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Kenneth Ross, 95; L.A. Cultural Chief Helped Save Watts Towers and Restore Hollyhock House

Times Staff Writer

Kenneth Ross, the founder of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs who spearheaded the restoration of Hollyhock House by Frank Lloyd Wright and the preservation of the Watts Towers by Simon Rodia, died Monday, according to his son, Murray Ross. He was 95.

Ross, who also helped establish the Municipal Art Gallery and the Junior Arts Center that are part of the Hollyhock House complex in Barnsdall Park, died of natural causes at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles. In recent years he was a resident of Silver Lake.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Mar. 02, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 02, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Kenneth Ross -- The obituary of Kenneth Ross, founder of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, in Saturday’s California section stated that the Watts Towers were nearly demolished in the early 1970s to make way for a restaurant. The towers were under a demolition order by the city of Los Angeles in 1957 but were saved by preservationists in 1959.

As director of the city’s arts programs from 1949 to the late 1970s, Ross built the original one-man operation into a department with a staff of more than 35 people.

“Ken took the position and ran with it,” said Virginia Kazor, the city historic site curator who was hired by Ross in 1970. “I don’t know if there would be a city Cultural Affairs Department if it weren’t for him. He created the programs and raised the money for them. That’s not always easy in a city government structure.”

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He never took a dumbing-down approach to arts programming. His own interest in progressive European art led to city-sponsored exhibits of works by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Henry Moore and others, starting in the early 1950s. The Van Gogh exhibit attracted 60,000 visitors during a one-month run in the late 1950s and remained one of the best-attended events of Ross’ tenure.

Most of the art exhibits he oversaw opened in a pavilion at Barnsdall Park designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, with Ross’ encouragement. The two men met on a train trip, and Ross persuaded Wright to accept the project.

The Wright Gallery opened in 1954, next to Wright’s Hollyhock House, which by then belonged to the city. The gallery was torn down in 1969 to make way for the Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park.

In subsequent years Ross led efforts to restore Wright’s Hollyhock House and establish it as a house museum. The project was completed in 1976.

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The Watts Towers, begun in 1921 and nearly demolished to make way for a restaurant in the early 1970s, came under the care of Ross’ department in 1975. Currently, the state owns the landmark structure and the city Department of Cultural Affairs maintains and operates it, Kazor said.

One of the most popular events Ross launched was an annual outdoor art festival at Barnsdall Park that started in 1952 and continued every summer.

“There were grandmothers from Reseda showing their watercolors along with the most progressive artists in Los Angeles,” Murray Ross said of the festival. “The idea was to give every artist in Los Angeles a chance to exhibit his or her work.”

Born in El Paso, Kenneth Ross and his two sisters moved to Pasadena to be raised by an aunt after their mother died when Ross was a toddler. He graduated from Polytechnic Institute in Pasadena and attended several local art schools, including the Chouinard School of Art, before he went to study art in Europe. He helped found the Euston Road Art School in London in 1938.

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He married Jennifer Watson. The couple had four children before the marriage ended in divorce.

Ross then married Marjorie Greene, who died in 1985. He is survived by four children and two grandsons.

Before becoming director of the Department of Cultural Affairs, Ross headed the Pasadena Museum of Art and was an art critic for the Pasadena Star-News.


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