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A Hollywood Legend

Greenlighted for restoration after years in disrepair, the Freeman House is an archtectural classic and a souvenir of L.A. history

November 26, 2000|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The place had a magic, an ancient feeling, like a stone fortress that has withstood and sheltered and abides." --Esther van Dekker, describing the Freeman House, where she, her struggling actor husband and infant daughter lived for eight months in the mid-'30s.

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As quirky as the couple for whom it was built, the Freeman House sits in a state of disrepair overlooking a Hollywood in transition. But the innovative Frank Lloyd Wright-designed residence, built in 1924-25 for $23,000, is at last getting a $1.2-million shoring-up, prelude to a planned renovation. Last week, holes 28 feet deep were being drilled, and 11 of the 23 caissons that will anchor the house to its hillside lot at 1962 Glencoe Way were being placed. The overgrown landscaping was being cleared to make room for scaffolding. The Rudolph Schindler-designed built-in furniture had been removed to storage.

Drilling that first hole without incident was a watershed, said Dean Robert H. Timme of the USC School of Architecture. "There were so many unknowns. We were afraid we were going to hit something down underneath there, the road or something." The 2,500-square-foot house is one of four Los Angeles-area houses designed by Wright known as textile-block houses, so named for their patterned concrete-block interior and exterior walls, and is architecturally important as the prototype for his Usonian houses of the '30s, which reflect the changing American lifestyles through their "tadpole" design--large living/dining area, small private rooms.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 26, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Clarification: A photo caption with a story about Frank Lloyd Wright's Freeman House on the cover of today's Southern California Living section inadvertently omitted the affiliations of the photo's subjects. William Yang is project engineer for the restoration, Frank Dimster is a professor of architecture at USC, Robert H. Timme is dean of USC's School of Architecture and Eric Lloyd Wright is a consultant on the project.

Inside the Freeman House, a spacious, high-ceilinged living room, anchored on the north with a massive fireplace, is the piece de resistance. The kitchen and both bedrooms are, by today's standards, on the small side. Originally, there was one bath. A second, a makeshift affair added later, will be ripped out.

The house was designed for Harriet and Samuel Freeman, an avant-garde couple who were part of a social-artistic-political circle that included actor Claude Rains, dancers Martha Graham and Bella Lewitzky and photographer Edward Weston. Over five decades, it was the setting for many a salon gathering.

Built on a soft-soil slope in an era of far less rigid construction codes, the house presented problems long before the 1994 Northridge earthquake, from which it suffered significant damage. The 16-by-16-inch concrete blocks for the walls were molded with on-site sand, and over the years many absorbed water and crumbled. Steel rods holding the blocks in place rusted. "Even without the earthquake, there would have been continuous deterioration," Timme says.

Former boarder Wyn Evans, who as a struggling young dancer in the late '30s occupied the living-room sofa, told Jeffrey Chusid, a former USC architecture professor and onetime resident director of the house, that even then, "water came in through the doors, and the cement walls were always damp. The little things, like being damp and being smelly, didn't seem to bother [the Freemans]."

And Wright was not always the most practical of men. The house was designed without a broom closet, and without a space for the hot water heater, which was plopped outside. "He didn't care about things like that," Timme says. "He was an artist." Today, the home's reflecting pool stands empty. Its walls are buckling, its ceilings discolored, the wood floor in the living room warped. Throughout, there is a certain mustiness.

The house has stood vacant since 1997, when Chusid, the last tenant, moved out. He had been resident director since USC took over ownership in 1986, as stipulated in Harriet's will. And it has been at the eye of a storm of controversy as USC struggled to find funds to restore it.

The Freemans had no children, and Harriet bequeathed the house to USC in 1983, three years before she died in it. Five years earlier her husband had also died there. For 14 years, the house has been in restoration limbo, a victim both of its intrinsic structural shortcomings and, more recently, of the earthquake damage.

Harriet left $200,000 for maintenance, but that has been long since used up. As walls buckled and water seeped in, the university scrambled to find funds to bring the house back up to snuff. Shored up with wooden planks and tented to keep out rain, Wright's house had become not only an eyesore, neighbors complained, but also a magnet for crime.

If USC couldn't find the money to make more than "a half-hearted effort" to fix it, they asked, why didn't they turn the house over to someone who could?

USC considered selling--Harriet Freeman's will made no stipulation that would have prevented them from doing so--but there was one huge stumbling block: $760,000 in Federal Emergency Management Assn. funds promised to USC for earthquake damage repairs would not have transferred to a new owner.

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