Saving Wright’s Legacy Before It Crumbles Away

Michael Webb is author of "Architecture + Design LA" and "The City Square."

Frank Lloyd Wright is the one architect most Americans know by name. His likeness has appeared on a postage stamp; every season brings a fresh crop of books about his work, and attendance is booming at even the most remote of his buildings. His name and achievement are revered around the world. Yet in Los Angeles, where he designed important work, his legacy is sadly neglected. Two houses were destroyed by fire; three others are privately owned. Of the three available to the public, the Ennis house in Griffith Park is about to be restored; the Freeman house in Hollywood, owned by USC, is in ruinous condition and can no longer be visited, and the Hollyhock house in Barnsdall Art Park, owned by the city, is open six days a week, but is disfigured by cracks and water damage, its entrance canopy propped up by steel beams.

The Northridge earthquake exacerbated problems evident for many years. The Freeman and Hollyhock houses were in urgent need of repair before January 1994, and are in far worse condition now. The USC School of Architecture estimates that $500,000 has been spent on research studies and repairs to the Freeman house; a detailed technical report has been developed over 12 years, but little actual work has been done. Meanwhile, the last major restoration of Hollyhock was in 1974, but much remained to be accomplished.

At the start of what may be the stormiest winter in a half-century, both houses await essential structural repairs, and neither has yet received disaster-relief funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Custodians of other seismically battered historic buildings moved swiftly, secured money and completed repairs. UCLA’s Royce Hall has been restored and will reopen next April. Prevarication and neglect have damaged the Wright houses almost as much as the quake itself.

The Freeman house is as vulnerable as a dinghy in a storm. Constructed in 1924 from concrete blocks cast on site from patterned molds, it has barely survived three major quakes and the corrosive pollution of traffic from the nearby intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. Deterioration was already evident in 1985, when the house was bequeathed to USC, but it has greatly decayed in the years since. Rain has penetrated the blocks, rusting the steel tie-rods and splitting open the exterior walls. Most will have to be rebuilt, together with the shaky foundation and rotting wooden roof--but there is no room on this steep hillside to bring in heavy equipment. Much of the work will have to be done by hand, in the same way the house was built. The cost of a full restoration is estimated at $3.6 million--far beyond the promised FEMA grant of $850,000 and the resources of USC.


Why bother? The lucky few who have seen the house or know its history have the answer. Wright wanted to revitalize American architecture by imbuing it with the proud spirit of its pre-Columbian past. He envisioned noble structures created from humble materials, growing from the soil and offering affordable shelter to a mass public. He pursued this dream for 50 years and was constantly frustrated, but the few mementos of his effort deserve to be celebrated.

Though the technology was crude, the Freeman house soars, framing time-capsule views of Hollywood, and lifting the spirits with its finely proportioned spaces and rich textures. Rudolph Schindler, who journeyed from Vienna to work with Wright, and later became one of L.A.'s greatest modern architects, remodeled parts of the interior and designed the built-in furniture. Dancer Bella Lewitsky and photographer Edward Weston were among the many noted guests and tenants. In every way, the Freeman house is an essential piece of the city’s architectural and social history.

It is too valuable to lose, but it’s not clear that USC has the means or the will to save it. Fortunately, Robert H. Timme, new dean of the Architecture School, is looking for a partner institution to share the burden. He also has commissioned Frank Dimster, a faculty member, to take immediate action to protect the structure from rain and stabilize the foundations. Dimster did an exemplary job restoring the Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades--transforming the former Feuchtwanger home into a scholarly institute, but he says he is awed by this challenge.

Meanwhile, there is a potential angel at hand. The Getty Conservation Institute, which has supported ambitious projects around the world, recently helped restore a long-obscured mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles. Eight years ago, the Getty awarded a seed grant to help USC explore ways of repairing Freeman’s concrete blocks. The Getty’s scope is global, but it understands it has a special responsibility to the community of which it is a part. Nothing would better demonstrate this commitment than a major grant to save the Freeman house, backed up by the expertise of the Conservation Institute, whose director, Miguel Angel Corzo, loves both Wright and the Mayan monuments that inspired him.

If the Freeman is on life support, the Hollyhock is more in need of reconstructive surgery and good nursing care. Oil heiress Aline Barnsdall commissioned the house in 1917, hoping to make it the centerpiece of a performing arts center, but moved away soon after completion and bequeathed it to the city. Responsibility for the buildings is now divided among the Department of Recreation and Parks, which holds title to the property; General Services, which performs maintenance, and Cultural Affairs, which runs education programs and exhibits.

As a result of this fragmentation, routine tasks--checking leaks, for example--have fallen between the cracks, and major improvements are postponed. Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, whose 13th District includes Barnsdall Park, is unhappy about the lack of action and her sense of frustration is widely shared. What’s needed is a resident advocate: an individual with a desire to enhance the house and the political clout to move things forward. To achieve that, responsibility for day-to-day maintenance might be transferred from the cumbersome city bureaucracy and the overworked education staff, to a responsible nonprofit foundation with the savvy to handle short- and long-term needs. The volunteer Friends of the Hollyhock have demonstrated a lively commitment in the past 20 years, and deserve to be considered for this role. Meanwhile, an ambitious master plan to improve the buildings and park--which includes $1.4 million for the house--has been held up by delays in Metro Rail construction. The good news is that Brenda Levin, who restored such landmarks as the Wiltern Center, will be supervising the remedial work.

The recovery of these two remarkable houses would send an important signal. In its brief history, Los Angeles has lured more innovative architects than any other city, and is still a magnet, yet it has squandered many of its best 20th-century buildings. The white cubes of Irving Gill’s Dodge house and Richard Neutra’s sleek steel house for Josef von Sternberg were demolished by developers; others, such as the Pan Pacific Auditorium, a masterpiece of streamline moderne, were lost through carelessness. We can anticipate the Getty Center, Walt Disney Hall and the new cathedral downtown as markers of the city’s growing maturity without turning our backs on icons from the early days of modernism. Wright deserves better from a city he enriched with his genius--and so do we all.*