visitors, not because the roof isn’t safe, but because the City of Los Angeles forbids it. They have determined that since there is no way to make the roof accessible to disabled people that it should not be accessible to anyone. A creditable policy but one which led to further disappointment on our part.
It is reported that the house suffered from design flaws from the beginning. These included fountains and pools flooding the house, leaking roofs, and a structure which despite Wright’s seismic studies in Japan could not well withstand the frequent earthquakes of California.
In summary – eery, claustrophobic, romantic, flawed and a bit mad. Wonderful.
© Modernist Tourists 2016