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Preserving Frank Lloyd Wright's Place in Los Angeles Architectural History

Storer house still from Frank Lloyd Wright AB s9
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Preserving historically significant architecture in Los Angeles requires navigating a long and expensive obstacle course. There can be political obstacles, economic obstacles and environmental obstacles. Even homes designed by some of the world's most famous architects don't survive this gauntlet. The Fletcher Residence, designed by Wallace Neff, is the most recent residence to fail the tests of historic preservation. Though the home still stands, the city of Los Angeles issued a demolition permit for the Fletcher Residence in July 2017.

Most of the city's most famous works of architecture are scattered around residential neighborhoods, tucked into the hills of Los Angeles and invisible among the iconic views of the city. Because much of the city's architectural significance is privately owned, the success of preservation often depends on the concern and commitment of private citizens — property owners, in other words.

Any property owner in possession of an old house can expect to encounter a steady stream of expensive, ongoing maintenance costs. The custom-made quirks of custom-designed homes built in the 20th century only multiple that reality.

Far more lucrative an economic proposition is to tear down the home and build something new. Examples regularly populate Los Angeles real estate news feeds. In August 2017, the current owners of the Chuey House in the Hollywood Hills, designed by Richard Neutra, listed the home for sale as a "development opportunity," without referencing its architectural significance. Redfin estimates the value of that opportunity at over $ 6 million. A similar situation looms in Fairfax, with the 1930s streamline modern house designed by William Kelsing. That home sold earlier in 2017 for $1.6 million, but by the end of the year, Beverly Hills-based developer Ilan Gorodezki had filed plans to demolish the building and construct a new 17-unit condominium building. As real estate reaches prices that would have been unfathomable to the designers of these buildings, the land beneath a historic home in Los Angeles is usually worth more than the house itself.

Amidst the uniquely Los Angeles landscape of architectural heritage mingling side by side with skyrocketing real estate prices, the work of Frank Lloyd Wright stands as a small but deeply informative collection of case studies.  Adding a Hollywood-appropriate level of intrigue to the preservation the few buildings Frank Lloyd Wright designed in Southern California: the fact that Frank Lloyd Wright is perhaps the most famous American architect to ever leave behind a legacy, and his work in Southern California during the 1920s represents a unique turn in his career.

During his time in Los Angeles, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a series of houses built with extensive use of textile blocks, influenced heavily by the style of Pre-Columbian Central America. The Hollyhock House is perhaps the most visible example of Frank Lloyd Wright's work in Los Angeles, available for public tours on the grounds of the Barnsdall Art Park. Then there's the Ennis House, where an ownership change attracted media attention from 2009 through its purchase in 2011. The Freeman House is now owned by the USC School of Architecture, which is working to bring the house up to earthquake safety standards. The Storer House and the Millard House, the latter located in Pasadena, complete the regional collection of Wright's Pre-Columbian, sometimes also called Mayan Revival, designs.

Throughout his career, Frank Lloyd Wright experimented with ideas in designing organic, site-sensitive homes. In Los Angeles, this pursuit led him to conceive of the textile block — a design element sourced from the dirt on the site and woven together to also create the structure of the building. These textile blocks, while conceived with the best possible intentions as an experiment in integrating form and function, continue to trouble preservationists in the 21st century.

Take, for example, the Harriet and Samuel Freeman House, which is now owned by and maintained by the Heritage Conservation Programs at the USC School of Architecture. According to Trudi Sandmeier, director of Heritage Conservation Programs, the house offers faculty and students a rare opportunity to pursue new breakthroughs in the conservation of the built environment. "Whenever you experiment, you don't know how to predict how these materials are going to react, both in the moment and over time," explains Sandmeier of the state of the Freeman House. "Great ideas don't always make great architecture."

USC has spent $1.4 million to stabilize the Freeman House since the Northridge Earthquake, but the return on that investment is not sexy by design standards — these improvements consist of structural concrete and caissons drive into bedrock below the house. Due to the work of stabilizing the house, it's still "mid-conservation," explains Sandmeier. Repairs and structural elements are visible while historic decorative elements are safely stored away. Tenants live in the house, tasked with protecting the house from the elements. When it rains, they deploy buckets and tarps. The house acts like an architectural petri dish.

The dirt used on site to create the home's textile blocks were built with aggregate of different sizes, making the resulting textile blocks incredibly porous. When it rains, the blocks "soak up water like a sponge," says Sandmeier. The blocks are tied together with rebar, which adds risk when mixed with water.  When the rebar gets wet, it rusts; when rebar rusts, it expands; and when rebar expands, it shatters the blocks. As Sandmeier puts it: "The house is slowly falling apart from the inside out."

That kind of decay happens to all the textile-block houses, not just the Freeman House, and Frank Lloyd Wright wasn't the only person to design with textile blocks. His son Lloyd Wright followed in his footsteps, designing several very famous textile block-houses, such as the Sowden House and the Samuel-Novarro House.

The question of preservation — how to keep the original integrity of the design while ensuring its place in the future — is repeatedly tested by remnants of Frank Lloyd Wright's legacy. When solutions are discovered and implemented at a Frank Lloyd Wright home, they improve the chances of preservation for many other historically-significant buildings in the region.

The hard work of preservation — even for works completed by world-famous architects — often boils down to finding the kind of property owners, with the will and the resources to keep architectural significant homes in good repair.

One of Adrian Scott Fine's roles as the director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy is working with property owners, elected officials and developers to find and connect property owners committed to the cause in place at architecturally-significant buildings. When they match up a property with the right buyer, says Fine, "it's no longer just an issue of economics; it's finding the right person that really needs to be there to be the next steward." Fortunately, says Fine, there's usually a buyer for a home designed by an architect with the stature of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The same hasn't always been true for buildings designed by the architects that followed in Wright's footsteps. The influence of Wright's work stretched long beyond the 1920s through a community of designers that would create one of the most regionally specific design styles of the 20th century — luminaries such as Wright's son, Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra and John Lautner.

According to Fine, each preservation scenario offers a unique set of circumstances, and finding the right line between the integrity of the building's original design and its future viability will continue to be determined on a case-by-case basis. The common thread among every house standing in good repair and retaining its original design brilliance, says Fine, is constant care and attention from a good steward for the property.

Good stewardship takes money, however, and both Sandmeier and Fine mention the need for more money to protect the works of Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Angeles. In the case of USC at the Freeman House, lack of funding leaves preservation in a state of academic limbo, which can be frustrating to well-intentioned preservationists. "It would be more fun if we had more money," says Sandmeier. "We can study it all we want. But until we can actually do some of this stuff, the house continues to decline."

Private residences, no matter how architecturally significant, don't have access to a lot of public funding. The Mills Act provides a tax break in some cases. When a public agency owns the property, such as the city of Los Angeles with the Hollyhock House, it can be easier to tap into a small supply of grant funding for preservation. In most cases, property owners write the checks and make the decisions about what gets repaired and what gets rebuilt.

Residential properties in Los Angeles have attracted the highest quality design talent for decades now, but Wright's work still stands out as daringly experimental, different, and even alien when compared to other homes in the city. In the 1920s, these textile block homes must have seemed even more alien next to the styles of the time.

That kind of pedigree is rare — rare like a Frank Lloyd Wright home — and rare like the kind of people committed to protecting and preserving these homes against long odds.

Top Image: Storer House | Still from "Artbound" S9 E1: That Far Corner - Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Angeles

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