LOST L.A. : CAN IT BE MADE WRIGHT AGAIN? : The Sad State of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘20s Hollywood Classic
From the car-choked intersection of Highland and Franklin avenues, it’s hard to imagine a time when the streets leading up to Hollywood Heights were unpaved dirt roads, when neither smoggy air nor tall buildings blocked the panoramic view. That was 1920s Hollywood, when a walk down from neighboring Hollywood Heights led to a thriving Hollywood Boulevard where one could browse music and bookstores or shop for, say, a Chanel suit before dinner at Musso & Frank.
It was a time when the Freeman House at 1962 Glencoe Way in Hollywood Heights, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, was the only house on the block. Completed in 1925, the two-story house is one of only four concrete block houses in Los Angeles designed by the Wisconsin-born architect.
Today, the structure has been badly damaged by time and erosion --as well as the Northridge earthquake. Built for a then-exorbitant $23,000 the house needs an estimated $2.5 million restoration, but its chances of getting that are unclear. While Federal Emergency Management Agency is responsible for seismic repairs (a decision is still pending), additional funds from other sources must be raised for restoration and conservation. In the meantime the house continues to erode.
Wright’s L.A. textile-block houses, all constructed of 16-by-16 inch patterned concrete blocks, represent part of his attempt to create a uniquely Californian architectural style. During a brief period in Los Angeles, he built the Freeman House, along with the Millard House, also known as La Miniatura (645 Prospect Crescent, Pasadena, 1923), the Storer House (8161 Hollywood Blvd, 1923), and the Ennis-Brown House (2655 Glendower Ave., Los Feliz,1924, which has received substantial FEMA repair funds), and later concrete- block structures around the country.
The Freeman House was commissioned by a couple described as somewhat odd by those who knew them. Sam was an active Socialist and businessman whose stock inheritance from the family’s downtown jewelry business allowed him to retire young. Harriet Freeman, following a brief film and vaudeville career, became a dance teacher, most notably to the starlets at Warner Bros. But she clung to the fringes of the era’s avant garde arts scene, dancing to drums and espousing the era’s fascination with barefoot Isadora Duncan. “When one is here, one canimagine what life was like in Hollywood circa the 1920s and 1930s,” says Jeffrey Chusid, USC adjunct professor of architecture, who lives at the Freeman House as its resident director. “Ypu can imagine the salons that happened here, the artists and actors, painters and dancers, who ere part of the daily life of the Freemans
“This neighborhood could be fairly described in terms of its historic architecture,” he continues. “It has Rudolf Schinder houses, houses by Rafael Soriano, by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son Lloyd Wright, it has the Highland Camrose bungalow village, which was the first community in the Hollywood Hills.
“You also see the connection between things like the Hollywood Bowl, originally designed by [Frank Lloyd Wright’s son] Lloyd Wright, who was also the contractor on this house, and the Egyptian Theatre, which was built in 1922 and one of the infuences on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Freemans maintained separate bedrooms; Wright designed a lounge for the couple to share between the rooms, but three years after moving in, the Freemans hired a Wright protege, architect Rudolf M. Schindler, to re-design the house’s interior and replace Wright’s austere furniture (there is speculation that Schindler, who was romantically involved with several female clients, was a special friend of Harriet’s). The lounge was replaced with a guest apartment.
Some Wright-designed standing lamps remain in the living room, and Schindler took the top half of a Wright dining table and fashioned it intoan existing coffee table. But other pieces Wright created for the house--an austere pair of high-back chairs and two bookcases6have disappeared,
Sam Freeman died in 1981, and Harriet in 1986. Harriet willed the house to its current owner, the University of Southern California’s school of architecture, which has plans to use it as a residence for visiting distinguished faculty, and will continue its current role as a class and research facility and a house museum. It is currently open for public tours on Saturdays.
But as any visitor to the house might observe, faculty, distinguished or otherwise, will not be moving in any time soon. Of Los Angeles’ four block houses----the Freeman house is arguably in the worst shape.
Although the living room remains spectacular, with a sweeping view and innovative two-story corner windows where glass meets glass, earthquake-damaged exterior walls are shored up with wood planks. The once-light and sparkling ceiling, wall and floor areas are stained with soot, or have been painted dark colors to hide water discoloration. Friendly household cats are on constant rat patrol (the rodents climb into the walls and die there, causing an unpleasant odor on damp days). What was once a reflecting pool at the entrance of the house now stands empty due to water damage.
There are no plans to tear down Freeman House, but there are some observers who fear the unique structure will literally melt away to an un-restorable condition while it awaits necessary funds.
Wright’s building blocks, for example, include materials from the site of each house, such as sand and decomposed granite, so that the houses would appear to grow out of the earth. A very dry and porous concrete was pressed into individual molds to create the blocks. Wright hoped his experiment would create a system for building inexpensive middle-class homes, believing the blocks could be mass-produced and put together by unskilled labor like Legos. Instead, he ended up with a few expensive sand castles, beautiful but doomed to absorb water, acid rain and air pollutants. Rusting interior metal has literally popped some of the blocks out of exterior walls. The Freeman House, itself a sort of architectural Rubik’s cube, features the most complex block pattern of the four houses.
In addition, there is the problem of figuring out how to be faithful to Schindler’s downstairs additions while also restoring some of Wright’s original light sources, blocked by Schindler’s renovations. Any design changes USC makes will be fully reversible, Chusid said.
Harriet Freeman’s original endowment of $200,000 has been spent on stabilizing the structure, and another estimated $400,000 has been raised--and spent--for the same purpose. The house’s annual operating budget is about $40,000. Just enough funds from sources including the National Endowment for the Arts and the J. Paul Getty Trust have come in to keep the place from further deterioration. But no angel has so far volunteered funds for a total restoration. The earthquake damage may be a blessing in disguise; the house may, as the Ennis-Brown House has, get a shot in the arm from FEMA--when and how much are undetermined.
Film producer Joel Silver, purchased Hollywood’s Storer House for a reported $750,000 and has restored it to mint condition with his own funds--as well as another Wright House, the Auldbrass Plantation in Yemesee, S.C. He has harsh words for the restoration efforts at Freeman House, which he at one time considered restoring but found the house was already promised to USC by Harriet.
“I think they’ve done a terrible job there,” Silver said. “I wish the university would bail out of their obligation and turn it over to somebody who would restore the house properly. It is horrifying what has happened with the house during their tenure.” Silver believes that too much money has been spent on academic studies on how to restore the house instead of actually restoring it. “Unfortunately, these houses, while you study them, eventually become dust,” says the producer, who once considered restoring the Freeman House but found it already promised to USC.
Chusid responds to Silver’s criticism by saying that the university not only wants to restore the house but also to make that process educational.
Silver--along with Wright’s grandson, architect Eric Lloyd Wright--would like to see the Schindler furniture and additions removed. Eric Wright tells the story of his grandfather dropping by the Freeman house unannounced one day to find that Schindler had covered some impressive concrete roof beams with sheet metal to keep the roof from leaking. Horrified, Wright pounded on the door--only to be still more horrified by finding a living room full of Schindler furniture. “I feel that the furniture that Schindler designed is interesting, but not quite in keeping with the house,” Eric Wright said. “It is more free-flowing, while the house is more rectilinear.”
Most Wright preservationists, however, say that Schindler’s furniture is of equal historic value to Wright’s originals. In fact, the house’s deed of trust prevents USC from removing the Schindler furniture. Besides, the comfortable furniture certainly better suited the very social Freemans. Harriet Freeman reportedly so disliked Wright’s floor lamps that when visitors admired them, she would say: “Darling, take one with you.”
Yet the biggest roadblock to restoration, said Chusid, is Los Angeles’ own lack of awareness of its own architectural history.
“I think everyone who comes to Los Angeles feels like they are the first people to arrive,” he said. “And we encourage that--it is part of what is liberating about Los Angeles. But the truth is, we have hundreds of years of history, and a record of it. What the Freeman house and other historic site provide is an irreplaceable glimpse of where this city has been, and who built it.
“Connections, which are so hard to come by in L.A., are made clear when the past is understood.”
Freeman House offers tours, $10 per person, at 2 and 4 p.m. Saturdays. (213) 851-0671.