Los Angeles: Hollyhock House by Frank Lloyd Wright

A recent tour of the Hollyhock House by architect Frank Lloyd Wright near my home featured breathtaking views of Los Angeles and a wealth of information about Wright (whose Prairie style home, studio and works I toured last year, as I wrote about here) and his client, leftist socialite Aline Barnsdall.

These tours usually skimp on details of the client’s life and abilities or they fail to cover the essential architectural points about the work and, happily, in this case, our guide Michael was fully informed about both. It was a group tour, so we had to keep moving through narrow passageways and up or down stairs in Wright’s first Los Angeles project, which was built between 1919 and 1923. Wright’s California Romanza style is fully realized – he used the musical term meaning “freedom to make one’s own form” – in house and garden on this 36-acre site. Ingeniously unfolding with unique spaces, innovations and studios for the purpose of an arts colony, Hollyhock included a plan for a theater, actors’ dormitory, shops and art studios and a motion picturehouse. That’s in addition to two secondary residences and the main house, which is what we toured one morning this spring.

Each major interior space adjoins an equivalent exterior space, connected either by glass doors, a porch, pergola or colonnade, as a handout instructs, and Wright himself did not supervise on site every day (he was away building the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan). There are dozens of tales of his son, Lloyd Wright, and his apprentice, Rudolph Schindler, who were designated by Wright to help. Other prominent modern architects who favored southern California, such as John Lautner and Richard Neutra, are mentioned. Look for Wright’s nearby Ennis House on another Hollywood hill within Hollyhock’s sights. And, according to the guide, the Hollywood Bowl shell owes to an original – and rejected – Wright design that had far superior acoustics.

That Hollyhock House, named for his client’s favorite flower, was designed for a left-wing lunatic named Aline Barnsdall (1882-1946) is of particular interest, as it appears that Wright may have promptly dispensed with her wildly inconsistent, contradictory demands and instead created what was best for an arts and theatrical colony based on earth. The raging, violent unwed mother and anarchist Barnsdall, who inherited her family’s oil fortune – her grandfather, William Barnsdall, drilled the second producing oil well in the United States (in Pennsylvania) – appears to have been as unstable as she was unhappy, bashing a lover’s head with a Monet painting and leaving her only child Betty, known as Sugartop for her blonde curls, without a father. Barnsdall apparently changed homes as often as she changed lovers, and the staunch anti-capitalist – she plastered her property with billboards for socialist Upton Sinclair – donated money to anarcho-terrorist Emma Goldman, who plotted to assassinate Carnegie Steel industrialist Henry Clay Frick and was linked to the assassination of President William McKinley. Throughout her life, Barnsdall railed against capitalism. She physically assaulted a visitor before dying of a heart attack. You can imagine little Sugartop running from room to room trying to escape her maniacal mother.

The house, gardens and grounds are magnificent as usual thanks to Frank Lloyd Wright. Sure, you’ll hear the typical comments and complaints – the leaks, the imperfections, the cost overruns – but the under-renovation Hollyhock is almost a hundred years old and it still captures the imagination with grace, privacy, purity of purpose and clean, elegant lines. It must seen and experienced, and, in tour guide Michael’s case, explained, to be rightly understood. There’s a goddess of hospitality, the first built-in entertainment center, seamless rooms, cork floors in the modern kitchen, and light bursting here and there with precision as southern California sunshine caresses the home from rise to set. The (group) tour’s climax is the livingroom, made for a grand fireplace, concrete art piece, moat with a footbridge to light the fire, grand piano, writing spots, reading room and a view of the city that emphasizes order, structure and straight lines extending to the Pacific Ocean.

Hollyhock house, part of Barnsdall Arts Park, is located at 4800 Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles 90027. Tours are available as of this writing Friday through Sunday every hour on the hour from 12:30 pm until the last tour at 3:30 pm and visitors are advised to arrive early. Groups of ten or more are asked to call for specific information and available times in advance: (323) 644-6269. Admission rates currently are $7 for general admission and $3 for seniors. If you go, remember that the house was commissioned by a woman whose money originated with the creative efforts of a man who drilled for oil in the Keystone state – and it was made by a genius with a single vision of his own. Also see my reviews of Wright’s Chicagoland homes, Taliesin and Taliesin West.

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