Hard by the southwest corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vermont, up on a hill, stands a highlight of L.A.’s storied architectural story: Barnsdall Park.
The compound features the Municipal Art Gallery, Community Arts Division, Junior Arts Center, Barnsdall Art Center and the Barnsdall Gallery Theater.
But the crown jewel is the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home, built for Philadelphia oil heiress Aline Barnsdall in 1919-1921, known as Hollyhock House.
Barnsdall (1882-1946) was a philanthropist, art collector, bohemian and single-mother-by-choice of a daughter nicknamed “Sugartop,” who she’d conceived out of wedlock with a Polish actor.
Envisioning the creation of an arts complex where she could produce theater in her own venue, Barnsdall bought the 38-acre site, then known as Olive Hill, in 1919. She hired hotshot young architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Though their relationship began warmly and well, the project came in at three times over budget and was never finished. Consumed with domestic troubles and the design of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, the notoriously egocentric Wright handed off much of the work to architect Rudolph Schindler and his son, Frank Lloyd Wright Jr.
He combined elements of Mesoamerican Pueblo, hacienda and temple traditions into a style he called “Romanza” for the two-story, 6,000-square foot house, constructed of hollow clay tiles covered with stucco. Also on the site were two guesthouses, one of which remains.
You can take a guided tour of the grounds and exterior, but I preferred to wander.
Trees include crepe myrtles, bottlebrush, olive trees and a large stand of drought-afflicted pines.
The low-slung roofs, recessed windows, stylized Mayan friezes and human figures scattered throughout evoked a scene from Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust.”
One shirtless Adonis did Tai Chi, displaying his oiled biceps to full effect, on the lawn.
Another stood in an open portico, facing the Hollywood sign, and did battle with a punching bag.
A third young fellow who looked to be headed for a screen test sat in the lotus position beneath a jacaranda tree.
The rules for inside are no photos, no touching and the donning of a pair of paper booties so as not to wreck the floors.
The 16-room house features split levels, terraces and overhangs. The hollyhock, Barnsdall’s favorite flower, is the central motif, starting on the exterior friezes and extending inside to cast concrete adornments and decorative strips on the window surrounds.
Two tall deep-pin actual hollyhocks flank the Garden Court to the east of the Central Hallway.
Visitors can view, but not enter, the kitchen, formal dining room, living room and pergola. The conservatory and south-facing library — orange sherbet cove ceilings, custom overhead lighting, purple Japanese rug — now overlook the back of Kaiser Sunset and are also off-limits. Only the entertainment room, a radical innovation in its day, is available to be walked around in.
The fruit of Frank Lloyd Wright’s genius seems to have been homes that were incredibly gorgeous and completely impractical. The living room includes a to-die-for FLW-designed armchair so close to the floor it would require being lowered into by pulley, and a moated fireplace meant to combine the four elements of earth, water, fire and air that cost a fortune and didn’t work. Water leaked into the living room from the lawn, and the roof terraces and cantilevered concrete were conceived without apparent knowledge of L.A.’s rains and earthquakes.
And for all Wright’s vaunted blurring of the distinction between exterior and interior, to me the house felt claustrophobic. Individually, each leaded art glass window, cabinet and vase was exquisite. But overall the ceilings were too low, the windows withholding and to sink back onto, say, one of those museum-piece sofas with some candy and a book — as we like to do in our actual homes — is unimaginable.
Nonetheless, Aline Barnsdall’s vision lives on and so, in its way, does Frank Lloyd Wright’s. Today, the Barnsdall Art Park offers community classes in printmaking, drawing, tapestry weaving and ceramics. This architectural gem sitting within a stone’s throw of Radio Shack and Rite Aid is a prime example of L.A.’s ever-accreting palimpsest of the old and the new. We’re like the Rome of the West, except we tend to count our history by decades, not centuries.
Frustrated by the building delays and cost overruns, in 1927 Barnsdall donated the house to the City of Los Angeles. Since then, it’s been variously used as the headquarters for the California Art Club, an art gallery and a USO facility.
In 2007, the house was designated a National Historic Landmark. In 2008, it was named in a Los Angeles Times survey as one of the city’s “top 10” houses. And when the house re-opened in January 2015, after a $4 million restoration, Angelenos waited for hours throughout the night to participate in the 24-hour event.
Removing my paper booties, I thought of the unseen, unsung fleet of volunteer preservationists, docents and supporters of the arts who have kept Hollyhock House intact through the years.
And on my way out, I passed that movie-star handsome guy, still in the lotus position, and said a little prayer that he’d get the part.
Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books.