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Some unfinished business

Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House was never trouble-free. Much-needed restoration has even run into problems. Still, hope dawns.

June 01, 2003|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Beautiful and vexing. An expensive piece of unfinished business.

That's what Frank Lloyd Wright thought of his architectural jewel, Hollyhock House, in 1921 after planting it atop a hill that sits like a 90-foot-high gumdrop stuck to the flat terrain of eastern Hollywood.

And beautiful, vexing, expensive and unfinished are what the house and its surrounding park have proved to be again. During the past two years, a small army of builders, architects, historical preservation experts and city bureaucrats has been striving -- sometimes contentiously -- to revitalize the neglected grounds and stabilize the dilapidated, earthquake-damaged house. That's twice as long as they expected the work to take. And the cost, $17.1 million, is 20% more than the $14.3 million that project's overseer, the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, had initially estimated.

The results are stirring to some who love Barnsdall Park and Hollyhock House, but even they feel strongly the sense of incompletion that seems to be the place's legacy or curse. The park is scheduled to reopen today, and the public can stroll the grounds to see what the first installment of a two-phase renewal project has wrought. An art show opens Wednesday in the gallery the city built near the house in 1971, and art classes will resume in the fall at the Junior Arts Center, added to Barnsdall in 1967.

But there is no guarantee that building inspectors will find Hollyhock House sufficiently safe and accessible to reopen for the guided tours that used to attract 60,000 visitors annually; Melvyn Green, the project's structural engineer, says the house is stronger now, and he sees no reason why tours can't resume. As for the second phase of the project -- needed to restore the still cracked and weathered-looking house to vintage condition -- it's not even on the drawing board yet. Not a cent has been secured to pay for the additional work, which the city has estimated at roughly $20 million or more for Hollyhock and a nearby, Wright-designed guest house.

People who return to the park at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vermont Avenue will be greeted by more than 400 newly planted olive trees. The driveways and walkways are lined by old-fashioned lamps decorated with the geometric rendering of the hollyhock flower that Wright coined as the site's core motif. At the top, visitors will encounter new gardens and a fresh grove of 107 pine trees -- an approximation of what was planted there by Wright and his two famous assistants, his son, Lloyd, and R.M. Schindler. They will see Hollyhock House, evocative of ancient Mayan architecture, adorned anew with concrete spires and smaller roof decorations that were toppled or damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. And they will find the upper reaches of the formerly all-beige house restored to its original tint, the palest of greens, which Wright intended to match the underside of an olive leaf.

But at least for now, visitors will only be able to peer from the outside at the furniture and the Modernist fireplace frieze that Wright designed for Hollyhock House. The historic outlying building known as Residence A will be strictly off-limits, no longer available for the art classes it had housed since the 1940s.

Before examining the accomplishments and mishaps of the Barnsdall Park project, it's worth considering the great hopes that went into the creation of Hollyhock House more than 80 years ago -- and how most of them crumbled.

Aline Barnsdall, a petroleum heiress and Chicago theater producer, envisioned Los Angeles as a great city of the future and wanted to cast herself as its cultural benefactress. She bought the 36-acre city block known as Olive Hill and had Wright design an arts complex that included her residence, Hollyhock House, named for her favorite flower. But little got built -- what does exist was accomplished amid monumental haggling over money and disputes between Wright and the contractor.

In her book "Frank Lloyd Wright: Hollyhock House and Olive Hill," historian Kathryn Smith quotes the pained and grandiloquent letter the great architect wrote to Barnsdall after the house was finished:

"Well -- the building stands....It is yours for what it has cost you. It is mine for what it has cost me. And it is for all mankind

Hollyhock House might have been a treasure for all mankind, but it was nothing but a burden to Barnsdall. She couldn't stand living under its leaky roof. A small woman, she complained that she couldn't even budge its concrete front door by herself. She soon moved out, and in 1927 she deeded the house and part of the surrounding acreage to the city for use as an arts-oriented park.

Over the years, the landscaping deteriorated, the pines died and the olive trees were uprooted. A hospital, a shopping center and apartments were built on chunks of the Barnsdall land, walling off the park on all but the Hollywood Boulevard side.

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