Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House in Los Angeles, California, 1917-1921

The Aline Barnsdall House, commonly referred to as the Hollyhock House (by Wright himself), is perhaps the most widely known Frank Lloyd Wright structure on the West Coast. It is an icon of California Architecture, and an icon of Wright’s architecture. The Hollyhock House was Frank Lloyd Wright’s first major realization of an organic architecture in California. Though this was his second executed California project, the previous George Stewart House of 1909 in Montecito, Santa Barbara was essentially a Prairie House transplanted from the Midwest with a bit of Californication. The eccentricity of the Hollyhock House reflects not only the architect, but the client -oil heiress and patroness of the arts, Miss Aline Barnsdall. 

Frank Lloyd Wright remembered meeting Miss Barnsdall in his apartment on Cedar Street in Chicago, though Miss Barnsdall recalled meeting Wright a few blocks north in the garage of Mr. and Mrs. Potter Palmer’s garage. The Palmers were of Chicago’s wealthiest elite, and Mrs. Palmer was the the Queen Bee of Chicago socialites. Her priceless collection of Impressionist paintings make up a large part of the Art Institute’s renowned Impressionist collection.

Regardless of the location of their meeting, the year was as early as late 1914, and plans for a theatre designed for Miss Barnsdall came as early as 1916. Wright and Barnsdall had similar aspirations concerning the West Coast. While Wright thought the theatre for Miss Barnsdall would be built in Chicago, Miss Barnsdall decided on Los Angeles, where she sought to fulfill her desire of forming a new theatre company. This was a blessing for Wright, along with the commission for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan, as Wright was able to distance himself from the Midwest following the Taliesin Tragedy, and develop an organic architecture for California, then still sparsely inhabited.  

Aline Barnsdall purchased Olive Hill in 1919, where the theater and also a house for herself were to be built. However, because of Wright’s Imperial Hotel commission, he was often out of the country, spending less than a year in the States between 1918 and 1922. This, coupled with Miss Barnsdall’s insatiable need to travel, made the Hollyhock House  a slow moving project, to the client’s dismay.

Wright was slow with his drawings, but the final product was a novel design, not only for Los Angeles, but also for Wright. Hollyhock House, named for the requested floral motif by Miss Barnsdall seen throughout the structure, is a house of monumental proportions. The house is often mistaken as built in concrete, but it is actually mostly hollow terra cotta tiles faced with a smooth stucco exterior fashioned to look like concrete, with actual concrete detailing. This was one of Wright’s last uses of art glass, even here the art glass is minimal, replaced with a focus on the “art stone”, a combination of cement and gravel. The art stone was stylized using molds to create a geometric abstraction of the hollyhock flower and used for window sills, planters, capitals, and was both ornamental and somewhat structural. 

Unusual for Wright was that the house was built on the top of Olive Hill. Wright once said “You should never build on top of anything directly -if you build on top of the hill, you lose the hill. If you build one on the side of the top then you have the hill and the eminence you desire.” The heavy, almost stoic appearance of the house undoubtedly reflects Wright’s heavy heart after the Taliesin Tragedy. 

The layout of the house is open and flowing, as with most of Wright’s work. However, it encompasses a greater use of outdoor space, not seen as frequently in his earlier Midwestern work, which more so demonstrated shelter from the harsh elements. The Hollyhock House contains a number of indoor/outdoor spaces, and an extensive series of terraces covers the roof. Rather than having a low hipped roof, the roof is flat and indented, while the top of the exterior walls act as uninterrupted parapets. The interior was fully designed by Wright as well, with excruciating attention paid to details and furniture. 

Because of Wright’s frequent absence from Los Angeles, much of the supervision and working drawings were left to Rudolph Schindler and Wright’s son Lloyd Wright.  Schindler handled the Hollyhock House itself, along with Residences A and B, which were designed as guest houses. Lloyd Wright handled the landscape design. It is an understatement to think of the Barnsdall project as simply a house -the entire project also included the aforementioned Residences A and B, a theater, animal houses, and a kindergarten. Only the Hollyhock House, Residences A and B, the animal houses and a pergola were fully realized. 

The Hollyhock House was finished enough for habitation by 1921. However, for all the drama that went into the execution of Wright and Barnsdall’s vision, Miss Barnsdall only lived in the house with her daughter Sugartop for a few years. During this time, Wright actually used Residence B as a studio for his Los Angeles work through early 1924. In 1927, Aline Barnsdall gave the Hollyhock House and all of Olive Hill to the City of Los Angeles on the condition that it remain open as a public art park. 

In the years since it has been in the hands of the City of Los Angeles, Olive Hill has since been renamed Barnsdall Art Park, and a number of other structures were built in the second half of the 20th Century that today house the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, and the Junior Arts Center. 

Farmer’s Markets are frequently held in Barnsdall Art Park, and there are outdoor movie showings throughout the year.  

The Hollyhock House is open for interior tours as of February 13th, 2015.

The Hollyhock House and Barnsdall Art Park are explored on the LA Frank Lloyd Wright Tour and Mini Frank Lloyd Wright Tour.

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