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Wright, Done Wrong

Commentary: The Freeman House, now owned by USC, is in dire need of repair. The school, which is in a disagreement with FEMA over restoration money, has neglected it.

March 14, 1998|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Fifteen years ago, USC's School of Architecture took on the task of restoring one of Frank Lloyd Wright's concrete block residences, the Freeman House, which the celebrated architect designed in 1924 for a young avant-garde couple. The house was bequeathed to the university in 1983, three years before its original owner, Harriet Freeman, died there.

Today, the house is a conspicuous object of neglect. Standing at a tight turn on Glencoe Way in the Hollywood Hills, Wright's creation looks ominously fragile: Along the facade, concrete blocks are cracked or have crumbled away. Wood supports brace the fragile exterior side walls. A heavy canvas tarp is propped, tent-like, over the roof--a necessary prophylactic because the structure leaks. It is a depressing sight.

The Freeman House's current state stems largely to problems revealed when the building was damaged during the 1994 Northridge earthquake--damage that has not been repaired due to a disagreement between the school and the Federal Emergency Management Agency over the scope and cost of much-needed structural work. Last June, FEMA offered the school more than $850,000 to rebuild the house's underlying structure and to bring the building up to current seismic codes. But the university won't accept the money because it fears that it might not be enough to complete the job.

Late last year, the dean of USC's School of Architecture, Robert H. Timme, approached the Getty Conservation Institute with the hope that the cash-rich nonprofit would become a partner in the restoration effort. The Getty has responded with some interest, but for now has only tentatively scheduled a meeting for next month to discuss appropriate conservation techniques and possible future uses for the house if it is saved.

Meanwhile, the clock still ticks. The house has stood empty since last August, when its resident director, Jeffrey Chusid, who had been on the faculty of the USC School of Architecture, moved out after 12 years to take a job at the University of Texas at Austin. The concrete blocks and reinforcement bars that make up the house's structural frame continue to crumble and rust. Neighbors--who say they have waited more than a decade without any visible improvements to the house--complain regularly that the building is an eyesore and that the school has done nothing but make false promises about its rehabilitation.

For the cultural heritage of Los Angeles, USC's glaring ineptitude is a tragedy. But to write this off simply as a local story of bureaucratic bungling is to miss the point. Wright designed four concrete block houses in Los Angeles during the 1920s, and together they represent a remarkable experiment for suburban housing in Los Angeles. Of the four, the Freeman House--at 2,800 square feet--was both the most compact and the most functionally informal. Harriet Freeman and her husband, Sam, envisioned it as a cultural center for the community. It is now the only concrete block house not in private hands.

In a broad sense, the house's neglect reflects both a general ambivalence by Angelenos about the city's great Modernist tradition and an inability to grasp the ways in which that tradition can still play an active role in the city's evolving identity.

The house is a masterpiece of residential design. Wright conceived it as a series of interlocking cubes. The main structure, with its adjacent garage, forms an L-shape at the bend of a steep, narrow road. Visitors arrive where the two forms part, entering to face a dark staircase leading to the bedrooms below or turning toward a low, tight corridor--a favorite Wrightian trick--that leads to the living room, one of Wright's most beautifully balanced spaces.

To the north, the room is visually anchored to the hill by a massive hearth, like some primitive cave. Opposite, two massive pillars frame a view extending over a stone terrace and out along the spine of Highland Avenue. On either side, the walls dissolve into delicate two-story corner windows. The competing effects--of being cozily anchored into the hillside and of floating above the landscape--wonderfully interlock.

The Freemans used their home as a salon for the West Coast avant-garde, a gathering place for artists and Leftists. Martha Graham came for cocktails. Blacklisted actors sought sanctuary from the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Wright's disciple, the Vienna-born Rudolph Schindler, came for dinner and designed most of the house's furniture. Yet it was never an easy place to live. Despite Wright's professed interest in making the house a model of affordable suburban living, the estimated cost he gave the Freemans of $9,100 ballooned to $23,000.

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