Iconic Perspectives: Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House

Iconic Perspectives: Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House

Presented by Nest
At this day and age, the name Frank Lloyd Wright is virtually inseparable from the topic of American architecture.

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.  

The Hollyhock House reveals Wright’s usage of an open concept plan. Our house docent described to us, "For Wright, compression was always followed by relief. After passing through low entry hallways and multiple columns, you then enter into large open spaces through dramatic passages." 

The Vision

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.

Shown here is Aline Barnsdall herself, lounging on the grounds of the Hollyhock House with her dog. The story of the residence could not be told without the powerful presence she held over the project. 

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.

In an attempt to create a strong connection to nature, Wright incorporated outdoor sleeping porches on all five of the bays. This was an experimental and forward-thinking practice that both Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler also incorporated into their L.A. designs. 

The Drama

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.

With the approval from Barnsdall, Wright incorporated Japanese influences throughout, including a set of authentic 18th-century Japanese screens. Since the originals were stolen during the house’s "dark years," the ones seen here are reproductions.

The Inspiration 

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.

One of the standout moments in the space is the cast-concrete fireplace, which is considered to be one of Wright’s greatest two-dimensional works of art. He completed the fireplace, a skylight above, and a moat that was designed to hold a pool of water. This was originally part of an elaborate water scheme to run through the property, though it was never completed. 

Since Barnsdall knew exactly what she wanted, she only let Wright design the furnishings for two of the rooms, including the living room and the dining room. The rest of the house was filled with items she had collected throughout her travels. 

The Materials

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 thoughtful repetition of the hollyhock motif was pointed out everywhere we went. Even the living space rug—which was also designed by Wright—featured the motif with a range of bright colors. The original version (this is a reproduction) was built as one large piece that covered the living room and the extended spaces surrounding it without any seams. 

Since Wright was simultaneously working on the Japanese Imperial Hotel, he incorporated many Japanese details in the design of the Hollyhock House. Along with the Japanese screens in the living room, there's also a Buddhist sculpture at the end of a long hallway that’s lined with art glass.

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.

Many of the elements throughout were influenced by his Prairie houses, including built-in furnishings, a substantial amount of wood, and art glass. The dining set was created custom by Wright and features a low seat and straight back—both signs of the Prairie style—and also boasts the Hollyhock motif running up the spine of the chair and the table’s pedestal.

While exploring upstairs, we came across Barnsdall’s young daughter’s room, where we found this animated portrait of Elizabeth (nicknamed Sugartop) in all of her theatrical glory. Barnsdall was known for being thoroughly artistic, confident, progressive, and political—and her daughter followed closely in her footsteps. Notice again the hollyhock motif lining the exterior of the building. 

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.

The hollyhock motifs lining the exterior of the building were thought to have been created on-site by combining dry natural materials with water into a mold that would then form into the desired shape. The use of clay created the look and feel of concrete that’s clearly influenced by pre-Columbian indigenous architecture. 

The Hollyhock House was one of the last residences where Wright designed a comprehensive art glass window scheme that’s carried throughout the residence. Throughout the property, there are 130 examples of this. 

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."

The Hollyhock House is open to the public through self-guided tours or personal docent-led tours. They also open the lawn to community events including art workshops, cultural get-togethers, and outdoor movie nights. 

Learn more about the 2016 International Iconic Houses Conference here—where we were given the chance to tour this incredible home. Also, make sure to take a look at the Hollyhock House's site so that you can experience this iconic structure for yourself.


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