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Sam Hall Kaplan

Historic Houses Could Use Getty Trust's Help

October 06, 1985|Sam Hall Kaplan

The Getty Trust seems determined to create an architectural landmark in the hills of West Los Angeles, having spent years and hundreds of thousands of dollars selecting an architect and earmarking at least $100 million for construction.

We wish it well and hope that architect Richard Meier will rise to the occasion, as we are sure he will to the budget, and create something beyond his usually predictable pristine, well-composed but ultimately unsympathetic structures.

With an endowment of an estimated $2.3 billion, making it the richest institution of its kind in the world, the trust envisions a complex in large part dedicated to the conservation of art and to art education. It is a noble cause.

Meanwhile, as the Getty goes about planning for the complex and gathering in art, three of the world's masterpieces are under siege right here in Southern California. It is a situation that begs the involvement of the trust, if not for the conservation of the art, then simply as a politic gesture to its host community.

The internationally acclaimed art pieces are the Ennis-Brown House in Los Feliz designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Blacker house in Pasadena and the Pratt House in Ojai, both designed by Charles and Henry Greene.

It is not that any one person, corporation, community or agency is acting out of maliciousness, as would a vandal, but the effects are the same. Despite the good will and intentions from almost all quarters, the design integrity of two of the houses is being savaged and the third is deteriorating.

While the situations involving the responsibility for the restoration and preservation of each of the properties are quite different, the bottom line for all is the harsh economics of owning and maintaining a historic house.

Historic they are, with the Ennis-Brown house considered the best example of Wright's Mayan-styled, concrete-block design; and the Blacker and Pratt houses superb renditions of the quest of the Greene brothers for the ultimate California bungalow, replete with exquisite furnishing and finishes.

The result is that not only are the houses works of art, they also are civic treasures, nourishing the public's pride and sense of history, and Southern California's cultural aspirations.

As works of art, the houses therefore should be treated as such, just as if they were in a private collection or a public museum. Certainly they are as valuable as, say, a rare vase. It also seems they are as fragile.

In the case of the Ennis-Brown house, an estimated $500,000 is needed to preserve the concrete blocks that distinguish the design and another $100,000 a year to simply maintain the structure. To raise the money, the present owner, the nonprofit Trust for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, has had to resort to renting the house for receptions and parties, which nobody likes, particularly and understandably, the neighbors.

If the neighbors recent protests have done anything, they have exposed the present tenuous state of the maintenance and management of the house.

As for the Blacker house, it was sold last spring for $1.2 million to a Texas cattleman, who, on the questionable advice of a New York art dealer, proceeded to strip the house of its integral furnishings and fixtures. The resulting protests prompted the Texan to offer to sell back the house and fixtures, if a responsible preservationist group can be found with the money.

The situation surrounding the Pratt house is a little more complicated, with the house and its 52 acres in Ojai being controlled by bank trustees while the Pratt family tries to resolve inheritance problems. And, of course, there are lawsuits and the usual gathering of vultures. Meanwhile, a few furnishings are said to have been sold, and the house and grounds deteriorate.

In reviewing its goals, the Getty has said it does not want to use its enviable financial resources in unfair competition with other institutions to obtain art objects. But there is no real competition for historic houses, with enlightened patrons very much in demand. Here is an area ripe for the trust, and in keeping with the preservationist interests of its founder, the late J. Paul Getty,

The trust also has said it did not want to get involved with 20th-Century art. Presumably, it meant the fine arts, where the competition is fierce and fickle. But if it meant architecture as well, we hope exceptions can be made, bearing in mind that flexibility is the hallmark of all great institutions.

As for the often sticky aspects of restoration, preservation and operations, the Getty could work through other institutions or set up a new one. A fine example is how the USC School of Architecture joined with the city of Pasadena, and how together with a support group, they operate the Greene and Greene Gamble House.

A similar association could serve the Brown, Blacker and Pratt houses, but first they must be saved. Asking local agency and schools to step in at this point would only waste time. None has the resources of the Getty.

The trust already has demonstrated its commitment to create a new architectural landmark in Los Angeles. By becoming involved in conserving the Wright and Greene and Greene houses, it could also demonstrate its commitment to existing landmarks, as well as Southern California's rare and rich architectural heritage.

Considering what is at stake, it is a modest proposal.

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