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History on the Hilltop : Barnsdall Park in Dire Need of Restoration to Preserve Its Image as Acropolis of Los Angeles

August 27, 1987|LARRY GORDON | Times Staff Writer

Some people call Barnsdall Park the Acropolis of Los Angeles.

After all, it is on a hilltop, has a collection of cultural institutions, includes some world-renowned architecture and has an interesting history.

Plus, cynics would add, Barnsdall Park needs some heavy-duty housekeeping, like the Acropolis in Athens.

Los Angeles officials want the park in east Hollywood to be known as a thriving center for the arts, not as a potential collection of ruins. They concede, however, that Barnsdall Park has physical, social and identity problems.

Study Shapes Park's Fate

So, after a year of bureaucratic delays, a $100,000 city-financed study of Barnsdall and some of its problems is expected to begin next month. Special attention will be given to better maintainance of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structures on the hill and possible conversion of a former garage into a visitors center and book shop.

The study will also address some questions of landscaping, parking, security and how to let the public know what the 11.4-acre park has to offer. "It is an important city asset, but it is invisible to a lot of people," said Mark Hall, president of Archiplan Urban Design Collaborative, the firm that is to conduct the study along with such consultants as noted restoration expert Martin Eli Weil.

Fred Croton, general manager of the city's Cultural Affairs Department, said: "We hope a revivification will come out of this." He said he especially hopes the large Latino and Armenian communities in the neighborhood come to use the park's facilities more.

Above the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vermont Avenue on what used to be called Olive Hill, Barnsdall is home to five cultural institutions: the 10,000-square-foot Municipal Art Gallery, which stresses contemporary art shows; the 300-seat Gallery Theater for music and drama; the Junior Arts Center school for children; the Barnsdall Art Center school for adults, and--the jewel of the hill--Hollyhock House, built in 1920 and the first of Wright's buildings in Southern California.

There are also two big lawns used by picnickers and the homeless, some hillside paths and groves of dying olive trees.

Hidden on Hill

However, little of that is visible to casual passers-by; the hill is hidden by a shopping center, a car wash and a massive row of hospital buildings. Signs and access to the park should be improved to attract more visitors, Hall said.

There has been some talk in city circles of acquiring adjacent property that originally was part of the 36-acre estate of oil heiress and political radical Aline Barnsdall. It was Barnsdall's dream, sketched out by Wright, to create an elaborate arts colony and performance center there.

Barnsdall hired Wright to develop a plan that would include several theaters, art workshops, housing for artists and her own residence, plus a waterfall down to Vermont Avenue. Of this ambitious scheme, only Hollyhock House and two guest residences were completed by 1923 when Barnsdall abandoned her plan. After much haggling, the city in 1926 accepted her gift of Hollyhock House, a guest house and the top of the hill.

City officials say they do not want Archiplan to study expansion or the acquisition of the Vermont Avenue shopping center owned by Aline Barnsdall's heirs; that, they say, should be saved for another study.

"Now we are trying to preserve what we have," city architect Paul J. McCarty said. "We just want to get started."

Nevertheless, architecture students at the University of Southern California and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, are expected to work this year on park projects, suggesting ways the park could more closely follow the original visions of Barnsdall and Wright.

The schools got involved at the request of David Abel, a public affairs consultant who heads a Committee on the Future of Barnsdall Park. That committee was formed by Councilman Michael Woo, whose 13th District includes east Hollywood.

Hall, speaking for Archiplan, said he will welcome the students' ideas. Hall also said his staff will look for ways to make the park and shopping center more compatible, using landscaping and decorating.

Cost Prohibitive

A mayoral task force reported two years ago that the cost of buying adjacent land would be "absolutely prohibitive" and that adding flatlands below the hill might only attract more vagrants to the park and lead to more vandalism and graffiti.

The park's relative isolation above the hubbub of Hollywood "makes it a magical, special place," Hall said. But that same isolation appeals to the homeless seeking refuge from the meaner streets below and to some homosexuals looking for a nighttime trysting spot.

Some of Barnsdall Park's other problems are caused by the very thing that made it famous: Wright's design. His revolutionary use of precast concrete blocks was essential to Hollyhock House's style, reminiscent of a Mayan palace. But those blocks are notoriously susceptible to water seepage and decay.

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