Feisty oil heiress and theater star Aline Barnsdall would have been pleased to see the scene that unfolded on her lawn at Hollyhock House last Friday: throngs of people sprawled out on picnic blankets, sipping wine, catching up with friends, and watching the sun set over Los Angeles.
I know I was enjoying the revelries. When I received an email earlier this summer announcing the start of this year’s Friday Night Wine Tastings at Barnsdall Art Park, they had me at “wine tasting.” Imagine sitting with a glass of pinot in the shadow of Frank Lloyd Wright’s c. 1921 Hollyhock House, built for Barnsdall, who had bohemian tendencies and an affinity for supporting radical causes.
But throw in the opportunity to tour the iconic house, and I was sold. So last Friday, I drove to East Hollywood and hiked up the hill where Hollyhock House stands, overlooking the city.
Before we began sampling the libations, my friend and I lined up for our 7 p.m. tour. It was quite a treat to be touring the house that night: It has been closed to tour groups since July 20, save for tours given during the Friday Night Wine Tastings, on account of ongoing restoration work at the site. (It is scheduled to reopen to the public in September.)
We were led through a side door and into a small room where we were instructed to put protective booties over our shoes to spare the flawless hardwood floors. Thanks to Wright’s open floor plan, I was able to survey a good portion of the house while waiting for the tour to begin. Sheets of plastic covering the various construction zones blocked some views, but the visible parts were breathtaking. I was excited to begin exploring.
Our docent gave us a thorough history of the property, which I’ll recap here:
- Barnsdall wanted to build a house for her and her daughter on her 36-acre plot in Los Angeles along with an arts colony, complete with two secondary residences, a theater, artist studios, and a movie house.
- She brought Wright to the city to execute her vision.
- The house gets its name from Barnsdall’s favorite flower, the hollyhock. Recurring hollyhock designs are incorporated throughout, like those inlaid along the walls and running down the backs of the dining room chairs.
- Barnsdall and Wright shared a contentious relationship. Our docent told us that when the house was finally completed -- thousands of dollars over Wright’s initial estimates -- Barnsdall was none too fond of it.
- Shortly after it was completed, she donated the house and 11 acres of surrounding land to the city for use as a public art park.
(I encourage you to read a more thorough account of Barnsdall’s fascinating life and Hollyhock House’s history here.)
Walking around, I understood Barnsdall’s criticisms. Walking through Wright’s dramatic entryway doesn’t immediately make you feel cozy, and the careful symmetry of his design, right down to the particular placement of his custom-made couches, would, I’m sure, start to feel stuffy after awhile.
But since I wasn’t planning to unpack my bags there, I could easily imagine myself relaxing in front of the living room fireplace, and happily envision hosting a dinner party in the sunlit dining room, with my guests seated around Wright’s custom-made table and chairs (the ones in the house today are replicas).
Back outside, wine glass in hand, I studied the house’s exterior, with its solid Mayan influences, the large windows overlooking colorful gardens, and the hollyhock motif spanning the roofline.
It struck me that events like the Friday Night Wine Tastings, or the other programs Barnsdall Art Park hosts, like art shows, outdoor movie screenings, and a weekly farmers market, provide great excuses for people to come to a historic site they might not otherwise think of visiting.
I’m all for anything that makes people aware of the iconic architecture we have here in Los Angeles. And as Hollyhock House’s keepers continue to restore it, bringing it closer and closer to its original appearance, I hope more people take an afternoon to venture inside.