Like most architects, who exist from one project to the next, Frank Lloyd Wright lived in fear of being without work, even when involved in a large commission. He had already begun studies of the Imperial Hotel (Tokyo), but had yet to sign a contract, when he was introduced to Aline Barnsdall, an oil heiress and patron of the performing arts who had studied acting with Eleonora Duse in Europe and wanted to build a small theatre in Chicago. From the time Aline Barnsdall met Wright in Chicago in 1915, until the work was completed in 1921, the commission grew from a theatre to a house surrounded by an arts complex, with artists’ studios and residences as well as two theatres, for performance and films, and the venue had changed from Chicago to Los Angeles. The ambitious scheme was never completed, but it produced a remarkable house that signaled a radical change in Wright’s style.
Hollyhock House, as Aline Barnsdall named it, after the hollyhocks that grew wild on the site and which she proclaimed were her favourite flowers, was unlike anything Wright had designed or built before, or even that existed at the time. He approached the assignment as both a programmatic and a stylistic challenge. The site, Olive Hill, was a legendary location overlooking the surrounding Southern California Hills, with views of the city and the ocean. A series of roof terraces command a spectacular outlook that could also be used for performances.
The house was built around a central courtyard and a pool, water moved through and around the building and the landscape as an integral part of the scheme.
The entrance was through a temple-like block with a frieze of stylized hollyhocks.
In no established or identifiable style, the house bears the marks of many; the influences have been variously described as Aztec, Mayan, Egyptian and Mexican pre-Columbian. If the look was archaic and vaguely Mesoamerican, the symmetrical plan and flanking wings still had a Beaux Arts formality.
The large living room, a classic double cube, was warmed by the golds and browns of Wright’s furnishings and a magnificent gold-ground Japanese screen. The room focuses on the hearth, but this one differed radically from those in Wright’s earlier houses. Built of concrete block rather than brick, and embellished with abstract designs, it projected out into the room, occupying its own space. Instead of drawing one deeply in a shadowed, embracing isolation, it was placed beneath a skylight, with light flooding down from above.
Even more unusual, it was set into a shallow pool of water at its base (now dry). Like some ceremonial symbol for the life of the house, it suggested life itself; all of the elements were there – fire, water, earth and air.
When the industrial and scenic designer Norman Bel Geddes, who had been hired by Barnsdall for her theatre project, saw early sketches of the house, he found it startling and enchanting: he called it “a miniature palace of some ancient civilization”; Wright called it “simply Californian”.
In a sense, he was right. It was an invention, and Southern California in the early 1920s was inventing itself. The movie industry, only recently arrived, was an exhilarating exercise in the glamorously unreal; Hollywood was a state of mind, a fantasy. Wright saw himself devising an indigenous architecture where none existed, creating a fairy-tale identity for a land that had been settled by strangers and their imports from home. He gave his invention a name, California Romanza. In music, he explained, romanza was “free form, or freedom to make one’s own” – something that seemed a perfect fit for the time and the place.
Hollyhock house was also the stuff of dreams. The construction, which only looked like solid stone or concrete, was plaster over lath. Wright’s romanticism was totally at odds with the austere anti-aesthetic minimalism that was gaining ground in Europe. The romanza of Hollyhock House, and the rationalism of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, a decade later, were at polemically opposite poles of modernism, although they eventually shared the same page in history.
Wright tells the story of the house with the wit and charming mea culpa that kept the faithful coming back for more outrageous behaviour and extraordinary buildings. He was, he admitted, more interested in his creation than in the client, an apology tinged with after all, how could it be otherwise? He had been concerned with his own needs, his own search for expression, rather than her feelings and requirements – guilt admitted, therefore absolved. The house was built “by proxy”, as he put it, while he was in Japan building the Imperial Hotel. Construction had to be entrusted to others and there were problems of design and execution. With his son John also on the Tokyo project, supervision was delegated to his son Lloyd and an associate, Rudolf Schindler, and he blamed them for everything that went wrong or displeased him, listing their deficiencies with cruel precision. Schindler coaxed his friend Richard Neutra over from Vienna to work on the gardens and landscaping. The two would eventually go on to design some of the 20th century’s most iconic houses in Southern California.
The reality was many of the problems were Wright’s fault and he knew it. He was accustomed to resolving the practical details of his designs during construction and he had not been there when he was needed. Faced with an unconventional building and an absentee architect, the contractor complained of a lack of working drawings and followed the common practice of urging compromises on the client. The client, in turn, was constantly advised by her “entourage of friends”, as Wright described them in half-humorous accusations, who knew about as much about the building, he said, “as Sodom knew of Sanctity”. Absorbed in the construction of the Imperial Hotel, “in utter weariness”, he had abdicated control.
To make things more difficult, the architect’s and the client’s egos were a strong-willed match. Mercurial and self-absorbed, used to doing as they pleased and getting what they wanted, his willful, wealthy women clients were not easy to deal with. He found Aline Barnsdall particularly troublesome; she was given to running off to distant parts of the globe to “refresh” herself whenever decision-making threatened. Her architect was equally free-floating; when she was in California he was in Japan, when he came back, she was gone. En route, “she would drop suggestions as a war-plane drops bombs and sail away into the blue”. He wondered what she needed a house for, since she was “as domestic as a shooting star”. He wrote in retrospect, “Though both architect and client were torn to tatters, ‘Form’ got into the building despite all folly.” It was the “idea” of the house that mattered to him, “the thing of beauty” that he tried to nurture from afar, and that, “miraculously”, he said, was finally achieved.
Costs got out of control and Barnsdall fired Wright in 1921 and eventually hired Schindler. She never really moved into the house, she seldom alighted anywhere for any length of time. With her idea of “democratizing” art, and her association with such bona fide radicals of the day as Emma Goldman, she was considered a “parlor Bolshevik” in Hollywood. The divide was exacerbated by the fact that she lived grandly, cut off from the city and its inhabitants in elegant, artful and extravagant architectural seclusion on the hill.
To Wright’s consternation, she suddenly “gave it all away”, donating the house and land to the City of Los Angeles, which dithered about accepting it until 1927, and did so finally through an arrangement with a California arts group, which had neither the means nor the expertise to deal with the building. Treated with minimal appreciation and casual observation, the house deteriorated badly. Municipal caretakers added the ultimate insult of a chain-link fence. The private-public coalition that finally undertook its restoration and maintenance after many years of neglect struggled with a chronic lack of funds. Lloyd Wright oversaw two renovations, one in 1946 and an unfortunate one in 1974 when he changed some of the design for practical reasons. For example, the porch originally had 14 accordion glass panels that opened up and folded up. In the 1970s, Lloyd Wright decided the accordion glass panels were difficult to maintain, and he changed them to sliding glass doors. Very ’70s, very contemporary for the period, but changed the entire architectural feeling of that particular space.
Following years of closure, the Hollyhock reopened in February 2015 with a beautiful, painstaking restoration that took four years and more than $4 million and that has brought many of its public spaces back to their 1921 magnificence. Frank Lloyd Wright houses are beautiful and needy! Flat, leaky roofs plus clogged drains were a recurrent problem for FLW houses. Then of course, a Frank Lloyd Wright design choice is almost never the practical choice. Now the 14 accordion glass panel doors are back, dissolving the wall between the exterior and the interior — which was Wright’s intent. According to a press release, visitors are now able to “see and experience the house in much of its original splendor. Floors, windows, doors, decorative molding, and long-forgotten paint colors have been recreated with utmost attention to detail.”
The restoration work started as far back as 2008, with research, as restorers planned out the work ahead. Repairs didn’t start until 2011. The exterior was perhaps the easy part; they found a buried piece of stucco from the house’s heyday and were able to reproduce the texture and color so that Hollyhock is now more “harmonious” with the surrounding landscape.
The silver lining of having to fix all the structural issues was that, in the process, workers happened to uncover a lot of original details, and that’s helped restorers fill in the blanks about what Hollyhock looked like in the 1920s when it was first completed. Black and white pictures alone are hard to go on.
The entryway, a Modernist version of a formal foyer, looks pristinely 1920s now, but just a few years ago had concrete floors, recessed lighting, and sliding glass doors. Today it’s been almost entirely reconstructed with historically accurate plaster, intricate ceiling moldings — originally stripped back in the 1940s — painstakingly created and aligned by a woodworker named Erik Mortensen, and accordion – folding glass doors that open to completely erase the division between house and courtyard, with actual 1920s door handles and latches.
Hollyhock’s centerpiece is the showstopping hearth backed in an abstract, Hollyhock-themed bas-relief, with a detailed skylight above and a pool below (it’s not filled, sadly; water isn’t very kind to the house). The elaborate accompanying couches, better suited for viewing Wright’s work than for conversation, are a 1990s reproduction of original furniture.
The dining room still has its original furniture, incredibly, including a set of chairs with spines like Hollyhocks. The clerestory windows that ring the room were removed during restoration, bringing to light that a change in the roof height had cut off their bottom four inches years ago. So the roof was restored to its original height and now the windows have the views they were intended to have, plus there’s a lot more light in the dining room.
The library and kitchen have only been returned to 1940s Lloyd Wright form (though the library’s donated books are all pre-1925). Meanwhile, most of the private rooms are still in the ’70s, but they are not open to the public anyway.
The next area scheduled for a makeover is the house’s forecourt, which has become a pretty unattractive parking lot.
Photos from http://la.curbed.com