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Future Holds Promise for Neglected Barnsdall Park

Times Staff Writer

Barnsdall Park, at the crest of a hill in Los Feliz, stands on the threshold of a renaissance, its garden blooming again, the olive trees coming back and its future seemingly blessed by a promise from city officials to restore it as the cultural center it was designed to be.

At Hollyhock House, an internationally acclaimed Frank Lloyd Wright creation that is the centerpiece of the park, layers of paint have been scraped away to reveal the pallette chosen by the early 20th-Century architectural master.

A new roof has stopped the leaks that were destroying the interior of the Mayan-inspired home and inside, new carpets have replaced those worn by years of visitors.

These are harbingers of a massive restoration and promotion effort that city officials hope will right the wrongs of more than 25 years of neglect. The effort is the city’s latest, and most serious, attempt yet at eradicating the signs of urban decline.

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Mayor Tom Bradley has vowed to allocate whatever money is needed for the effort, and the project tops the priority list of the city’s new head of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

On Thursday, a 26-member board of overseers appointed by Bradley will meet for the first time to develop a strategy for the project. The board, made up of art and government professionals, is to coordinate activities at the park, promote its programs and lobby for public and private money to improve it.

As well as Hollyhock House, Barnsdall Park includes an art gallery, a theater and two art schools. But it has never fulfilled its promise as a cultural center, city officials say.

Remains a Secret

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The 11.4-acre park is run by three different city departments and previously had no director or Board of Directors to oversee its activities. As a result, city officials and private consultants say, the complex considered by scholars to contain one of the finest Wright creations in the world remains a secret to most Los Angeles residents and a shadow of what it was supposed to be.

The board is the brainchild of Adolfo Nodal, a former artist and the city’s recently appointed head of the Department of Cultural Affairs. When he was named, Nodal said the revitalization of Barnsdall Park was his first major goal.

Some of the structures in the park, most notably Hollyhock House, are built of a porous material designed by Wright that has eroded after decades of exposure to smog.

Scores of olive trees that were dying from an irrigation system that doesn’t work are just now beginning to come back to life. The park’s entrance is obscured by a shopping center and a hospital complex. At night, police say, it is populated by vagrants and becomes a center for vice.

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On a recent morning, Virginia Kazer, for 20 years the director of Hollyhock House and the unofficial matron of the park, walked among the crumbling terraces of the Little Dipper, a garden and wading pool designed by Wright and two of his contemporaries.

Hundreds of Visitors

Beer bottles and trash cluttered the area, and the scent of urine was strong. The wading pool hasn’t been filled in 20 years.

Barnsdall Park, however, does have its strengths. Hollyhock House draws hundreds of visitors each month, and the Municipal Art Gallery has exhibited the works of some of Southern California’s best-known artists--most back when they were considered emerging artists. Its arts center holds classes for thousands of people a year.

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Though it was meant to be a major center for the arts in Los Angeles, many of the visitors to Barnsdall Park are actually architecture fans from out-of-town.

City officials say they have talked about revitalizing the park for the last 25 years. They have appointed task forces, hired consultants and prepared sheaves of reports.

“We had innumerable meetings, paper work, reports again and again, but it was all just talk, because we didn’t have the money to do anything over there,” said Josine Storrels, former director of the Municipal Art Gallery and now director of the Long Beach Museum of Art. “Everything that depends on a bureaucracy can turn into a sort of mediocre operation, because nobody takes a proprietary interest in making something wonderful.”

Little Is Visible

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Located above the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, Barnsdall has five cultural institutions: the 10,000 square-foot art gallery, the 300-seat Gallery Theater, the Junior Arts Center school for children, the Barnsdall Art Center school for adults and Hollyhock House, built in 1920 and the first of Wright’s buildings in Southern California.

Little of that is visible to casual passers-by. And most of the center’s 50 parking spaces are located at the base of Olive Hill, meaning visitors must make the steep ascent on foot.

“To me it was like a kind of discovery,” said visitor Ricardo Vinos, 46, standing on a broad lawn outside Hollyhock House.

One reason for the low profile is that no one has taken ultimate responsibility for the park since 1926, when Aline Barnsdall, the wealthy widow who commissioned Wright, gave the complex to a reluctant city.

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Not realizing the historic value of Hollyhock House, City Council members at first refused to approve money for park maintenance and, at one point, even ordered demolition of the Wright creation. A private patron of the arts stepped in to save the house and park, maintaining the grounds until 1958.

Shifting Responsibility

That year, the city finally took over the maintenance and jurisdiction of the park. Since then, responsibility has shifted among different departments. Today it is run primarily by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, with the departments of Recreation and Parks and General Services responsible for maintaining its buildings and grounds.

“There hasn’t been one concentrated effort, one person with a vision to do something up there,” Nodal said. “Time is running out on these problems. We’ve been just sort of treading water on it at Cultural Affairs.”

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Improvements have come since a 1986 mayoral task force study, but slowly.

Martin Weil, a Los Angeles architect who specializes in the restoration of Wright houses, was hired to head the effort to refurbish Hollyhock House. The garden that had not been planted in years is blooming again this summer. The irrigation system that was killing the olive trees has been improved with $150,000 from the city.

Much remains to be done, and it remains to be seen whether Nodal’s hopes will translate into the money and organization needed to make Barnsdall work.

“We want security, we want ample parking, we want programs that work for each other instead of against each other, and we want it used,” Nodal said. “So let’s just get on with it.”

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