WRIGHT, DONE WRONG

TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Fifteen years ago, USC's School of Architecture took on the task of restoring one of Frank Lloyd Wright's concrete block residences, the Freeman House, which the celebrated architect designed in 1924 for a young avant-garde couple. The house was bequeathed to the university in 1983, three years before its original owner, Harriet Freeman, died there.

Today, the house is a conspicuous object of neglect. Standing at a tight turn on Glencoe Way in the Hollywood Hills, Wright's creation looks ominously fragile: Along the facade, concrete blocks are cracked or have crumbled away. Wood supports brace the fragile exterior side walls. A heavy canvas tarp is propped, tent-like, over the roof--a necessary prophylactic because the structure leaks. It is a depressing sight.

The Freeman House's current state stems largely to problems revealed when the building was damaged during the 1994 Northridge earthquake--damage that has not been repaired due to a disagreement between the school and the Federal Emergency Management Agency over the scope and cost of much-needed structural work. Last June, FEMA offered the school more than $850,000 to rebuild the house's underlying structure and to bring the building up to current seismic codes. But the university won't accept the money because it fears that it might not be enough to complete the job.

Late last year, the dean of USC's School of Architecture, Robert H. Timme, approached the Getty Conservation Institute with the hope that the cash-rich nonprofit would become a partner in the restoration effort. The Getty has responded with some interest, but for now has only tentatively scheduled a meeting for next month to discuss appropriate conservation techniques and possible future uses for the house if it is saved.

Meanwhile, the clock still ticks. The house has stood empty since last August, when its resident director, Jeffrey Chusid, who had been on the faculty of the USC School of Architecture, moved out after 12 years to take a job at the University of Texas at Austin. The concrete blocks and reinforcement bars that make up the house's structural frame continue to crumble and rust. Neighbors--who say they have waited more than a decade without any visible improvements to the house--complain regularly that the building is an eyesore and that the school has done nothing but make false promises about its rehabilitation.

For the cultural heritage of Los Angeles, USC's glaring ineptitude is a tragedy. But to write this off simply as a local story of bureaucratic bungling is to miss the point. Wright designed four concrete block houses in Los Angeles during the 1920s, and together they represent a remarkable experiment for suburban housing in Los Angeles. Of the four, the Freeman House--at 2,800 square feet--was both the most compact and the most functionally informal. Harriet Freeman and her husband, Sam, envisioned it as a cultural center for the community. It is now the only concrete block house not in private hands.

In a broad sense, the house's neglect reflects both a general ambivalence by Angelenos about the city's great Modernist tradition and an inability to grasp the ways in which that tradition can still play an active role in the city's evolving identity.

The house is a masterpiece of residential design. Wright conceived it as a series of interlocking cubes. The main structure, with its adjacent garage, forms an L-shape at the bend of a steep, narrow road. Visitors arrive where the two forms part, entering to face a dark staircase leading to the bedrooms below or turning toward a low, tight corridor--a favorite Wrightian trick--that leads to the living room, one of Wright's most beautifully balanced spaces.

To the north, the room is visually anchored to the hill by a massive hearth, like some primitive cave. Opposite, two massive pillars frame a view extending over a stone terrace and out along the spine of Highland Avenue. On either side, the walls dissolve into delicate two-story corner windows. The competing effects--of being cozily anchored into the hillside and of floating above the landscape--wonderfully interlock.

The Freemans used their home as a salon for the West Coast avant-garde, a gathering place for artists and Leftists. Martha Graham came for cocktails. Blacklisted actors sought sanctuary from the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Wright's disciple, the Vienna-born Rudolph Schindler, came for dinner and designed most of the house's furniture. Yet it was never an easy place to live. Despite Wright's professed interest in making the house a model of affordable suburban living, the estimated cost he gave the Freemans of $9,100 ballooned to $23,000.

When it was finished, the Freemans were so broke that it was years before they could afford to hire Schindler to furnish the house. (Schindler went on to alter much of Wright's interior and the issue of how much of Schindler's work should remain is yet another that has not been resolved by USC.) Meanwhile, the house's unconventional structure--concrete blocks bound together with a grid of horizontal and vertical steel reinforcing rods--did not weather well.

In 1983, two years after her husband's death, Harriet Freeman donated the house to USC with the understanding that it would continue to play a cultural role in the community. When she died in 1986, she left a moderate sum--$200,000--for its upkeep.

Freeman chose USC in part because of the school's success in maintaining the Gamble House--Greene and Greene's 1908 Arts and Crafts landmark. That house--which the Gambles gave to both USC and the city of Pasadena in 1966--remains in pristine condition thanks to an initial endowment of just $11,300 in stocks and additional funds raised through local donors, special events and tours.

The Freeman house came under the supervision of Chusid, and it was opened for occasional weekend tours and neighborhood meetings. But problems caused by the house's construction soon became apparent. Because Wright used sand found on the site in the concrete mix, the quality of the cast concrete blocks was uneven and many of them began to fall apart. The roof was not designed with enough drains and it leaked during heavy rains. Although the university commissioned studies on how to repair the house, most of the repairs to date have been cosmetic.

When the earthquake hit in 1994, the house's foundation shifted, cracking walls and knocking down a chimney. But more important, the damage revealed even deeper structural problems. Preservationists working for the school claim that the house--which sits on a steep slope and soft soil--is not safely anchored to its site. Further, Wright's structural system left many of the steel reinforcing bars exposed to the weather, which means that they were slowly rusting away. To make matters worse, because the site is so compact and the street so narrow, there is little room to maneuver necessary construction equipment.

In an application filed in September 1995, the university asked for an eye-popping $3.6 million from FEMA to complete the necessary structural work. FEMA eventually responded with a counter offer of $852,000. But school officials--frightened that they would begin work on the repairs and run out of money--have so far rejected it.

Randolph Langenbach, a conservation specialist who represented FEMA during the negotiations with USC, claims that its figure is more than generous. He points out that it covers not only damage caused by the earthquake--which was not the largest problem--but also major structural flaws that can be attributed to the original design. FEMA has agreed to pay for all of the structural work on exterior foundation walls, to repair the south facade frames, the stair tower and most of the additional foundation. And although the agency disputes the university's contention that the house needs to be anchored on deeper footings, it has allotted an additional $68,000 in case the extra reinforcement is deemed necessary after construction begins.

"We thought, let's focus on the fundamental issues that deal with the structure and be generous in those areas," Langenbach says. "What they can best use us for is to get the structure stabilized upfront and then they can stop, take a deep breath, and go on with the rest of the conservation."

Nonetheless, USC officials remain skeptical. Although they admit that the current figure is closer to reality than the original $3.6-million estimate, they are still lobbying for more money.

"We're talking with FEMA," Timme says. "FEMA offered funds, but it's half of what's necessary for the structural repairs. For example, this does not include interior footings. And if we have to truck dirt off the site and a whole series of other things that cost more money, we'll be responsible for the additional cost."

According to a source at USC's planning office, the university is looking into a new grant program that they say could get them a higher sum upfront, albeit with the understanding that the school will not request further aid, even if more problems are uncovered after construction starts.

USC's continual waffling is hard to fathom after the house's years of steady deterioration. The school has its best opportunity yet to stabilize the house and begin rethinking its function in earnest. Yet at a neighborhood meeting last fall--months after the FEMA offer was on the table--Timme admitted that the school was still considering selling the house outright to anyone who could afford to fix it.

"We haven't excluded anything in terms of options. Our priority would be to find a nonprofit who could do this. Another option is a private individual who has the resources to restore the building," Timme says today. There is nothing in Harriet Freeman's original bequest to prevent that.

USC's best hope, in fact, may be for the Getty to step in and devise a clear plan on how to see the conservation effort through to the end. At a meeting tentatively scheduled for next month, representatives from the Getty Conservation Institute, FEMA and USC will discuss both how best to restore the house to its original glory and what it could be used for once it is reopened.

As Conservation Institute director Miguel Angel Corzo put it: "Issues of adaptive reuse always come up in preservation because, on the one hand, we need to have a building that is actually useful for something. If you are going to save a building and don't know what to do with it, that's not a good approach. . . . So what we can provide is a tremendous amount of expertise, on the adaptive reuse, a management plan, on conservation issues, and ultimately on the social benefit."

Whoever saves the building, USC's years of neglect are an embarrassment to the university. What disappoints is that while some wealthy individuals have been able to restore Wright's best residential works as private homes, an institution dedicated to study has not only failed in its own restoration efforts, but has been blind to the Freeman House's potentially broader role in strengthening the city's cultural fabric. If USC finally decides to take that responsibility seriously, it should begin by guaranteeing that the house will not slip into private hands.

Landmarks such as these should be viewed as fixtures in a continuing cultural dialogue over the city's future--not as pristine relics. They should remain part of the public realm. That would be a wonderful testament to both Wright and Harriet Freeman, who saw culture as an expression of our deepest values, not something to hang on a wall. Meanwhile, her legacy waits in limbo.

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