Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House Restored to Original Vision

Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House - H 2015
Jordan Riefe

Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House - H 2015

Renovation of the 1921 architectural masterpiece corrects earlier changes by Wright's son.

By the time he began the second phase of his career, Frank Lloyd Wright was 54 years old and struggling with an image problem after running off to Europe with his mistress, the wife of a client, leaving his wife and kids behind. He had already made a name for himself as the originator of the revolutionary “prairie-style” home, flat houses with open floor plans incorporating the structure into the landscape, and now that name was tarnished just as he was about to take American architecture one step closer to modernism. 

The Hollyhock House, built in 1921 for oil heiress and bohemian Aline Barnsdall, represented a new idea in domestic dwelling that came to be known as California modernism. After four years and $4.5 million in renovations, this seminal structure sitting on 36 acres in Los Feliz reopened recently, giving the public a glimpse of Wright’s original vision.

It’s not clear that his son, Lloyd, had anything against Wright, but as an architect he would forever be in his father’s shadow. Along with two godfathers of modernism Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra, Lloyd oversaw some of the house’s construction while his father was in Tokyo planning the Imperial Hotel. Renovations occurred in 1946 when Lloyd replaced the original kitchen, rebuilt part of the roof over the foyer, painted the walls and removed molding along the ceiling, among other changes.

Read more: 'Bowlarama' Exhibit at L.A.'s A+D Architecture and Design Museum Celebrates Bowling Architecture

In 1974, he put down formica countertops in the kitchen and replaced a folding windowpane with sliding glass doors. According to curator Jeffrey Herr there was indication that Wright objected to some of the changes but ultimately it’s impossible to tell whether Lloyd was acting out of professional jealousy or poor taste.

While recently completed restorations included fixing a leaky roof and clogged drainage, much of the work involved reversing Lloyd’s changes. In the case of kitchen, it has only been restored to its 1946 condition, changing formica back to mahogany. More important was the color of the walls.

“Over the years it became beige, literally beige, as well as architecturally bland,” Herr tells The Hollywood Reporter about the wall paint that went from olive green to beige during Lloyd’s first restoration, dramatically dulling the impact of the unconventional series of rooms. Thanks to a patch of old paint they uncovered, Herr and his team were able to restore the interior to its original color.

“He did reinvent himself and reuse ideas and things like that,” says Herr, noting the open floor plan and the integration of the landscape consistent with Wright’s earlier structures as well as Japanese influence from his work in Tokyo. “You can see more of the prairie style influence inside than you do on the exterior. It is a transitional house. He’s still experimenting with ideas on how to redesign residential living.”

Read more: L.A.'s First Architecture and Design Film Festival Kicks Off

In the years that followed, Wright moved into his textile-block houses like the Ennis House in the hills just to the north of the Hollyhock, as well as the Millard House in Pasadena. Concepts originating from Hollyhock had a profound impact on those structures as well as the buildings of many key modernist architects who followed Wright.

The hollyhock was Barnsdall’s favorite flower, and a modernist motif of the bloom is woven into the cornice of the house at her behest. But in the end, Barnsdall hated the building and never moved in, opting instead to live in the downtown Biltmore Hotel. “She never really liked this house partly because if you’re expecting to pay $50,000 and it costs three to four times that, that’s enough to make anyone cranky,” laughs Herr. The best clients he [Wright] had were those that put little or no conditions on their purse strings.”

Barnsdall donated the house and the acreage to the city, which spurned the offer at first, finally relenting in 1927. It was neglected by the city and came close to being razed to make room for a recreational area, but in a recent turnabout it has been nominated to the UNESCO World Heritage List just in time to coincide with the reopening.

“It was very exciting, especially when you get to a point where your plasterers and your painters are putting on their final touches and you can evaluate whether what you put together was successful or not,” Herr smiles breathlessly, then adds, “Most of the times it was successful.”