At the behest of oil heiress Aline Barnsdall, the twentieth century's greatest architect created one of his most imaginative and controversial residential designs. Built in Hollywood in 1920–21, Hollyhock House attests to the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright and was eventually designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. This splendid home and its construction are documented here in more than 120 illustrations — photographs, floor plans, elevations, sketches, etc. — accompanied by the author's detailed, perceptive text.
Donald Hoffmann, noted Wright scholar and architectural critic, draws on a wealth of primary documents and his own direct observation not only to re-create the problems of clashing egos and rancor behind the house's turbulent history, but also to invite a true appreciation of its myriad aesthetic and architectural charms. The varied aspects of the house are captured in this lavishly illustrated tribute, which reveals the imaginatively shaped spaces, inner harmonies, daring conceptions, and exquisite details that make Hollyhock House a landmark of modern design.
About the Author
American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) designed more than 1,000 structures in a career that spanned eight decades. A leader of the Prairie School of architecture, he also designed interiors, wrote 20 books, and was a popular lecturer.
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Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House
The Illustrated Story of an Architectural Masterpiece
By Donald Hoffmann
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1992 Donald Hoffmann
All rights reserved.
Aline Barnsdall and Frank Lloyd Wright arrived in Los Angeles by the same route, driven by parallel ambitions. Miss Barnsdall, as she was always called, meant to launch a new theater that could regenerate the American stage. Wright wanted to invent an indigenous American architecture, suited especially to southern California and perhaps the entire Southwest. To such ambitions, success is seldom granted; but from this highminded association of client and architect there came at least a strange and wonderful residence. Miss Barnsdall called it "Hollyhocks," after her favorite flower. Wright, in time, named it Hollyhock House, by which it is known still today [Fig. 1].
Hollyhock Hoiise rises from an isolated hill in east Hollywood. It stands alone, as well, among the hundreds of buildings that Wright conceived during his long and extraordinarily fertile career. Stately and yet endearing, even playful, the house is all at once an oasis, paradise garden, rooftop promenade, lookout and retreat. It is also a theater for the performance each day of sun and shadow, a place of peculiar enchantment . Hollyhock House was built in 1920-21, a most difficult and awkward time in the architect's life. But his correspondence, his autobiography, the drawings and indeed the house itself all agree on something else: that he put into it much of himself and the best that he had to give. Wright called Hollyhock House his "California Romanza."
Architecture asks first for a client, and at first Miss Barnsdall must have seemed the client of an architect's dreams. She was a woman of large means and many affections . She liked dogs, she liked flowers, she liked radical causes, all the arts and especially the theater. Most of all, she liked to travel. Miss Barnsdall was not adept at getting along with people; she once wrote Wright that she had always put "climate and natural beauty" before people. When things did not go her way she simply went somewhere else. This unsettled way of life rendered paradoxical any relation she might have to architecture, the least movable of the arts. What qualified her as a great client was her access to great wealth. It came directly from her father, whose wealth came directly from the earth.
Theodore Newton Barnsdall was an independent oil operator and financier of daunting energies . Most often remembered for being always on the move, he kept bank accounts in eight states, and people called him T. N., as though even his name had to be rushed. When he died at his home in Pittsburgh, the morning newspaper said he had been an indefatigable worker, often too busy to sit down for a meal, and that "it was not an uncommon sight to see him emerging from a restaurant in the Diamond munching a huge bologna sandwich as he hurried along to keep an appointment or attend to some business matter." A huge sandwich for a huge man, six feet four inches tall and 250 pounds. A trade journal said Barnsdall had been the most restless personality in the petroleum industry: "Three-quarters of this operator's time was spent on railroads and on other means of conveyance ... he was virtually homeless."
He had such a knack for oil that the Standard Oil Company, between 1905 and 1907, with rare benevolence toward an independent, underwrote his operations in the Oklahoma field with interest-free loans of $7.5 million. T. N. Barnsdall was born to oil, it is fair to say, because the place of his birth, a pleasantly wooded and obscure town named Titusville, in northwestern Pennsylvania, so soon became the birthplace of the petroleum industry. His father, William Barnsdall, was born in 1810 in Bedfordshire, England, and had settled into Titusville in the 1830s. The elder Barnsdall quickly sensed the potential profit in oil, an insight that strangely eluded Edwin Laurentine Drake, the former railroad conductor from New Haven, Connecticut, whose rude derrick performed the first successful drilling for rock-oil, or petroleum, in August 1859. Drake had arrived in Titusville with calculated flourish, calling himself a colonel. He began drilling not far south of town, and endured great ridicule during the long months before his well came in. The very next year he was content to be elected a justice-of-the-peace.
William Barnsdall, by contrast, gave up his trade of shoemaking and, for a time, the farm north of town to which he had walked every day from his home. With several partners, he began to drill on the farm of his brother-in-law, a quarter of a mile north of the Drake well and nearer to town. Soon the Barnsdall well became the second successfully drilled oil well in the world. Sunk much deeper, it came into full operation in February 1860. Later that year, William Barnsdall became a partner in building the first oil refinery. Rockoil, known even in ancient times, had long been skimmed from ponds and random seepages. It was sold in America as snake-oil, for treating all manner of bodily complaints, or as a lubricant for machinery. Oil drawn from deep in the earth proved plentiful, and could now take the place of whale oil as a source of the notable illuminant kerosene.
T. N. Barnsdall, born on June 10, 1851, was eight years old when Colonel Drake struck oil. Only the dimmest of Titusville lads could have ignored the excitement of 1859-60. T. N. Barnsdall worked first at one of his father's wells at a place south of Titusville ingloriously named Pit Hole, now happily vanished. He was 16 when he drilled his first well, with help from his father. A glass-plate photograph from that year, 1867, captures the humble origins of the Barnsdall fortune . The boom in Titusville lasted nearly a decade, but William Barnsdall already was drilling at the west edge of Bradford, 75 miles to the northeast and almost into the state of New York. In the 1870s the Bradford field grew famous. (Today, the oldest active well from that time can be discovered downtown, behind McDonald's; it yields a barrel of crude oil a day.) T. N. Barnsdall also began drilling at Bradford, where he negotiated valuable leases. He rented an office downtown and kept rooms nearby. In 1880 he finally moved to Bradford. The following year, on June 22, he married Louisa Angela Stitt. Angie, as she was called, had been born on April 23, 1854, the town of Meadville, about 25 miles west of Titusville. Their first child was born in Bradford on April 1, 1882, in their modest home on Walker Avenue. They named her Louisa Aline.
Within a few years, T. N. Barnsdall took offices in Pittsburgh, and by 1893 he had moved there. About ten years later, he bought a mansion that occupied a site extending along North Negley Avenue more than 490 feet north from Wellesley Avenue. Among its other amenities were a music room, library and porte-cochere, or carriage porch — features that Miss Barnsdall would have as well in Hollyhock House. Despite his wealth, his mansion and, indeed, his size, T. N. Barnsdall avoided the public eye. A book honoring the most successful and wealthy men in Pittsburgh managed only to provide his name and an engraved portrait, with no biographical sketch whatever. Government attorneys investigating Standard Oil failed to identify him for more than a year, and during the hearings in New York they spoke mockingly of "the mysterious Mr. Barnsdall" as though he perhaps did not even exist.
Barnsdall borrowed heavily, took large risks, built a reputation for keeping his word, stayed in good humor and bore his failures with enviable ease, although a major reversal may have contributed to his final illness. (Before Oklahoma was admitted as a state in 1907, he ventured into Indian Territory and secured leases on some 334,000 acres of potential oil and natural-gas lands; less than ten years later, he was ordered by the government to relinquish his leases on all but 4,800 acres.) Even so, Barnsdall at the end of his life controlled about 20 companies, some of which were mines for gold, silver, zinc, lead, iron and coal. Adventurous, private and not much concerned with courting the esteem of others, he could have seen all those traits reflected in his daughter Aline .
The generous allowance he gave her also became a formative element in her life. Before the outbreak of World War I, she spent much of her time in Europe. Her path to Wright in fact began in Berlin, and not because of the great portfolio of his work published there in 1910 by Ernst Wasmuth. Early in 1913, a friend introduced her there to young Lawrence Langner, already an international patent agent and soon to become a playwright and theatrical manager as well. They fell in love. Much later, Langner disguised her as "Celeste" in his memoirs:
Celeste was neither fair nor dark, though her light-brown hair, blue eyes and transparent skin made one remember her as a blond rather than a brunette. She was a creature of great enthusiasms, and had a habit of growing so excited over them that she often choked up and became both breathless and speechless, and would have to let her eyes and facial expression finish her sentences for her. She was a few years older than I, but we were the same age in our enthusiasm over the theatre and Bernard Shaw, and she was even younger when it came to discussing politics and Victorian morality, against which she was in even greater revolt than I was ...
Celeste, like myself, had become infatuated with the productions at the Deutsches Theater, and wanted to see plays presented in this new way in the American theatre. From the time she had been a young girl, she had fallen in love with the theatre....
After an idyll in the Bavarian Alps — Miss Barnsdall used a Baedeker to choose a mountain where she meant to consummate the relationship — Langner returned to New York, where he and his brother had an apartment in Greenwich Village:
My life in the Village was periodically interrupted by my life with Celeste, which turned out to be a series of railroad jumps broken by journeys to many of the mountainous sections of the United States, where she indulged her passion for seeing what was on the other side of the range. Celeste lived in four homes, all inconveniently situated several hundred miles apart ... I did my best to induce her to settle in New York, but was unsuccessful, for Celeste felt cramped by its buildings, and bewildered by its vibrations. She gasped for spiritual air....
Langner soon opened a branch office of his patent business in Chicago. Because he found most Broadway plays cheap and meretricious, he was delighted to be introduced to the Chicago literary scene and to discover the Chicago Little Theater, pioneered by the poet Maurice Browne and his wife, the actress Ellen Van Volkenburg:
The fact that Maurice Browne was able to exist at all in Chicago made a great impression upon me, and I wrote to Celeste telling her that if an Art Theatre of this kind was possible in Chicago, it would be even more possible in New York. Celeste, who never permitted anyone else to do her thinking for her, decided exactly the opposite, and immediately rushed to Chicago and she opened her first play there, presumably on the theory that two art theatres could starve as easily as one.
In 1912 Browne and his wife had leased a fourth-floor back space in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, which they transformed into a theater with 91 seats and a 14-foot stage. It was to be a little theater, Browne recalled, because "a small theatre would cost less than a large one." Among the first of their players was Elaine Hyman, an Art Institute student who soon began an affair with the novelist Theodore Dreiser. Later, after moving East and taking the stage name of Kirah Markham, she moved West to join Miss Barnsdall's theater company in Los Angeles, where she met Lloyd Wright, the architect's eldest son, and married him.
Aline Barnsdall and Frank Lloyd Wright met in Chicago. Henry Blackman Sell, who like Wright was a native of southern Wisconsin, was the person who introduced them, Wright recalled. Sell was related to the showman William F. ("Buffalo Bill") Cody; much later, he wrote a book with Victor Weybright titled Buffalo Bill and the Wild West. As a young journalist and man-about-town, Sell kept abreast of the brief Chicago renaissance. Soon he became literary editor of the Chicago Daily News. He admired Wright's accomplishment in the Midway Gardens, a festive entertainment place near the southeast corner of Washington Park. "Here the artist and his dream have come near a meeting," Sell wrote, "and for the first time in many, many years the forms of three arts, architecture, sculpture and painting, are found proceeding from and determined by the same mind."
Wright said his introduction to Miss Barnsdall took place at his apartment on Cedar Street, close by the Lake Shore Drive; but Miss Barnsdall recalled that they met five or six blocks to the north, at the most famous house in Chicago. "You should never be apologized for, even with love in the heart," she wrote him in June 1946, after she read John Lloyd Wright's memoir My Father Who Is on Earth, "because people either understand at once and accept you with admiration & respect, as I did that evening in Mrs. Potter Palmer's garage, or they just haven't the imagination or freedom of heart to ever understand." Much more important than the place of their meeting, or why they may have been in Mrs. Palmer's garage, was the time. Wright said it was not long after the tragedy at Taliesin, his country home and studio near Spring Green, Wisconsin. That would have been late in 1914; in August, a disturbed servant set the house afire and killed seven persons before they could flee. Among the victims were Wright's companion Mamah Cheney and her two children. The prospect of building the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, and now the chance to do important work for Miss Barnsdall, came as if godsends to turn his mind and will to the future.
Norman Bel Geddes, the precocious and spirited designer, left a vivid picture of the early years of Wright and Miss Barnsdall. Around the turn of the century, Geddes (as he was known more plainly before 1916, when he married a young woman named Belle and was inspired to redesign his own name) spent a few childhood years in the best part of Pittsburgh, like Miss Barnsdall. His family lived next door to Harry K. Thaw, the very same who was to marry the showgirl Evelyn Nesbit — herself a native of Tarentum, just northeast of Pittsburgh — and later, in the rooftop theater in Madison Square Garden, was to murder the architect Stanford White in much-delayed revenge for what Thaw considered assaults upon his wife's premarital honor. Geddes was as self-taught as he was self-propelled, but he studied a little at the Cleveland Institute of Art and at the Art Institute of Chicago. He made friends in Cleveland with a Blackfoot named Thundercloud, an artist's model of some renown, and questioned him about the Indian legend of the enormous prehistoric Thunderbird. In the summer of 1912, Geddes traveled to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwest Montana, sketched the Indians and tried to learn more about the great bird. A few years later, in Detroit, where he was making a name as a poster designer, Geddes wrote a play titled Thunderbird. And it was because of Thunderbird that he came to the attention of Miss Barnsdall.
Geddes met her through the composer Charles Wakefield Cadman, best remembered for his popular tune "From the Land of the Sky-blue Water," a love song based on an Omaha tribal melody. Cadman, too, took great interest in Indians. He had studied music in Pittsburgh, where he served a few years as music critic of the Dispatch. Cadman not only was an exact contemporary of Miss Barnsdall's, but a friend. He gave lecture-recitals of Indian music, and wrote about "ideal izing the only existent form of folk-song indigenous to American soil." Much sentiment about Indians was in the air. Wright, in searching for the indigenous, had long been fascinated by Indians — a fact Miss Barnsdall seemed not to grasp until 30 years later.
Excerpted from Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House by Donald Hoffmann. Copyright © 1992 Donald Hoffmann. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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