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LOST L.A. : CAN IT BE MADE WRIGHT AGAIN? : The Sad State of Frank Lloyd Wright's '20s Hollywood Classic

February 18, 1996|DIANE HAITHMAN | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer in Calendar

From the car-choked intersection of Highland and Franklin avenues, it's hard to imagine a time when the streets leading up to Hollywood Heights were unpaved dirt roads, when neither smoggy air nor tall buildings blocked the panoramic view. That was 1920s Hollywood, when a walk down from neighboring Hollywood Heights led to a thriving Hollywood Boulevard where one could browse music and bookstores or shop for, say, a Chanel suit before dinner at Musso & Frank.

It was a time when the Freeman House at 1962 Glencoe Way in Hollywood Heights, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, was the only house on the block. Completed in 1925, the two-story house is one of only four concrete block houses in Los Angeles designed by the Wisconsin-born architect.

Today, the structure has been badly damaged by time and erosion --as well as the Northridge earthquake. Built for a then-exorbitant $23,000 the house needs an estimated $2.5 million restoration, but its chances of getting that are unclear. While Federal Emergency Management Agency is responsible for seismic repairs (a decision is still pending), additional funds from other sources must be raised for restoration and conservation. In the meantime the house continues to erode.

Wright's L.A. textile-block houses, all constructed of 16-by-16 inch patterned concrete blocks, represent part of his attempt to create a uniquely Californian architectural style. During a brief period in Los Angeles, he built the Freeman House, along with the Millard House, also known as La Miniatura (645 Prospect Crescent, Pasadena, 1923), the Storer House (8161 Hollywood Blvd, 1923), and the Ennis-Brown House (2655 Glendower Ave., Los Feliz,1924, which has received substantial FEMA repair funds), and later concrete- block structures around the country.

The Freeman House was commissioned by a couple described as somewhat odd by those who knew them. Sam was an active Socialist and businessman whose stock inheritance from the family's downtown jewelry business allowed him to retire young. Harriet Freeman, following a brief film and vaudeville career, became a dance teacher, most notably to the starlets at Warner Bros. But she clung to the fringes of the era's avant garde arts scene, dancing to drums and espousing the era's fascination with barefoot Isadora Duncan. "When one is here, one canimagine what life was like in Hollywood circa the 1920s and 1930s," says Jeffrey Chusid, USC adjunct professor of architecture, who lives at the Freeman House as its resident director. "Ypu can imagine the salons that happened here, the artists and actors, painters and dancers, who ere part of the daily life of the Freemans

"This neighborhood could be fairly described in terms of its historic architecture," he continues. "It has Rudolf Schinder houses, houses by Rafael Soriano, by Frank Lloyd Wright's son Lloyd Wright, it has the Highland Camrose bungalow village, which was the first community in the Hollywood Hills.

"You also see the connection between things like the Hollywood Bowl, originally designed by [Frank Lloyd Wright's son] Lloyd Wright, who was also the contractor on this house, and the Egyptian Theatre, which was built in 1922 and one of the infuences on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Freemans maintained separate bedrooms; Wright designed a lounge for the couple to share between the rooms, but three years after moving in, the Freemans hired a Wright protege, architect Rudolf M. Schindler, to re-design the house's interior and replace Wright's austere furniture (there is speculation that Schindler, who was romantically involved with several female clients, was a special friend of Harriet's). The lounge was replaced with a guest apartment.

Some Wright-designed standing lamps remain in the living room, and Schindler took the top half of a Wright dining table and fashioned it intoan existing coffee table. But other pieces Wright created for the house--an austere pair of high-back chairs and two bookcases6have disappeared,

Sam Freeman died in 1981, and Harriet in 1986. Harriet willed the house to its current owner, the University of Southern California's school of architecture, which has plans to use it as a residence for visiting distinguished faculty, and will continue its current role as a class and research facility and a house museum. It is currently open for public tours on Saturdays.

But as any visitor to the house might observe, faculty, distinguished or otherwise, will not be moving in any time soon. Of Los Angeles' four block houses----the Freeman house is arguably in the worst shape.

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