One of Los Angeles’s architectural gems is back! After a six-year extensive restoration, you can once again tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s first commission in this city. Cresting Olive Hill in Barnsdall Art Park like a crown, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House glows in honey-colored stone. Built between 1919 and 1921 for Aline Barnsdall, the building was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2019. It features many of Lloyd Wright’s classic architectural signatures, such as vast windows, an open-plan living space, bold lines and geometric accents. Mayan architectural shapes embellish the walls, from the numerous roof terraces down to the patio.
A significant part of LA’s storied architectural history, Hollyhock House (built 1919-21) marked Wright’s first architectural project in Los Angeles. Hollyhock House boasts a lyrical and poetic style of architecture known as “California Romanza” (from the musical term meaning “freedom to make one’s own form”), which complements LA’s significance as a trendsetter in the arts and architecture.
Hollyhock House is a gorgeous Mayan Revival style house with 17 rooms and 7 bathrooms. Oil heiress, theater producer, single mother, and social activist Aline Barnsdall commissioned the house, and it was originally intended to be part of an avant-garde arts and theater complex known as Olive Hill, now known as Barnsdall Art Park. Barnsdall tapped Wright for the job when she bought Olive Hill in 1919. Wright was hired to design multiple buildings, but he only finished the plans for Hollyhock House before being fired. He wasn’t on the job long enough to see the house completed in 1921.
This project marked a transitional moment for Wright, as it heralded the end of his prairie style home period. It also marked a turning point in the history of modern architecture in Los Angeles; the house’s construction brought three seminal architects—Wright, Rudolph Schindler, and Richard Neutra—to the city. All three went on to create iconic buildings throughout Los Angeles, defining California modernism in the process. It’s one of the many L.A. treasures listed on HistoricPlacesLA.org, a historic preservation resource from the City of L.A. and the Getty Conservation Institute.
In addition to the UNESCO recognition, Hollyhock House was designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #12 in 1963, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2007.
Little known facts about this newly reopened historic landmark.
Hollyhock is not someone’s last name
Unlike Wright’s other Los Angeles commissions, “Hollyhock” is not someone’s last name. Before it was even designed, Barnsdall decided to name the house after her favorite flower—hollyhock. Wright used the name as inspiration, implementing an abstract hollyhock motif throughout the house’s façade and interiors. Actual hollyhock flowers are located in the central courtyard and the exterior spaces.
Project Restore Came to Its Rescue
Hollyhock House is almost 100 years old, and with age comes much need conservation work. Due to financial limitations, Wright used hollow clay tile and plaster instead of poured concrete to build the house. These materials made the structure susceptible to water and seismic damage. Over the years, the house has confronted intense leakage problems, sagging concrete beams, distorted paint color, cracks in the pool, soil settling, and the impact of some pesky trees.
In 2005, a restoration team fixed damage caused by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, but many other problems remained. Their work lead to a ton of discoveries about the original 1921 house, as well as previous conservation efforts in the 1940s, 1950s, 1970s, and early 2000s.
Luckily for the preservation of Wright’s work, Project Restore assembled a team of experts to spearhead the conservation and restoration of Hollyhock House. Initial funding was provided by the California Cultural and Historical Endowment and grants from Save Americas Treasures. Additional support was provided by the City of Los Angeles and the National Parks Service.
Project Restore was awarded the 2014 California Restoration Award for their work on Hollyhock House. Full slideshows of the whole conservation process can be seen on Project Restore’s website.
It Includes Symbols for Earth, Water, Fire, and Air
Japanese-inspired idea is the metaphorical inclusion of the four elements—earth, water, fire and air—in the house. The concrete bas-relief of the fireplace represents earth, the fireplace itself and the torchiere lamps allude to fire, the skylight references air, and the entire home is surround by a moat representing water.
The concrete bas-relief, considered one of Wright’s greatest works of art, is said by some to be an abstract representation of Barnsdall as an “Indian Princess” on a hill overlooking the city.
Some Furniture Pieces Are Original—And Some Are Replicas
After a century of use, it is understandable that some of the furniture had to be replaced. The curator of Hollyhock House, Jeffrey Herr, used old photos to find or reconstruct exact replicas of objects and furniture in the house. But many of the pieces are original, including the dining room chairs from 1921. The chairs feature a hollyhock motif along with what looks to be a human spine—perhaps an expression of Wright’s macabre sense of humor. When touring the house, visitors can guess which objects are original and which are exact replicas.
**Spoiler Alert** Speaking of replicas, one item known to be a copy is the grand couch located in the living room. At some point during the house’s life, the original couch mysteriously disappeared.
Rudolf Schindler Left His Mark on the House
Due to time restraints, budget decisions, the architect’s preoccupation with projects in Japan, and tensions with Barnsdall, Wright did not finish construction of the house. Rudolf Schindler came to Los Angeles to work as project manager for Hollyhock House under Wright, and he was hired to finish the remainder of the home after Wright was fired by Barnsdall.
Schindler contributed several architectural features to Hollyhock House, including the camouflaged locks and Barnsdall’s bedroom. After developing his own successful body of work in the city, Schindler urged Richard Neutra to follow. Through the Hollyhock commission, three important architects wound up in Los Angeles.
…And So Did Wright’s Son, Lloyd Wright
Wright’s eldest son, Lloyd Wright, was an architect in his own right, and he also worked extensively on Hollyhock House. Lloyd was his father’s right hand man during the early stages of construction when Wright was in Japan and Rudolf Schindler had yet to be brought on as project manager. In the 1940s, Lloyd spearheaded a restoration of the house while simultaneously taking some creative liberties and adding several new design elements such as cabinets. These cabinets remain today, even though the rest of Hollyhock House stays true to its original 1921 state.
Aline Barnsdall Was Drought Savvy
The house includes an underground plumbing system to allow water to flow from the central courtyard into an interior moat and then out again to the main pool outside. Due to its impracticality and wastefulness, Barnsdall discontinued the water flow to the fireplace moat shortly after its completion. Was Aline a water conservation pioneer?
It’s Had Killer Views from the Beginning
Hollyhock House offers exceptional views of many of the city’s landmarks, including the Hollywood sign and the Griffith Observatory. However, completion of Hollyhock House predated both famous sites—the sign went up in 1922 and the Observatory opened in 1935.
The House Once Belonged to a Girl Named Sugartop
Barnsdall was infamously a single mother by choice, for she wanted a child but not a husband. In 1917 she gave birth to a daughter named Betty, also known as “Sugartop” because of her white blonde hair. Photographs and paintings of Sugartop are displayed throughout Hollyhock House. Wright planned with Sugartop’s needs in mind, particularly in the designs for her bedroom and the outside areas of the home.
Hollyhock House is located at 4800 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA, 90027, and the house is open from Thursday to Sunday, 11am–3pm. Admission is $7 for adults and $3 for students and seniors with ID. Additional information can be found on Barnsdall’s website.