Architecture : Finding the Wright Stuff for a Hollyhock House Remake


When restoration architect Martin Weil began scraping away the layers of paint on the living room walls of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House, he found no trace of the original color scheme. Despite Weil’s careful search, not a single chip appeared to have survived the Barnsdall Park mansion’s many redecorations.

“I felt terribly frustrated,” Weil said. “I was faced with the tricky task of second-guessing Frank Lloyd Wright based on his color schemes for other Mayan houses he designed in Los Angeles. Then the gods gave me a break.”

By accident, Weil discovered that an ancient debris of paint flakes from the original color scheme had fallen into the lighting soffits in the living room. “We analyzed these flakes chemically and microscopically,” he explained. “The analysis revealed Wright used a very particular kind of paint mixed in with grains of sand to achieve a ‘desert’ finish. And often he’d lay two or three colors one over another, to give a glow to the paint work.”


Such scrupulous attention to detail has made Weil a leader among a small band of restoration architects in Los Angeles. Though fewer than 10 in number, these designers have become increasingly important to private owners, public agencies and professionals who seek advice about rehabilitating old buildings of historic interest.

“Martin is extremely knowledgeable and extremely caring,” said Virginia Kazor, curator of Hollyhock House, which sits atop a grassy knoll near the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vermont Avenue. “Few experts would have taken the pains he has in peeling away the layers of false restoration and not-so-benign neglect the Barnsdall house has suffered over the decades. He will not give up on a single detail until he has it right.”

Wright designs pose special problems for the restorer, said Weil, who’s been involved in efforts to refurbish several of the famed architect’s pre-Columbian-style residences, including the Storer and Freeman houses in Hollywood.

But Hollyhock House is especially fascinating, Weil says, not only for its historic importance but because it is the living love child of two big egos who bickered furiously but agreed on one point: architecture should be romantic.

Built for oil heiress Aline Barnsdall on the crown of Olive Hill, the Mayan-style house was intended to express a “ romanza that would be beautiful in the way that California herself is beautiful,” Wright wrote in his autobiography.

A ‘Parlor Bolshevik’

Yet all did not go smoothly. The temple-like structure, completed in 1921, was designed as both a residence and clubhouse for the private art community Barnsdall hoped to found. And in Wright’s eyes, his demanding patron was a “parlor Bolshevik” who would “drop suggestions as a warplane drops bombs and sails away into the blue.”


Distracted by travels to Japan, where he was overseeing construction of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, Wright left the task of finishing Hollyhock House to his son, Lloyd Wright, and to his “affable superintendent,” Rudolph Schindler. Five years after the house was completed, Barnsdall gave it and Olive Hill to the city of Los Angeles.

Frank Lloyd Wright died in 1959 and it was son Lloyd who supervised two attempts--in 1946 and 1974--to modernize Hollyhock House.

But the late Lloyd Wright was no expert in historic restoration, according to Weil. “We’ve had to strip away a lot of the earlier attempts at fixing up the house, to get down to the original finishes.”

Firm Still in Business

Many sections of ceiling and wall panels were originally colored gold, Weil discovered. To his delight, he also found that the Chicago-based firm--Crescent Bronze Powder Co.--that supplied the gold finish almost 70 years ago, is still in existence today.

Assisting Weil in his effort to match the paint is Clark Pardee, a record company engineer who spends his lunch hours as a volunteer helper. With delicate brush strokes, Pardee lays one color tone of the bronze powder over another, seeking to reproduce the resonance of Wright’s “California romanza.

“When Hollyhock became the California Art Club in 1927, after Barnsdall turned it over to the city, many musicians performed here,” Pardee said. “I was drawn to the place partly for that reason.”

Pardee’s research of the California Art Club history revealed that bandleader Xavier Cugat, then a classical violinist, was the first musician to stage a recital in the house’s central patio-theater.


The mansion was named for Barnsdall’s favorite flower. She wanted, Wright wrote, “no ordinary house, for she was no ordinary woman.” In what was daughter Elizabeth’s bedroom hangs an oil portrait matching Wright’s description of his difficult client: “feminine, with extremely small hands and feet, rich, alone and mundane.”

According to Weil, “Wright often quarreled with his patrons and considered them an unavoidable nuisance. If the roofs leaked, as they usually did in Wright houses, he would irritably instruct his complaining client to move his chair out of the way.”

Chief Restoration Architect

Weil, 48, has a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master’s in early American culture and decorative arts from the University of Delaware. In the 1970s, he was chief restoration architect in the Canadian Department of Indian and Northern Affairs in Ottawa.

A past president of the Los Angeles Conservancy, Weil has been involved in the preservation of a number of major local landmarks, including Pasadena City Hall, the Greene and Greene Lucy Wheeler house and the Watts Towers.

In restoring a historic house, he said one of the biggest challenges is determining how much to roll back the alterations wrought by time and the inevitable changes of use.

Hollyhock House, for example, designed as a private home that would double as a center for art, now functions as an architectural museum visited by tours. Experts generally agree that the modernizations carried out by Lloyd Wright are legitimate chapters in the house’s history.


At Other End

Thus, Weil wonders if he should strip away the Formica countertops Lloyd Wright installed in the kitchen. And, at the other end of the preservation spectrum, whether “we should remove the pollution-damaged cast cement Mayan pylons that are so much a feature of the exterior design and replace them with fiberglass replicas” resistant to the smog that’s damaged the originals?

Cast cement is a coarse-grained material that Wright insisted on using as if it were real stone. Weil’s dilemma is compounded by the fact Wright made the pylon details so finicky they were bound to crumble in time.

“I don’t believe in being too precious about preservation,” Weil said. “Time has to be given its due. You can’t freeze history in buildings, but you can make sophisticated and informed judgments about what changes are worth preserving, and which are not.”