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Imperial Ruins: Frank Lloyd Wright in Hollywood

Ennis House. Photo by Mike Brown, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Driving up Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles, three structures perched on the Hollywood Hills stand forth, shouting out their names to all who pass below: the vainglorious Hollywood sign, the Griffith Park Observatory, where Sal Mineo bought it in Rebel Without a Cause, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s sprawling cement block mansion for the Ennis family from Indianapolis, who had made their fortune in the clothing industry.

Squatting on a severe slope, the Ennis-Brown House, as it is now known, has been called a Mayan Temple, a concrete frivolity, a mausoleum, a goddamn monstrosity. These days it’s mainly a ruin-in-progress. A gorgeous, crumbling mess of a place. LA’s equivalent of Tintern Abbey.

The Ennis House is last and largest of four major houses Wright designed in LA in the 1920s: Hollyhock House, La Miniatura, the Freeman House and the Storer House. Wright’s LA houses mark a profound shift in the architect’s style, away from the floating planes and sharp lines of the Prairie houses toward thick masses of reinforced concrete and concrete blocks. It was a movement toward simplification of structure and mono-materials easily produced and put together. Of course, the LA houses didn’t prove to be easy or simple.

Wright argued that architecture should grow out the ecology of place, attuned to its climate, geology and vegetation. He maintained that both the design and the construction materials should be endemic to the region. “No house should ever be on a hill or on anything,” Wright preached. “ It should be of the hill.  Belonging to it.  Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.”

To a large degree, his vision of the Ennis House confirms to this ideal. The main house, the adjacent chauffeur’s quarters and the massive retaining wall are composed more than 24,000 concrete blocks, made on site, from blasted granite excavated on the lot, each block woven together by an unseen net of steel reinforcement bars.

His southern California homes seem to cling to the hillsides and canyons of LA like the pueblos of the Southwest. At a distance, the Ennis House, jutting up over its rampart-like retaining wall, bears an uncanny resemblance to the pueblo of Acoma in northern New Mexico. Even Wright wondered, somewhat cheekily, “if these houses could be considered modern.” By then, he’d already given up on modernism.

He wasn’t alone in view the houses as sophisticated throwbacks. Two of Wright’s most famous apprentices, Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra, followed Wright to LA. These young Viennese architects were infatuated with Wright’s prairie designs, the linear planes and discreet manipulation of interior spaces. But both were aghast at the bulky masses and extravagant ornamentation of Wright’s LA structures.

Schindler, who supervised the construction of Hollyhock House, split from Wright shortly afterwards. He and Neutra went on to found the sleek and austere modernist style that came to dominate LA architecture for the next forty years. Today, Wright’s LA houses stand as relics of the road not taken in southern California architecture.

Wright first came to LA in 1915 at the urging of his son Lloyd Wright. Lloyd was an accomplished architect in his own right. He was taught drafting skills by his father and executed many of the beautiful drawings in the collection of the Prairie house designs for the German Wasmuth press—this is the book that excited Schindler and Neutra, then young students of Aldof Loos in Vienna.

In 1911 Lloyd landed a position with the famous landscaping firm of Olmstead and Olmstead. A year later they sent him to San Diego to supervise the preparations of landscaping for the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915. It was at this crucial expo where Lloyd and his father were introduced to the architectural heritage of Meso-America. Indeed within a few weeks of visiting the expo, FLW dashed off a plan for a warehouse in his birthplace in Richland, Wisconsin that incorporated several design and structural elements from the Mayan House of Three Lintels at Chichén Itza.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s initial impression of Los Angeles wasn’t favorable. In a crabby letter to his son, he referred to the city as “a desert of shallow effects.” For the next six years, much of Wright’s life and work would be spent in Japan, consumed by the design and troubled construction of the Imperial Hotel.

Lloyd, however, fell in love with southern California and soon hired on as a landscape designer with the great San Diego architect Irving Gill, who had worked side-by-side with FLW 20 years earlier in Chicago at the firm of Adler and Sullivan. Gill went on to become one of the preeminent architects on the West Coast, designing austere stucco houses, churches and apartment complexes that resemble the Taos pueblo and early Spanish missions.

Lloyd later worked as a set designer for Paramount Pictures and designed several parks in LA, including the concrete animals at the La Brea tar pits and the awning for the Hollywood Bowl.

In 1919, Wright was summoned back to LA by the oil heiress Aline Barnsdale, whom Wright had come to know in Chicago through their interest in radical theater. Barnsdale was leftist and pacifist, dubbed by the ferociously right-wing LA press the “parlor room communist.”  She had bought a 40-acre tract of land on Hollywood Boulevard called Olive Hill, which she wanted Wright to develop into an artist colony and theater complex.

Here was a potential gold mine. An heiress with extravagant tastes, a big chunk of land and the desire for lots of structures. Working mainly from his studio in Tokyo, where he was working on the Imperial Hotel, Wright designed the centerpiece of the Olive Hill complex, Aline Barnsdale’s house, called Hollyhock, after her favorite flower. Wright used an semi-abstract Hollyhock pattern ornamentation throughout the design.

Hollyhock House looked like a new kind of architecture, far removed from his own Prairie houses or the arts and craft bungalows that then dominated Los Angeles’s residential neighborhoods. Here the Mayan-inspired forms took shape: the imposing house seems to extrude from the like the spine of the earth, revealing a stucco and concrete temple. From the exterior the look is foreboding and monumental; inside the house is open and filled with sunlight. The house is anchored by a large living room with a vaulted ceiling and a dramatic fireplace surrounded by a moat of water. Its u-shaped plan encloses a courtyard, with lush gardens and a small stream.

Barnsdale, the friend of Emma Goldman, was a difficult and meddling patroness. She regularly imposed what Wright termed “arbitrary conditions” on his work. For example, she told him that she “didn’t want the house to look green, but feel green.”

In any event, Wright passed on most of the business of dealing with Barnsdale’s whims to his son Lloyd and Schindler, who designed a beautiful Prairie style house for the site. Barnsdale hired Lloyd to design and construct billboards supporting the cause of Tom Mooney and Sacco and Vanzetti which she had Lloyd erect on Hollywood Boulevard. Then she grew bored with the project and the house. Only Hollyhock, Schindler’s Prairie house, another house (now destroyed) designed by Wright, a spring house and a kindergarten were built. After a few years Barnsdale left for good and donated all of Olive Hill to the city of Los Angeles.

Wright later dismissed the entire project. “Let’s forget it,” he wrote to Lloyd. “The damned thing will float away some day and be forgotten. It was a transition building.”

After the trials of the Imperial Hotel, Wright found himself in a dry spell. He was physically exhausted and emotionally spent. Little work flowed his way. He was 58 years old and even though the greatest work of his career lay before him, at the time it must have appeared to him as if he was being by-passed by the young Turks of the International School.

He was lured back to LA by the booming real estate market and the opportunity to work with his son, Lloyd, with whom he planned to open a permanent office in Hollywood. Soon after Wright arrived back in LA in 1923, he planted a story in the local papers announcing his intention to launch a large new development in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains. Apparently, this was a reference to an area of hills and narrow canyons in Beverly Hills known as Doheny Ranch. The development had been commissioned by Lawrence Doheny, an LA oil baron.

For the Doheny Ranch development, Wright laid out an entire community of concrete block houses, roads, tunnels, parks and bridges. All of the houses were to have been constructed out the same materials, but each structure would uniquely designed according to the site. In his plans, Wright took pains to disturb as little of the terrain and vegetation as possible.

The project never materialized. It withered away after Doheny became ensnared in the great Teapot Dome scandal of 1924. But the designs and the concrete block construction method resurfaced over the next few years in his great LA Mayan houses, La Miniatura, the Freeman House, the Storer House and the Ennis House.

For Wright, the fatal erosion of his creation occurred before the first block was laid. He clashed with the Ennises, who he sneered were nouveau riche, over nearly every detail, from the ceilings to the floorings to the furniture and lighting.

Wright split in a huff, leaving his son Lloyd to deal with Mr. and Mrs. Ennis and to supervise the construction. By all accounts, it was a thankless assignment.

Construction of the giant stepped retaining wall began on May 1, 1925. Within weeks, there were serious problems, largely resulting from a flawed survey of the property commissioned by the Ennises. The wall bulged at its base and several blocks on the upper run developed cracks. The Ennises grumbled and Lloyd Wright wrote his father for advice. FLW was dismissive. He wrote back saying he believed that “cracks nor bulge of no great significance.”

Among other things, Wright was a great salesman, the PT Barnum of architecture. He had to be. He didn’t enjoy big corporate commissions and his radical politics (he was on Hoover’s watch list for the last 40 years of his life) meant he didn’t get any government contracts. His office in his glorious house in Oak Park, where he seduced his clients with his genius, is one of the great salesrooms in America.

With the Ennises, he set the hook with this letter: “You see, the final result is going to stand on that hill a hundred years or more. Long after we are all gone, it will be pointed out as the Ennis House and pilgrimages will be made to it by lovers of the beautiful from everywhere.” It’s classic Wright: grandiose, unflinchingly egotistical and dead on.

Nearly all of Wright’s houses leak. He grew to dislike pitched roofs and loathed gutters. Some clients dealt amiably with the moisture as a kind of signature feature of living in a Wright house. Other clients were less understanding and took matters into their own hands, often with disastrous results for the structure. That’s precisely what happened at the Ennis House.

Irritated that the occasional drips (this is LA, after all, not Seattle) might run their Persian rugs, the Ennises slathered the house in a thick coat of sealant. This was later followed by paint. It did stop the leaking, but it also  trapped moisture in the blocks, accelerating the deterioration of the concrete blocks and corrosion of the web of reinforced steel that knits the blocks together.

I’d scrutinized the Ennis house at a distance for years, poring over the plans, the exquisite presentation drawings, and photographs of its construction taken by Lloyd Wright.

Then one day in late January a few years ago Franklin DeGroot offered to provide a guided tour. DeGroot is an architect and executive director of the Trust for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, the nonprofit group working to restore the house and its grounds and open it to the public.

On the drive up twisty and narrow Glendower Avenue, the house emerges and disappears from view, and then suddenly the road takes you past a cement block wall that conceals the entrance to the courtyard of the sprawling complex.

On this overcast and gloomy day, the house looks like a set from a DeMille movie. In fact, the Ennis House has been featured in dozens of films, most memorably in Blade Runner.  The house is looms and hulks, large and ungainly. It staggers awkwardly across the hillside. It’s a menacing illusion. Most of the mass is non-structural, as if meant to intimidate the uninitiated.

The exterior of the house is meant to exude power. But this is LA and nothing here is for real. Rising from the grand retaining wall, the house is a projection, an exaggeration of mass. Inside, it is much smaller than it looks. The Ennis House is a self-conscious imitation of power—at least for Wright and Schindler, if not the owners and crowds that might, one day, prowl its halls on the way to Grauman’s Chinese Theater or Universal Studios. It is a folie, an in-joke about pretense and ambition, at the Ennis’ expense. Thirty years after the construction of the Ennis House, Wright confessed that the palatial building in the Hollywood Hills was over-scaled: “the house was way out of concrete-block size. It was out of bounds.”

The debt to Mayan temples is unmistakable, although Wright, always the most adamantine when committing the grandest plagiary, quaintly refused to admit to any influences, even from anonymous Indians dead for centuries. In fact, as noted above,  Wright had fallen  under the spell of the Mayans in LA at the 1915 Exposition, where he saw for the first time photographs and models of the great Mayan temples and cities of Palenque and Chichen Itza.  Here in the Hollywood Hills, the courtyard, around which the mansion and the chauffeur’s house and garage, gives the game away.  The courtyard is stark, barren, a place fit for the dark ceremonies of Hollywood moguls.

The telescoping pavilions and battered walls are stretched and elongated a narrow mass, linked by the ingenious 100 foot-long loggia on the north side of the house, which connects all the major rooms of the house and provides a tremendous view of the cityscape.

You enter from below. The initial view of the interior is fragmented and disorienting. Inside, the Ennis House is dark, cool, one is tempted to say tomblike. Here we break from the Mayan model. This is a desert house, chilled by the interplay of shadow and stone. The architectural debt here is owed more to Chaco and Mesa Verde than Palenque.

You rise into the light, up a flight of stairs to central axis of the house. The gorgeous, sun-dappled dining room to the right and to the left, sunk behind colonnades, the massive fireplace with a bronze hood featuring the fire-god Xiuheuctli. It is a space that throbs with ritual allusions.

But it all proved too much for the inhabitants, who disfigured the austere lines of the house with Edwardian chandeliers, Victorian furnishings, cabinets, wood paneling and hideous velours-covered furniture. Too often Wright’s houses were made only for Wright to live in.  The Ennis’s lived here for a few years, then the house passed to film producer John Nesbitt who had made a mint from his series known as the Passing Parade. Nesbitt tracked down Wright to redesign the place in his own image, starting with a new name. They called the new palace: Sijistan, after the castle of a Persian hero.  For a few thousand dollars, Wright generated some beautiful sketches to redesign the interior of the house, ideas that would later be deployed with revolutionary effect in Fallingwater.

The Ennis house completed the transition from monumental home to simply a monument. It’s an entry on the National Historic Register.

LA is brutal to its own architectural heritage. The city can’t stomach outward signs of disrepair, age, deterioration. Buildings either get facelifts or euthanized with a wrecking ball. In recent years, structures designed by Irving Gill, Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra, the three great California modernists, have been demolished without remorse.

In 1994, the Northridge earthquake shattered the foundation and buckled the retaining walls of the house. Extensive repairs were made funded largely by the Ennis House Foundation. With a grant from the Getty Foundation, giant i-beams were sunk under the house, where the massive structure finally achieved a perilous balance. Then in 2005 disaster struck once again when torrential winter rains and floods savagely eroded the hillside, leaving the house vulnerable to a fatal landslide.

This all proved too much for the private foundation that had tried so valiantly to save Wright’s notorious Hollywood romanza. Since neither the city nor the state could be enticed into taking custody of the house, the Foundation is now searching for a private owner through Christie’s “Great Estates” international marketing service. Perhaps there are some deep pockets left somewhere in the world.

The endeavor to save and rehabilitate the Ennis house (now owned by venture capitalist and Clinton confidant Ron Burkle) was a worthy project, but I wonder if there’s not another option, one more in synch with Wright’s organic vision. Why not stabilize the house, so that it doesn’t slide off the hill, and then let nature run its course?

What’s an imperial city without a ruin?

A version of this essay originally appeared in the October 2009 print edition of CounterPunch magazine and is reprinted on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth.

Exploding Phones, Killing Drones on a Mission

Sound Grammar

What I’m listening to this week…

Platinum on Tap by Chris Speed Trio
Prophets of Rage by Prophets of Rage
Memphis…Yes, I’m Ready by Dee Dee Bridgewater
Tigré by Banda Magda
Colours of the Night by Maaleem Mahmoud Gania

Booked Up

What I’m reading this week…

How to Listen to Jazz by Ted Gioia
Kafka: the Early Years by Reiner Stach
DNA is Not Destiny by Stephen J. Heine

The Cabaret of Globalization

Subcomandante Marcos: “In the cabaret of globalization, the state shows itself as a table dancer that strips off everything until it is left with only the minimum indispensable garments: the repressive force.”

More articles by:

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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