The day leading up to and during Valentine’s Day this year, droves of people lined up and down Barnsdall Park. All hoping for a chance to witness the newest renovations to the Hollyhock House; hollow clay tiles layered with sand colored concrete, rudimentary and decorated with abstract hollyhocks –the owners favorite flower– marks a creative and intentional turning point for architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
At a time when, Los Angeles was barren of traffic, the Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood Sign, this simultaneously futuristic –and yet all the while primitive– Mayan temple-like structure, seemed like a monument; a bold juxtaposition from the surrounding 36 acres of olive trees and small scattered ranchero style houses.
Those familiar with Wright’s work, admire his Zen-like “organic” architectural style, blending structures into their surrounding environments, as exemplified in his Prairie houses in the Midwest. Placed at the base of a hill or around trees, they predictably did not “pop out” of the landscape.
“Look at this thing, it just dominates. It’s sitting on top of this hill, dominating everything,” exclaimed Gordon Prend, a veteran docent at the museum. Adorning the house were upper and lower friezes further emphasizing the pre-Columbian temple form. Garden walls, along with the four facing axis of the house accentuate the monumental horizontal lines.
Considered today as California Modernism, Wright, true to self, entitled it California Romanza. Borrowing from the Italian vein of “free expression,” he drew heavy influence from a popular Japanese ideology of seamless “indoor-outdoor” living.
Incorporating the mild climate of Southern California, each room had immediate access to the outside through a patio, as well as direct outdoor lighting through large windows. Employing traditional colonial Spanish architecture, Wright surrounds a central courtyard with each of the four wings of the house.
This subconsciously effortless flow throughout the structure, coupled with Wright’s philosophy of “compression and release,” exemplifies his brilliant mind and intentional design. Upon entering through the narrow front door, feelings of immediate uncomfortable tightness surround the guest. Due in part to the low hanging six-foot ceiling, 250lb cast concrete front door and dim lighting, Wright creates an anticipatory and yet confusing feeling of arrival; not wanting the guest to waste time lingering in the entrance way.
Unlike conventional houses, Wright utilizes open rooms, without defined entries and accesses such as walls or doors. Instead he employs the subtle use of ceiling moldings or “peaked” ceilings to stand-in place of walls. Large living rooms characterized by high ceilings, large open windows and various entry points literally and figuratively make a guest feel at home, with a sense of final “released” belonging.
Wright, 52, was formerly engulfed in scandal with his then mistress, her children and their catastrophic demise in Taliesin. While Barnsdall, 37, faced scrutiny following a disastrous reception of a theatrical act she funded, leading to the eventual closure of her theatre, as well as the overbearing stigma as a single mother, during the early 1920’s –having given birth to her daughter out of wedlock.
Though hopeful, the Pennsylvanian transplant with grand visions to establish an art colony in Los Angeles, sought out the company of Wright in 1915, and funded the design and construction of Barnsdall Art Park. Unfortunately despite her death in 1946, Barnsdall never saw true fruition of her dream.
The multi-faceted and eccentric oil heiress wanted her property to include a grandiose theater, studios, apartments and a house for herself in order to create a venue to produce her own avant-garde type plays. Her other titles included: philanthropist, art collector, political activist and radical. Barnsdall helped spur the development of the now iconic Hollywood Bowl, all under the eyes of the FBI as they suspected her of communist activity.
The glory years of the house only lasted, a short span of seven years during the 1920’s, from when Wright broke ground on the property in 1919, to Barnsdall’s donation of the property to the City of Los Angeles in 1927. Wright was fired in 1921, due to disagreements and rising costs. This however allowed the budding Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra to effectively take over.
Today, only the LA Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Gallery Theater, and Junior Arts Center remain, along with the house. In 2007 the house, became a national historic landmark and is currently awaiting the honor of a UNESCO World Heritage site. Following its most recent room-by-room renovations, on May 22, a wine tasting fundraiser will be held at the art park in hopes to complete all remaining renovations of the house.
Written By: Christopher Ho
Images By: Joshua White Photography