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Lessons from Wright's Hollyhock House Restoration

Lessons from Wright's Hollyhock House Restoration
A beautiful example of a modern ranch home.
Frank Lloyd Wright designed the landmark Hollyhock house in Los Angeles for Aline Barnsdall, an eccentric oil heiress, in 1919. Ater an extensive multi-million dollar renovation, the house reopened for tours earlier this year. Much can be learned from the original design as well as from subsequent construction failures. I just toured it -- here's my report.

The design is a brilliant fusion of Mayan-inspired architecture, Arts and Crafts esthetics, and early California Modernism. Designed as a garden home, each interior room melds seamlessly into an adjacent exterior space. Each room opens up to either an exterior courtyard, an interior courtyard, a pergola,

a deck or a water feature. Key features include a central courtyard, reflecting pools, and a small Greek amphitheater.  Wright intended the house to facilitate outdoor living as much as indoor living. Each surface of the multi-planar roof doubles as both a deck and as a living space.
The interior has an open floor plan that is Modernist in its conception. The ample use of skylights, clerestory and casement windows, and stained glass doors effectively bring light into the rooms throughout the day.  The paint also serves to illuminate the rooms with a metallic element that helps reflect ambient light.
The public areas include a library, a music room and a dining room but it is the living room that really is the standout. The central hearth is concrete and monumental in it’s scale. It features a large Arts and Crafts skylight above, a “moat” or water feature around it and an abstract bas relief on the surface of the fireplace

that symbolizes the Earth. These elements were consciously placed together to symbolically represent the four elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire. The skylight above the fireplace, the windows along the West wall and the stained glass doors along the South wall all work together to illuminate the room with natural light.  The doors, paneling and built in furniture work in harmony to create a beautiful, well lit, Arts and Crafts interior that looks out to views of the city below and to the  surrounding 36 acre site.

The interior of the house features extensive use of wood paneling and muted earth toned colors taking its palate directly from nature.  The paneling is Genisero, a South American hard wood that Wright selected for its natural shine. Trim is Oak in the Arts and Crafts tradition and the handmade furniture is made from Phillipine  Mahogany. The motif of the Hollyhock (a plant loved by the owner -- see the photo at the top of this post) is built into the furniture as well as cast in relief on the concrete columns.

Devil in the Details
From a design perspective, the house is very successful and celebrates, light, nature, outdoor living and craftsmanship. From a construction point of view, however,  there were major structural problems that arose over time. The first major problems occurred with the roof structures. The roofs were intended to be walked upon but they failed to be well sealed or well maintained resulting in leaking and extensive dry rot problems.
During the $4.3 million  renovation the entire structure of the 30 foot long  entryway as well as the rear foyer had to be replaced. The surface of the 250 pound concrete entry doors had to be repointed. Much of the exterior trim as well as ceiling moldings had been removed in a 70’s era renovation and this had to be recreated from photographs. The plaster had to be restored on many of the wall and ceiling surfaces but fortunately there was some original plaster found at the site. The original stained glass doors  had to be recreated as they had been replaced with conventional sliding glass doors during the 70s.
The house was unprepared for both rain and earthquakes. The pergola suffered structural damage during the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, which gave additional impetus to rebuilding the cantilevered roof. Other concrete and stucco surfaces had to be repointed or replaced.

Design Takeaways  
-- Develop the Indoor/ Outdoor connection.
-- Open vistas with glass filled doors. either accordion or sliding glass style.
-- Use skylights judiciously to bring light into rooms.
-- Pay attention to paints – how they absorb or reflect light
-- Don’t skimp on craftsmanship.  Small details and woodwork add up to a feeling  of quality and an enjoyable living space.
The Hollyhock House is a pleasure to visit --  it's a living example of how thoughtful design can enliven living space.

Visit for ticket and other information. (Photos here are by Elizabeth Daniels courtesy

To see house plans that have been inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright click here.

Lessons from Wright's Hollyhock House Restoration Inspiration

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