It's a New Look for an Old L.A. Park

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Thirty-seven years after his death, Frank Lloyd Wright is still America's best-known architect, celebrated for his creation of such landmark structures as Manhattan's Guggenheim Museum and for his extraordinary houses. But Wright's equal interest in landscape design is far less appreciated.

A prime example of Wright's intimate fusion of buildings and landscape can be seen in the art colony he developed for the eccentric oil millionaire Aline Barnsdall on Olive Hill in Hollywood between 1917 and 1920. After a checkered history of benign neglect, interrupted by sporadic, architecturally inept attempts to fulfill Wright's and Barnsdall's vision, Barnsdall Park may be about to enjoy a stunning renovation.

A team of architects and landscapists led by distinguished, Berkeley-based landscape architect Peter Walker has developed a new master plan, which seeks to fulfill Wright's vision and expand it in a way that makes the park more of a magnet for its teeming neighborhood. The plan is on view at the park's Junior Art Center.

The park complex is crowned by Barnsdall's own home, named Hollyhock House after her favorite flower. The house reaches out into the landscape with a long loggia--a typical Wrightian device for embracing nature with architecture. "No house should ever be on any hill," Wright declared. "It should be of the hill, belonging to it, so hill and house could live together, each the happier for the other."

The rest of the art colony, planned to include a theater and studios for visiting artists, was never built, and Barnsdall deeded most of the property to the city in 1927 for a "people's park." The clumsily designed Municipal Art Gallery and Junior Art Center were added in the '60s.

The integration of buildings and nature was always central to Wright's concept of modern architecture. In the ideas that governed the character of his earliest Prairie-style houses in the Chicago suburbs, he gave the intimate association of site and dwelling a high priority. Describing the inspiration for Taliesen, the home and studio he created for himself in Spring Green, Wis., in 1911, Wright explained that the house was "a broad shelter seeking fellowship with its surroundings."

In fact, the concept of "organically" fusing a building with its landscape originated with Wright in its full modern form. Wright is the source of the landscape-linked style that has become commonplace in residential design, especially in Southern California. He was influenced by the Japanese tradition of landscape design and the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, the great 19th century landscapist who created New York's Central Park and saw nature as a wild place that must be acknowledged and preserved.

Phase one of the Barnsdall Park Master Plan, due for implementation within the next three years, would restore and redesign the park's landscaping. Part two, whose schedule is still uncertain, involves strategies to connect the presently isolated park with Hollywood Boulevard, Vermont Avenue and Sunset Boulevard.

"Our intention in Barnsdall Park wasn't a replication of Wright's original intention but a reinterpretation to meet its present, and very different, purposes," Walker said. "When Wright and Aline Barnsdall planned their art park, Hollywood was still largely pastoral. Now it's totally urban." Walker was a member of the team that master-planned Irvine in the 1960s and has created urban parks in a number of cities, including San Francisco and Dallas.

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Two major elements in Wright's original landscaping were the preservation of an olive grove from the late 19th century on the north slope, and the addition of a grove of pines on the top of the modest, 90-foot-high hillock. The designers intend to replant and increase the number of olive trees that line the entry road off Hollywood Boulevard and revive the now ailing pine grove between Hollyhock House and the Municipal Art Center.

"We want to restore the wonderful agricultural feeling the park once had, due to the olives, and make the pine grove a cool, pleasant place where artists will want to come and work in the open air," said Mia Lehrer, who heads Walker's Los Angeles office and was in charge of the master plan.

Lehrer's husband, architect Michael Lehrer, a member of the master plan team, said the plan will improve access into and within the park, increase parking, and beef up security with new lighting and fencing. A key concept is the creation of an Arts Terrace on the lower level below the present art buildings, envisioned as a 30-foot-wide, tree-lined promenade where visitors can stroll and view outdoor art shows. In addition, a cafe is planned for the motor court in front of Hollyhock House.

In phase two, access stairs will be built to connect the park with Hollywood Boulevard, Vermont Avenue and Sunset Boulevard through the grounds of Kaiser Permanente Hospital. Olive trees will be replanted on the northeast corner of the site at Hollywood and Vermont, the park's original main entry. The trees will also line the surrounding roadways, to make people driving or walking through the area aware of the somewhat hidden park. There is no price tag yet for this phase.

"Phase two, connecting Barnsdall to the city, is as vital as its actual renovation," Michael Lehrer said. "Los Angeles has so few functional urban parks, and many of them, like MacArthur Park, are places of tension and insecurity rather than relaxation and enjoyment. We feel that Barnsdall Park, when it's reconnected to its neighborhoods, will be a vital green public place in an intensely urban environment."

Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, whose district includes the park, welcomes the master plan enthusiastically. "It's vital as a gateway to Hollywood, and the park will be much more user-friendly and accessible when both phases of the master plan are completed," she said.

Funding for phase one will come from a $6.5-million trust set up by Metro Rail in return for permission to use the northern edge of the park along Hollywood Boulevard for its subway tunneling. "The notorious Hollywood Boulevard sinkhole is paying for the new park," Michael Lehrer jokes.

But Goldberg warns that the money to implement the master plan depends on a subsidy promised by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover the seismic damage to Hollyhock House caused by the 1994 Northridge quake. "If FEMA funds don't come through, we might have to divert most of the trust fund to fix the house, and that'd be a very great pity," she said.

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Barnsdall Park is a unique spot in the city. From its elevation, on a clear day, you can view the Hollywood sign to the north and the verdant hills of Los Feliz, with the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Wilson and Mt. Baldy in the distance. To the south, west and east is the expanse of the whole basin, reaching to the Palos Verdes peninsula and the Pacific.

Said USC architecture professor Robert Harris, who helped select the team that developed the master plan: "It's an extraordinarily good scheme. It establishes a strategy for the future while conserving the feeling of the art park it was always supposed to be."

And one more possible asset: The park's new olive trees will be fruit-bearing, so someday one can imagine a very fruity Hollywood brand of extra virgin olive oil.

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