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Hubris on the hill

Times Staff Writer

Early last month, the National Trust for Historic Preservation unveiled its annual list of endangered buildings around the country. This year’s roster includes Daniel Webster’s New Hampshire home and farm, an 1897 hotel in Belleair, Fla., and pretty much all of downtown Detroit, where the wrecking balls have been swinging as freely as Ron Artest.

Also on the list, as actor-turned-preservation-activist Diane Keaton announced in a news conference here, is the Ennis-Brown House in Los Angeles. Completed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1924 for the owners of a men’s clothing store, Charles and Mabel Ennis, it’s the largest and most ambitious of the experimental concrete-block designs Wright carried out in Southern California in the early 1920s, aided by his son Lloyd and a young Rudolf Schindler.

The house, which looms castle-like on a prominent site above Los Feliz Boulevard, was briefly red-tagged this winter by the city’s Department of Building and Safety after near-record rainfall caused its retaining wall to buckle, sending several of its patterned concrete blocks tumbling down the hill. It is now yellow-tagged, which means it can be occupied only during the day. The National Trust estimates it’ll take $5 million simply to stabilize the house and $10 million more for a complete restoration.

Meanwhile, a little more than a mile to the south, the first of Wright’s residential designs in Los Angeles, the Barnsdall House -- also known, thanks to the abstracted floral motif that wraps around its exterior, as the Hollyhock House -- has just reopened after a five-year renovation. The work, which cost about $21 million altogether, helped stabilize parts of the house damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, removed mold and termites and replaced leaky pipes. It also included landscaping improvements in several areas of surrounding Olive Hill, $25,000 for a new rug in the living room and $100,000 for a sign on Hollywood Boulevard pointing the way to Wright’s landmark.

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Finished in 1921 and deeded to the city of Los Angeles by its original owner, oil heiress and theater impresario Aline Barnsdall, six years later, the house is now the only one of Wright’s Los Angeles designs open to the public. Initial tours began passing through the house on June 8 and will resume July 13, after parts of the interior are repainted.

The architectural story line, then, seems clear enough. One Wright house in Los Angeles is not just crumbling but practically falling down the hill, while another is newly spiffed up and again ready to welcome the adoring masses.

If only it were that simple. (If only any story about architecture in Los Angeles were that simple!) It turns out that Ennis-Brown, once you get past the gaping holes on its lower flank, looks surprisingly good, particularly its stunning split-level living and dining room space -- though that shouldn’t dissuade you from making a donation to help shore it up. And at the Barnsdall House, the handsome renovations can’t disguise the dispiriting mess the city has made, and continues to make, of its site or that behind its low walls is one of Wright’s least appealing domestic interiors.

Some of the anecdotes about the history of the houses are quintessentially Wrightian: the endless battles about money and design changes he fought with Barnsdall, for example, some of which were carried out in terse telegrams to and from Tokyo, where Wright was preoccupied with work on the Imperial Hotel. In other ways, though, the challenges the houses have faced over the years -- leaking, sliding, cracking -- will be familiar to the owners of many showcase residences in Southern California, particularly those emerging from or cantilevered out over steep hillsides.

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A fragile relationship

It was hard to ignore the fact, for example, that Keaton’s news conference came just two days after a landslide in the Laguna Beach neighborhood of Bluebird Canyon left 20 houses destroyed or badly damaged. Many neighbors blame one house in particular for triggering the disaster: a 6,300-square-foot house that was built on spec and put on the market in 2001 for nearly $3.7 million. (It never sold.) Engineering experts doubt that the house, dubbed “the Mausoleum,” was responsible for making the hillside unstable.

But the accusations themselves were enough to remind us of the power of an enduring architectural illusion: the sense that buildings, and by extension their designers and owners, hold dominion over their hillside lots. Despite the lessons of the Ennis-Brown House, of Bluebird Canyon and of La Conchita in Ventura County -- where a January slide killed 10 people and mangled 24 houses -- we somehow need to be reminded again and again how fragile that particular fiction is in Los Angeles. The Ennis-Brown and Barnsdall houses neatly bracket Wright’s time in the city, where he briefly considered settling.

Together, the projects reflect Wright’s ultimate frustration with the city, which he dismissed in his autobiography as a “desert of shallow effects.” They also point out the limits of the new structural system that the architect was attempting to perfect here, which he hoped would allow him to create a new kind of primitivist, free-flowing form uniquely suited to the area -- a style he called “California Romanza.”

The Barnsdall House was built just as he was beginning to explore the details of the new system. The Ennis-Brown House, though, was a full-fledged laboratory for the approach, which allowed its 16-by-16-inch concrete blocks to be stacked without mortar joints.

Of course, the 1920s were a tumultuous period for Wright in all sorts of ways, and you could easily blame the problems with his work here on the personal demons he’d tried to leave behind when he headed west to pursue work here and in Japan. Less than a decade earlier, in 1914, a deranged servant had attacked and killed Mamah Cheney, the woman for whom he’d left his first wife, along with her two children and four others, inside the house Wright had designed for her at Taliesin. On top of that, his work, however consistently masterful, was looking increasingly old-fashioned compared with the boldly minimalist architecture coming out of Europe.

But if it was quiet introspection or professional clarity Wright was seeking as he moved west, you wouldn’t have known it from his architecture of the period. Like so many architects before and after him, Los Angeles prompted from Wright an unfortunate grandiosity, not to mention a reliance on decorative ornament that he largely left behind when he returned to the Midwest. The buildings he built here were, in many senses of the word, monuments -- to Wright’s romantic and rather limited vision of California and the American West, to the promise of the new architecture he believed he was inventing and, not least, to his own considerable ego.

It hardly seems a coincidence, then, that the most successful of Wright’s residential designs here, the so-called La Miniatura in Pasadena, is also the most restrained; it sits in a ravine, partly filled in by the architect, and suggests a more symbiotic relationship between architecture and nature -- and between architect and region, for that matter. Now being restored by Marmol Radziner + Associates, La Miniatura is privately owned and closed to the public.

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At least for the foreseeable future, so is the Ennis-Brown House. (Later owners Augustus and Marcia Brown donated it to a preservation trust.) The house has had prominent roles in movies, including “Blade Runner” and “Day of the Locust.” It has also been crippled over the years by rain and earthquakes -- and by smog, which has melted the patterns on its concrete blocks. It is now owned by a nonprofit called the Trust for Preservation of Cultural Heritage, which has struggled to raise the funds necessary to restore it.

But this is more than simply another example of Los Angeles losing a landmark to neglect, disinterest and decay. The Ennis-Brown House has been looking unstable since it was brand new. To a certain extent, it was designed to look that way, inspired as it was by sublimely crumbling pre-Columbian and Mayan temples.

In his book “Wright in Hollywood,” Robert Sweeney notes that even during construction the house resembled “a ruin under excavation.” It only added to the effect when the retaining wall began to crack before Charles and Mabel even moved in.

What all of that means is that its recent structural problems are of a piece with the house’s long history -- and that making the National Trust’s “most endangered” list, perversely enough, only makes it more of a landmark and an attraction in this particular city.

Olive Hill, on the other hand, is one of the few Wright projects that seems to confirm Philip Johnson’s infamous insult of the older figure as “the greatest architect of the 19th century.” Its living room, with its fireplace surrounded by a tiny moat and its Japanese screens), shows flashes of Wright’s genius. But its second-floor spaces are cramped and dark, particularly a long, tunnel-like hallway, suggesting the Victorian approach to residential architecture that Wright spent most of his career trying to render obsolete.

The bigger problem at the site, though, is the way the city, through its Department of Recreation & Parks, has mismanaged the land. Though a master plan for the campus of buildings on the hill, which includes the Municipal Art Gallery, was commissioned from a team including Brenda Levin and the landscape architect Peter Walker and completed in 1995, few of the changes it called for have been executed.

Standing in front of the house these days, what you see is a jumbled scene that seems the very antithesis of the idea of a master plan, of a coherent sense of how a house ought to present itself. The depressing tableau includes a sagging chain-link fence, through which a few hollyhocks have threaded themselves; a shiny expanse of black asphalt; a couple of orange construction cones; and a tilting handicapped parking sign and red-painted curbs hard by the facade. The effect is more Rite Aid parking lot than prelude to a restored architectural masterpiece.

Looming over it all is a huge crane from the site of a hulking new building for Kaiser Permanente, which is under construction immediately to the west and down the hill. The crane only adds to the sense of visual chaos, of disruptive rebuilding work that is ongoing.

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Trying to live up to the location

Still, even in sterling condition, the Hollyhock House would likely seem as though it were trying to do too much, perhaps in a misguided attempt to match the grandeur of its site.

In that sense, the house is not so different from the Mausoleum in Laguna Beach. If you put aside the details of its architecture, which is little more than bland, shiny, “Miami Vice” modern, everything about that now-broken house suggests the liabilities of the approach that Wright took to building in Southern California: Pick a site that doesn’t just offer views of the surrounding landscape but makes the house itself an enviable attraction for the onlooker, the passerby, the driver. Make your presence felt. Then vanish before the cracks begin to show.

Wright scholars sometimes suggest that his Los Angeles houses were the victims of the architect’s absenteeism from a city he never much liked; in almost every case, their construction was overseen by Lloyd, helped by Schindler, while Wright traveled from Japan to the Midwest and back again.

Still, this is something more than a story of outsiders who drop in briefly and put up architectural monoliths that the landscape can’t sustain. That narrative is always an appealing one, and it proved so again in Bluebird Canyon, where the neighbors mistakenly believed that the Mausoleum was owned by relatives of Frank Sinatra, trying to make a profit on a spec house that they had no intention of ever occupying.

What the locals told reporters was a story we’ve heard a hundred times: We don’t build like that. We respect the hillside. They don’t understand how we do things here.

The truth, as has been much reported, is that the neighbors who griped about the Mausoleum had, in many cases, decided to rebuild or buy on a hill that had slid disastrously toward the ocean in 1978, obliterating more than two dozen houses, with every indication that it would do so again.

Like most complaints about the architectural vanities of wealthy arrivistes, the post-slide litany in Bluebird Canyon was about more than square footage: It was yet another way to frame the familiar complaints about how the region is changing for the worse -- another sign of longing for an idyllic past that never really existed, where nature, architecture and growth existed in some magically perfect balance and mortgage payments were in the low three figures.

The Mausoleum, Barnsdall, Ennis-Brown -- these houses were larger and more ambitious than their neighbors, but only by degrees. And they were built for the very same reason as all the other residences on their blocks: to grab a piece of the California Dream, preferably one with a view, before all the open lots were gone.

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Christopher Hawthorne is The Times’ architecture critic. Contact him at Calendar.letters@latimes.com.


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