Iconic Perspectives: Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House
However, what’s not always recognized are the unsung stories that reveal the challenges that took place behind-the-scenes of his projects. One of the homes we visited at the Iconic Houses Conference in Los Angeles is one such example. The story behind the Hollyhock House is filled with drama that found its way into Wright’s life—both personal and professional. The result is an intriguing masterpiece that's filled with secrets just waiting to be discovered.
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As Wright’s first L.A. project, the iconic Hollyhock House was built between 1919 and 1921 and was filled with challenges from beginning to end. Enter Aline Barnsdall, the wealthy oil heiress and arts patron that held the dream of having a live-in venue to produce her own avant-garde plays. She was attempting to leave her mark on the cultural landscape of the area but in the meantime, created a sensational scandal with one of the most influential architects of the time.
It all began when Wright and Barnsdall selected a 36-acre site known as Olive Hill to build her version of a theater campus where she would live with her young daughter Elizabeth—nicknamed Sugartop. Her ideal plans included an actor's dormitory, theater, director’s house, artist studio, shops, and a motion picture theater. However, during construction, multiple financial disagreements and personality differences between the two led to her firing Wright in 1921.
Enter from stage left Rudolph Schindler, the Austrian-born architect who was making waves in the modern architecture world at the time and who was also one of the featured icons on the tours. At the beginning stages, Schindler was the project manager as well as a close friend to Wright. After Barnsdall fired Wright, guess who took over the project completely—you guessed right. Because of this exchange of power, Schindler's influences can be seen throughout the design—along with characteristic details that came from the participation of Richard Neutra, another iconic Viennese-born architect who also played a role in this endeavor.
After this took place, it affected the friendship of Wright and Schindler, which would never be the same again. Still, the project was never officially completed and no one ever even lived in the house. The only portions that were completed was the house itself, the garage, and two guesthouses—one of which no longer stands today.
Along with the robust directions that were coming from Barnsdall, Wright also had many years of past influences at his disposal. Our docent explained that many people have referred to this house as one of Wright’s first "Second Period" designs, which followed many years of him working within his signature "Prairie Style." For this project, he chose to base his design off of a Pre-Columbian temple form. Since the hollyhock was Barnsdall’s favorite flower, it became the motif that was heavily incorporated throughout both the structure and the interior furnishings. Though the interpretation of the flower is not as literal as one might expect, it's actually reminiscent of a Mayan carving—while feeling both futuristic and primitive at the same time.
If you had to guess the main material that was utilized throughout the structure, I’m quite certain you would guess concrete. However, the look of concrete is simply ornamental. The house itself is actually formed by hollow clay and covered with stucco, a common building material used in Southern California. Though this technique had been utilized to build L.A.'s City Hall and many other buildings of the era, Wright was being experimental considering his past work with more organic processes.
The L.A. Factor
Wright wanted to create a design that would be defined by the region and that took advantage of Southern California's temperate climate. To do this, each interior space is echoed with an exterior space in the form of pergolas, porches, outdoor sleeping quarters, glass doors, and rooftop terraces that look out to the Hollywood Hills and the Los Angeles Basin. As we were taking in the views, our docent pointed out the Hollywood sign and the Griffith Observatory in the distance. Interestingly enough, neither of these historical monuments existed when the house was being built, so it’s a lucky coincidence that the site can now offer one of the best views in town.
The Fate of the House
After the project left the hands of Wright in 1927, Barnsdall donated the house and 11 surrounding acres to the city of Los Angeles to be used as a public art park in memory of her father, Theodore Barnsdall. It’s roller coaster life then ensued:
- After Barnsdall passed away in 1946, Lloyd Wright (Frank Lloyd Wright’s son) took over the neglected project and led a renovation that ended up changing many of the original plans.
- The house then went through many random stages and tenants. In fact, for about a 15-year span, the house was boarded up while people broke in, carried out rowdy parties, and stole custom furniture. This included the original custom living room set that weighed more than a ton, and disappeared somewhere between World War II and 1974. Because of this, many of the furniture pieces in the house today are reproductions.
- In 1974, the city of Los Angeles attempted to save the house by bringing Lloyd back into the picture to restore it. He tried to put everything back the way his father had imagined, though some aspects still were left unattended.
- In 1976, its doors were officially opened as a house museum.
- From 2010 to 2014, an in-depth renovation occurred that sought to revive it to its former glory, while staying true to Wright’s original plans. It reopened to the public in February 2015.
In addition to us being able to tour the Hollyhock House, we were also given the chance to hear all about it from its head curator, Jeffrey Herr. During his talk at the Getty, he explained that their mission today is to share the splendor of the Hollyhock House to the best of their ability—which includes being as honest and candid about its scandalous history. He explained, "We can’t forget that the house is a product of the relationship between Wright and Barnsdall—both characters in their own rights. While emphasizing the importance of the visual experience of its decorative arts, incorporating its social aspects really brings the story to life."
"The house is a product of the relationship between Wright and Barnsdall—both characters in their own rights."