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Saving Wright's Legacy Before It Crumbles Away

September 21, 1997|Michael Webb | Michael Webb is author of "Architecture + Design LA" and "The City Square."

Frank Lloyd Wright is the one architect most Americans know by name. His likeness has appeared on a postage stamp; every season brings a fresh crop of books about his work, and attendance is booming at even the most remote of his buildings. His name and achievement are revered around the world. Yet in Los Angeles, where he designed important work, his legacy is sadly neglected. Two houses were destroyed by fire; three others are privately owned. Of the three available to the public, the Ennis house in Griffith Park is about to be restored; the Freeman house in Hollywood, owned by USC, is in ruinous condition and can no longer be visited, and the Hollyhock house in Barnsdall Art Park, owned by the city, is open six days a week, but is disfigured by cracks and water damage, its entrance canopy propped up by steel beams.

The Northridge earthquake exacerbated problems evident for many years. The Freeman and Hollyhock houses were in urgent need of repair before January 1994, and are in far worse condition now. The USC School of Architecture estimates that $500,000 has been spent on research studies and repairs to the Freeman house; a detailed technical report has been developed over 12 years, but little actual work has been done. Meanwhile, the last major restoration of Hollyhock was in 1974, but much remained to be accomplished.

At the start of what may be the stormiest winter in a half-century, both houses await essential structural repairs, and neither has yet received disaster-relief funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Custodians of other seismically battered historic buildings moved swiftly, secured money and completed repairs. UCLA's Royce Hall has been restored and will reopen next April. Prevarication and neglect have damaged the Wright houses almost as much as the quake itself.

The Freeman house is as vulnerable as a dinghy in a storm. Constructed in 1924 from concrete blocks cast on site from patterned molds, it has barely survived three major quakes and the corrosive pollution of traffic from the nearby intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. Deterioration was already evident in 1985, when the house was bequeathed to USC, but it has greatly decayed in the years since. Rain has penetrated the blocks, rusting the steel tie-rods and splitting open the exterior walls. Most will have to be rebuilt, together with the shaky foundation and rotting wooden roof--but there is no room on this steep hillside to bring in heavy equipment. Much of the work will have to be done by hand, in the same way the house was built. The cost of a full restoration is estimated at $3.6 million--far beyond the promised FEMA grant of $850,000 and the resources of USC.

Why bother? The lucky few who have seen the house or know its history have the answer. Wright wanted to revitalize American architecture by imbuing it with the proud spirit of its pre-Columbian past. He envisioned noble structures created from humble materials, growing from the soil and offering affordable shelter to a mass public. He pursued this dream for 50 years and was constantly frustrated, but the few mementos of his effort deserve to be celebrated.

Though the technology was crude, the Freeman house soars, framing time-capsule views of Hollywood, and lifting the spirits with its finely proportioned spaces and rich textures. Rudolph Schindler, who journeyed from Vienna to work with Wright, and later became one of L.A.'s greatest modern architects, remodeled parts of the interior and designed the built-in furniture. Dancer Bella Lewitsky and photographer Edward Weston were among the many noted guests and tenants. In every way, the Freeman house is an essential piece of the city's architectural and social history.

It is too valuable to lose, but it's not clear that USC has the means or the will to save it. Fortunately, Robert H. Timme, new dean of the Architecture School, is looking for a partner institution to share the burden. He also has commissioned Frank Dimster, a faculty member, to take immediate action to protect the structure from rain and stabilize the foundations. Dimster did an exemplary job restoring the Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades--transforming the former Feuchtwanger home into a scholarly institute, but he says he is awed by this challenge.

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