February 2, 2012 at 1:49 pm in History
Smack dab in East Hollywood sits one of Frank Lloyd Wright‘s gems, the Hollyhock House. I was part of a private tour of the house recently, and was truly, er, floored.
Hollyhock House was built for oil heiress and single mom Aline Barnsdall just after World War I. The setting was a stunning hilltop olive grove surrounded by 36 acres, with 360-degree views of a then very picturesque, perhaps even quaint, Los Angeles. Barnsdall designed her homestead as a multi-structure arts complex, complete with theaters for both live performances and films. Today, that spirit remains, as the property is now the Barnsdall Art Park, housing the Los Angeles Municipal Art gallery, theater, and art center where numerous art and music classes are held.
Pulling into the park off of Hollywood Blvd., you proceed up a windy road and are immediately transported back in time. Wright called the style of the Hollyhock House “California Romanza”. That’s a made-up term which apparently means “I’ll do whatever I want”. Some people refer to the style as “Mayan” due to the geometric shapes, especially the slant of the roof line. However, that’s a bit of a misrepresentation. For example, the details around the roof are not Mayan gods, but rather, modernized portrayals of the Hollyhock flower which Aline Barnsdall liked so much, and which gave the house its name.
Anyway, it works. The Hollyhock House must have been radically modern when built, just a few years after fru-fru Victorian homes were still being constructed and stuffed with chintz. Hollyhock is full of hard surfaces, skylights, and out-of-the-box concepts like the ultra-modern carved living room fireplace with its lily pond moat. Everywhere you look, whether on the walls, the ceilings, or the windows, there’s a fascinating and largely functional detail. For example, in the child’s play room, Wright pioneered his glass-on-glass window corners that create a nearly seamless transition between indoors and outdoors.
Unfortunately, as with other Wright homes, proper function sometimes falls victim to form at the Hollyhock House. The design and materials trapped moisture and cold, and Hollyhock reportedly was too cool, dark, and drafty to be a truly comfortable home for Aline Barnsdall and her daughter. Indeed, it feels rather uninviting upon entry. The moisture also wreaked considerable damage on Hollyhock over the years, and a major three-year repair and renovation is now underway, with two more years to go. As a result, any tour taken during this time is abbreviated.
Still, touring the Hollyhock House is like walking into a three-dimensional painting by one of the masters. It’s a spectacular way to enter the mind of a genius, and to take a step back into the Los Angeles of nearly a century ago.