Hollyhock House in Los Angeles, Calif. is Worth the Trip
Created by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the Romanza style home shines a light on the past.
When oil heiress Aline Barnsdall decided to create a performing arts complex, complete with residences and a theater, she enlisted architect Frank Lloyd Wright to helm the project. Southern California and its nascent entertainment industry drew the pair west. Barnsdall purchased 36 acres on a Los Angeles hilltop, and Wright designed several structures for the property, with Hollyhock House serving as Barnsdall and her daughter’s home.
Construction began in 1919, but cost overruns, technical problems and personality conflicts surfaced almost immediately, leading Barnsdall to fire Wright two years later. She never lived in the house, instead donating the buildings and 12 acres—now known as Barnsdall Art Park—to the City of Los Angeles in 1927. Although her grand plan wasn’t realized, Hollyhock House survived. This National Historic Landmark is an architectural treasure that offers a fascinating glimpse into design, construction, history and the two iconoclasts responsible for its existence.
Wright and Barnsdall were kindred spirits in many ways. Neither let conventional morality dictate their behavior. Barnsdall was educated in Europe, pursued a career in theater and music, supported radical causes, and didn’t try to hide the fact that her daughter, nicknamed “Sugartop,” was born out of wedlock. Wright left his wife and kids to pursue an affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, who was married to one of his clients.
The architect and the heiress also shared an interest in Asian art, recognized the dominance that Los Angeles would soon have in theater and movies, and understood that “freedom” and “power” really meant “money.”
Barnsdall’s Olive Hill land purchase was irresistible even to Wright, thanks to its stunning views of the city, the San Gabriel Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. (The Hollywood sign and Griffith Observatory were erected later.) Rather than place his first Los Angeles house on the brow of the hill as he usually preferred, he put it right on top.
Hollyhock House is designed in California Romanza style. Based on a musical term that means “freedom to make one’s own form,” Romanza bridges prairie school and modernist architecture. Wright blurred the lines between interior and exterior, ensuring that all major rooms had an outdoor counterpart or direct access to the exterior to enhance the connection to the environment. The U-shaped house was built around a central courtyard, with roof terraces increasing the useable outdoor space. Inside, Wright’s use of water foreshadows his 1935 Pennsylvania masterpiece, Fallingwater. Rooms were defined by changing ceiling heights, incorporating different materials and varying the moldings to delineate borders.
Barnsdall’s favorite flower gave the house its name. A geometric abstraction of the hollyhock marches around the exterior friezes of the imposing “Temple” or “Mayan Revival” building. Actual hollyhock plants abound, lending their colorful blooms to the landscape from spring through late summer. The motif recurs in leaded glass windows, furniture, planters, the fireplace and even the carpeting.
Wright was preoccupied with his commission for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo at the same time he was supposed to be working on Hollyhock House. Between his travel schedule and Barnsdall’s, architect and client were rarely on site simultaneously. As costs mounted and goals diverged, the two clashed.
Wright dispatched project manager Rudolph Schindler to California to manage Hollyhock House. Wright’s son, Lloyd, then head of design at Paramount Studios, also assisted with construction and landscaping. The original plan called for two secondary residences, a director’s house, a dormitory, studios and shops, but only Hollyhock House, Residence A (currently undergoing renovation) and Residence B (since demolished) were built. Thankfully, a series of restorations has made Hollyhock House fit for visitors, if not the owners’ original plans.
Two perfectly balanced concrete doors swing open easily to reveal the dramatic interior. In the dining room, a hexagonal tabletop sits on a triangular base and the spines of the chairs represent the home’s eponymous flowers, epitomizing Wright’s fondness for geometric shapes. On the other side of the entranceway is a cozy library with built-in shelves, soft lighting and a Hiroshige print on the wall. A Buddha overlooks the peaceful loggia.
Wright believed that the living room should be the heart of a home, and he spared no expense in the design and materials. Built-in sofas were luxuriously upholstered. Torchieres throughout the room showcase Tiffany vases. A pair of Japanese screens flanks a wall of windows. The carpet, weighing in at a whopping 1,500 pounds, is a reproduction of the original Edward Fields rug Wright designed.
The living room’s pièce de résistance, though, is its monumental fireplace, boasting a poured concrete bas-relief hearth decorated with circles, rectangles, diamonds and the omnipresent hollyhock. Above this focal point is a skylight, and the room is surrounded by a moat.
Originally, the water was supposed to flow from a pool in the courtyard through a tunnel, around the fireplace and out the other side to a fountain. But the plumbing never worked properly, and the feature was soon shut off. Plenty of water leaked in, though. Dismissive of such technical issues, Wright wrote, “Let’s forget it. The damned thing will float away some day and be forgotten.”
But that wasn’t the case.
Today, surrounded by a theater and art galleries, Barnsdall Art Park is closer to Barnsdall’s vision for an artists’ colony than it was a century ago. Benign neglect has given way to extensive restoration efforts and the corresponding funding. The City of Los Angeles and Project Restore continue to develop and renovate portions of the park. In July 2019, Hollyhock House was one of eight Frank Lloyd Wright buildings inscribed on the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List. A virtual tour is now available for anyone who can’t visit in person.
The argumentative heiress and architect would probably concede that those are welcome developments—even if they weren’t their ideas.