I’ve been to the Hollyhock House, at least, four times. A couple of Saturdays ago there was a three hour symposium in Barnsdall Park and I went.
Three individuals did presentations and were later joined by two others for a panel discussion. The guy below, Timothy Totten, was up first.
Also at the symposium was an author and lecturer who grew up in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Her name is Kim Bixler and she wrote this book:
Aline Barnsdall is responsible for the Hollyhock House just as much as Frank Lloyd Wright. She’s the one that selected him and she’s the one that went back and forth with him over the plans. Her determination to get the house built led Wright to eventually refer to her as “his most difficult client.”
Aline, born on April 1, 1882, received a large inheritance from her father, Theodore, who made his money in oil and gas. She originally was interested in acting and studied with Eleanor Duse for a year but Duse saw her potential not in acting but behind the scenes and told her so. Designer Norman Bel Geddes who met Barnsdall years later gave her a backhanded comment when he said his impression of her was that she was, “erratic, unpredictable, contrary, stubborn and generous.” Bel Geddes went on to say, “she had a violent passion against convention; was one hundred percent rebel; would give vast sums of money to anything revolutionary, not because she was sympathetic to the principal involved, but because it was challenging easy conformity.”
Wright in his autobiography said of Barnsdall, “Her very large, wide-open eyes gave her a disingenuous expression not connected with the theater and her extremely small hands and feet somehow seemed not connected with ambition such as hers.”
Originally, Barnsdall wanted to build a theater in Chicago but by 1915 that plan had fallen away and instead she decided to move to San Francisco with the intention of building a small theater at that location. She was in long distance contact with Wright for years through letters regarding plans for a house but two problems cropped up: 1) Wright had signed a contract to design and build the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo so a great deal of his time was wrapped up with that endeavor during this time period and 2) while Barnsdall knew she wanted Wright to design her complex of buildings she hadn’t settled upon a site and it was impossible for Wright to design what she wanted when he didn’t know where the building would be situated.
After years of looking eventually Aline found a site in Olive Hill (now Barnsdall Park) which consisted of 36 acres. Los Angeles civic leaders had considered this plot of land for a public park because of its proximity to downtown along with its views of downtown to the east and the Hollywood hills to the west. When Barnsdall purchased the land it had been on the market for an extended period of time and priced at the steep price of $10,000 per acre. Barnsdall made an offer of $300,000 for the entire lot or just over $8,000 per acre. That offer was accepted.
Aline wanted four major buildings built upon the site. She wanted a home, a theater, a small house for the director of the theater and an apartment building to house the actors of the theater. The estimated cost for all four buildings, from Wright, was approximately $375,000 which was $75,000 more than the estimate from another architectural firm that she considered for the project which was the firm of Walker and Eisen
The house that Walker and Eisen submitted to Barnsdall for the Olive Hill property was a one story house in the Spanish Colonial Revival style with a plaster exterior and a tile roof. It contained five bedrooms and three and a half baths. Barnsdall commissioned these plans mostly likely when her frustration with Frank Lloyd Wright was at its peak. For it seems, Wright kept stringing her along with promise after promise of plans, models and colored drawings that never seemed to materialize or materialized months or years after they were promised. In Kathryn Smith’s book on the Hollyhock House she recounts in letters from Barnsdall to Wright Barnsdall’s continual exasperation at the lack of progress on the plans for the house. It’s really amazing the house was ever actually built because in numerous letters Barnsdall asks Wright if they should proceed with the endeavor of if they should just call the whole thing off. Wright seemed to sense when Barnsdall was at her wits end because it was then, and only then, that he would get to work and supply her with just enough of what she wanted to keep her on the hook.
One thing of note that I found interesting was that Barnsdall was most likely the one who put forth the idea of incorporating hollyhocks into the overall design Wright later said, “…Miss Barnsdall had pre-named the house for the Hollyhock she loved for many reasons, all of the good ones, and called upon me to render her favorite flower as a feature of (the) Architecture, how I might.”
Aline also said in a letter to Wright, “I don’t want it to look green but to feel green as a background for the rich hollyhock…”
- Wright never stated what the Hollyhock House mantel depicted but his son Lloyd Wright claimed that it depicts Aline Barnsdall as an Indian princess on the left side, upon a throne no less, and she is surveying her land which is depicted on the right.
- Wright’s local Los Angeles office was in the Homer Laughlin building at 522 Broadway located next to the Million Dollar Theater. That location is currently occupied by the Grand Central Market.
- Barnsdall was a supporter of both birth control advocate Margaret Singer and political activist Emma Goldman.
- Rudolf Schindler, who worked on the project stated there were some Mayan motifs in the design though the Los Angeles Times referred to it as a “modernized Aztec style.”
- When the house was finished in 1921, the final cost of the house, with improvements, (it leaked so badly most of the floors buckled and had to be replaced) was $990,000 including architect’s fees.
- By 1923 Barnsdall wanted to sell the house and land for $1.8 million but decided against it because she didn’t want Olive Hill sold to a hotel syndicate “and have it turned into a jazz parlor where smokers would congregate.”
- Barnsdall chose not to live in the house. She later stated, “Its more ornate beauty never satisfied me. My heart was not in it. I never felt well on Olive Hill…”
These three plaques are attached to one of the entrance walls.
This book is from 1928. Unfortunately I only had access to the French version of the book yet the photographs are the same even though the book is in French.
The two following photos show the mantle in the living room. They are from a 1926 book on FLW.
If you want further information on the Hollyhock House the go-to-book is by Kathryn Smith. It contains everything you would want to know about the Hollyhock House and it is filled with photographs and diagrams.
Indoor photography isn’t allowed in the Hollyhock House but there are scores of photographs of the interior on the internet. Just google the Hollyhock House for them.
Hitchcock, H.-R. (1928). Frank Lloyd Wright. Paris: Cahiers d’art.
McClurg, V. B. (1928, March). An exhibition of architecture and the arts. California Southland, 9(99), 11.
Smith, K. (1992). Frank Lloyd Wright: hollyhock house and olive hill. New York: Rizzoli.
Wright, F. L. (1926). Frank Lloyd Wright: the life work of the American architect. Chicago: A. Kroch.