The Modernist Tourists used to live in Los Angeles but the first time we tried to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House we couldn’t even see it. Shoddily built from 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 hugely expensive restoration, it is once again open to the paying public. We visited in December 2015. It was hot.
The house sits within Barnsdall Art Park on top of what is 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 obscured by a run-down strip mall. Don’t let this put you off.
On reaching the crest of the hill one immediately senses 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 down the traffic noise (which must have been considerable even in 1919) and provide fresher (if not cooler) air. One can also see the famous/fatuous Hollywood sign and the Griffith Observatory, though pedants will take pleasure in telling you that neither existed when the house was built.
It’s 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 an eccentric and a bohemian of the first class with total contempt for convention. She was also an enthusiastic dog owner and apparently demanded for her dogs the right to defecate whenever and wherever they saw fit, literally. One of her unusual requirements for the house was therefore an extensive (and expensive) kennel block, the only one that Wright designed? Once Aline took ownership of the plot she proceeded, in the time-honoured tradition of Hollywood, to erect huge hoardings to annoy passing drivers. In her case not to advertise tawdry products but to alert folks to various liberal causes. Right on! Her plan for the park was to create a progressive arts and theatre complex to rival those she had seen on her travels in continental Europe.
The house was Wright’s second in Los Angeles and largely completed by his assistant Rudolph Schindler and his son Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. (His own time was being taken up by the Imperial Hotel in Japan). Work commenced in 1919 and eventually finished in 1921. You probably don’t need us to say it but 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 ‘brutalist’?
Wright also used a hollyhock theme 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 should stop right now and take a look at these photos in LA Curbed. You’ll be glad you did, we promise.
The various roof terraces were a functional part of the design given the building’s rather small interior spaces, and were designed to take advantage of the elevation, light and surrounding views. Sadly none 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 therefore not be accessible to anyone. A creditable policy but one which leads only to further disappointment!
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 studies in Japan could not withstand the frequent earthquakes of the region. All rather galling given the spiralling construction costs we would imagine.
In summary – eery, claustrophobic, romantic, flawed and a bit mad. Great stuff.
© Modernist Tourists 2016