Solving the Puzzle of Frank Lloyd Wright's First Project in Los Angeles
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was less than impressed by oil heiress Aline Barnsdall's grand vision to build an “art-theater garden” with residences, terraced gardens, and a theater that she had been formulating since 1915. His firm did eventually build the main house and two residences, but her grand plans for an art complex remained only partially realized. The 36-acre complex on Olive Hill in Hollywood, however, would regenerate as the Barnsdall Art Park in the subsequent decades. A comprehensive renovation from 2011-2015 restored Hollyhock House, the primary residence, and now attention has turned to the renovation of Residence A.
Hollyhock House, Residence A, and Residence B were completed by 1921 at the same time that Wright was working on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Barnsdall’s commission was Wright’s first in Southern California, and he was set to make an impression that would influence the area's later architecture (he succeeded).
In the early days, Barnsdall and Wright disagreed on few things. The initial plans reflected both of their strong artistic visions. According to Wright, Barnsdall’s love of the arts influenced her desire for her home to be out of the ordinary. He designated its architecture as “California Romanza,” and insisted that “any house should be beautiful in California in the way California herself is beautiful.”
Like Hollyhock House, the exterior of Residence A is finished with stucco and elaborate cast concrete called “art stone” that decorates the window and door surrounds. “Residence A is very elegant, with the wraparound pattern [of art stone] that resembles lace or peapods,” says Hsiao-Ling Ting, an architect for the city of Los Angeles who was brought on in 2005 to the team leading the renovation of Residence A, joining Project Restore and the city's Department of Cultural Affairs. The decorative art stone continues into the interior of the two-and-a-half story house, leading into the living room, which features floor-to-ceiling windows that reach two stories high. Clerestory windows, a signature element in many of Wright's structures, stretch around the house, just below the flat roof. In the kitchen, a bay window offers views of the landscape and the city beyond.
The blocky, monolithic style of Hollyhock House and Residence A shares some characteristics with the architecture of Mayan temples, which had recently been discovered in Central America. The final design of Residence A is attributed to Rudolph Schindler, then a junior designer at Wright’s firm, who oversaw the project after Wright left for Tokyo.
Artistic differences between Wright and Barnsdall eventually led to his firing. By the mid-1920s the art park was still unfinished. Because of this, Barnsdall decided it would be unnecessary to live at Hollyhock House. In 1927 she gifted the site to the city with the wish that it be used as a public park forever. Residence A, originally envisioned as a place for a theater director to live, became city-owned studio space where children and adults could learn drawing, dancing, loom weaving, wood sculpture, and ceramics. (Residence B was torn down in 1954, leaving just Hollyhock House and Residence A as the two extant structures.)
Residence A experienced significant changes as the city turned the intended residential building into classrooms. Many of these alterations obscured some of the house's notable elements, like the clerestory windows. The house began showing structural issues as early as the 1970s, and an earthquake in 1994 caused further damage. The last class in Residence A took place in 2000.
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“It took about a year for the real construction to start [in 2018]," Ting says. "Before that, we were studying, exploring, testing materials, and doing research demolition.”
These investigations revealed the extent of damage due to the later alterations.“Part of the reason it closed was that it couldn’t function. No one could stay there,” Ting says. “It had rain problems and mold." The pitch of the roof, for instance, will be redesigned to prevent further leaking typical for flat roofs. The bay window is pulling away from the wall, leading to moisture intrusion.
Water is not the only problem Residence A faces. A kiln was installed in the basement in 1981 to meet the needs of ceramics classes. Ting discovered that the kiln had badly burned some of the plaster ceiling and walls.
Once the house is waterproofed and additional structural support is installed, the team will move onto making the space usable. This second phase will include updating the electricity, replacing the plumbing, and installing a functional bathroom and kitchen. The entire renovation will take several years, and Ting expects to find more surprises.
"Every day is a puzzle," she says. "Wright's design is very challenging. He wanted a thin roof but didn't want visible roof drains; he wanted tall windows but he added very little structural support. We have to find a solution. But we will not sacrifice the historic quality."
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