A Key Piece of L.A.’s Barnsdall Art Park Thrives Again
Lemons and oranges were the choice crop for many farmers in late–19th century Southern California, but developer Joseph H. Spires pinned his hopes on olives. Spires purchased a 36-acre tract of land in what is now Los Angeles’ East Hollywood neighborhood around 1890, and he dreamed of building a grand hotel atop the hill at the center of his property. Olives would fund that venture. Spires planted 1,225 olive trees, spaced 20 feet apart in a tidy grid, along the hillside. His land came to be known as Olive Hill.
Spires’ hotel dreams never came to fruition. He died in 1913, and six years later, his widow sold the land to oil heiress and philanthropist Aline Barnsdall. Barnsdall envisioned building her house and a large theatrical arts complex on the hill. She commissioned a design from Frank Lloyd Wright, who incorporated Spires’ olive grove into his site plans. But the plans were only partially realized. Barnsdall’s Wright-designed Hollyhock House was completed in 1921, and she donated it and a portion of her land to the city in 1927 to establish what is now Barnsdall Art Park. (A theater and gallery eventually opened at the park in 1971.)
The remaining property was subdivided into various commercial and residential parcels after Barnsdall died in 1946. Hundreds of olive trees were lost in the process. By 1992, only 90 of the original trees remained.
“The grove really took a beating,” says Daniel Gerwin, president of the Barnsdall Art Park Foundation (BAPF). “There was a lot of die-off, a lot of development, and not a lot of care.”
A mid-1990s master plan for the park led to the planting of 315 new olive trees at the 11.5-acre property. But still, as the Hollyhock House completed a major restoration in 2015, and the park’s theater and galleries drew regular traffic, the olive grove needed attention.
Then came COVID-19.
“When COVID hit, the park shut down completely,” Gerwin says. With no site tours or educational programs to run, Gerwin says the foundation turned its attention to the landscape. The Barnsdall Olive Grove Initiative was born.
BAPF partnered with the Los Angeles Parks Foundation (LAPF) and various city departments to develop a revitalization plan for the grove. LAPF conducted a survey of the trees that included a general health assessment and a soil analysis.
“We figured we’d find diseases [through the soil analysis],” says Carolyn Ramsay, LAPF’s executive director. “But the issue, it turned out, was with the irrigation. The trees just weren’t getting enough water.”
LAPF worked with the L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks to develop a solution that would comply with the watering restrictions put in place by the city’s Department of Water and Power to combat the region’s ongoing drought. Instead of multiple short watering sessions each week, the trees would receive one weekly 30-minute soaking to better reach their roots. “The trees responded almost immediately,” Ramsay says.
From there, a landscaping team from Mariposa Tree Management pruned the existing trees and removed dozens of dead stumps. All larger pieces of wood were salvaged and offered to local artists and craftspeople to create original artworks for an auction, which raised crucial funding toward the $58,000 restoration project.
And in June, crews from BrightView Landscapes planted 40 new Olea europaea “Wilsonii” trees, which thrive in Southern California’s hot, dry conditions, on Olive Hill. LAPF will provide two years of follow-up care.
BAPF is still finalizing the details around future olive harvests, but Gerwin envisions hosting community olive-picking days and olive curing workshops.
In the meantime, he says, the restored olive grove brings back a piece of Los Angeles history and provides crucial green space to the city—important not only for combating the effects of climate change, but also for providing healing space in a pandemic-battered world. “When you go to a park, you want to see a lush, green, beautiful, vibrant grove of trees,” he says. “It’s good for your soul.”
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