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Issue: Issue Winter 2005/ 2006

Aline Barnsdall - The Ultimate Iconoclast


Aline Barnsdall, the donor of Barnsdall Art Park, was the ultimate iconoclast. A fiercely independent feminist, a bohemian, a devotee and producer of experimental theater, and an enormously wealthy heiress, she was a single mother at a time when women were simply not single mothers. More importantly, she was also the real mother of modern architecture, having brought Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Shindler, and Richard Neutra to California to work on the avante garde theater colony she envisioned for Olive Hill in Los Feliz. Without Aline Barnsdall, Frank Lloyd Wright might never have come to California. Yet with Frank Lloyd Wright, Aline, like many others, had a stormy relationship. Kindred spirits in many ways, it was Barnsdall who reached out and bankrolled Frank Lloyd Wright after his notoriety killed his domestic practice. She was enormously generous, supportive and patient, while Wright was consumed with his personal travails and the construction of the monumental Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. And while Barnsdall thought that Wright was brilliant, she despised the Hollyhock House Wright finally constructed for her. Aline’s father, Theodore Barnsdall, was the largest independent oil producer of his time in the United States. Aline would travel extensively with her father throughout Europe, where she studied theater, her real passion in life that landed her in Chicago in 1913. A pioneering, avant garde theater troupe was located in the same building as Frank Lloyd Wright, and they met shortly after his Taliesin disaster. Aline’s family fortune allowed her to indulge the extravagance as well as the frustrations of dealing with Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright was a celebrated, prominent architect before his major self-destruction. In 1909, Wright had fled to Europe with the neighbor’s wife, abandoning his wife and six children and his Chicago architectural practice and reputation. He later brought his mistress and her children to “Taliesin,” the home and studio he built in Wisconsin. Wright was just beginning to overcome the notoriety of abandoning his family when the horrific murder of his mistress by a berserk employee put him back in the headlines. Aline Barnsdall, after a foray in acting, turned to directing and producing her theatrical productions, which while getting a mixed reception, nonetheless firmly established her in the theater crowd. She promptly engaged Wright to design a new Chicago theater that was never built. By 1916, however, Barnsdall had tired of Chicago and after a short stay in San Francisco left for Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, she spent a year producing plays at a theater at Ninth and Figueroa drawing enthusiastic raves and a congratulatory telegram from Charlie Chaplin. That year Barnsdall revealed that she was pregnant and was open about the fact that Richard Ordynski, a Polish actor, was the father. Theodore Barnsdall died in 1917, leaving his estate to be divided between Aline and her half-sister, Francis, who bought out Aline’s interest in the Barnsdall Oil Company for $3,000,000. Barnsdall had retreated to the Seattle area with Roy George, a writer and author who agreed to be listed on the birth certificate as the father of Barnsdall’s baby girl. Her daughter, also named Louise Aline Barnsdall and nicknamed Sugartop,” was born in Seattle in 1917. For his part. George received a mortgage free ranch. Neither her pregnancy nor the closure of her theater productions in L.A. dampened Aline’s desire to produce a new visionary theater venue. Without any particular site in mind, Aline pestered Frank Lloyd Wright in early 1916 to design a new theater colony. Her timing was bad, however, as Wright had virtually no domestic practice left, and had thrown himself into construction of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which would keep him in Japan virtually full time between 1917 and 1921. The balance of his attention was consumed by his roller-coaster love-life with a new woman, Miriam Noel, with whom he took up shortly after the death of his former mistress. In the midst of all his troubles between 1916 and 1918, Wright managed to knock out some rough sketches of a theater and residence for Barnsdall. These earlier sketches, including those of the Hollyhock House, were done without any idea where the house would be sited. In 1919, Barnsdall settled on the 36-acre plot of land bounded by Vermont, Hollywood, and Edgemont planted with olive trees. It had already achieved landmark status and was a prominent oasis in a rapidly developing area and also the site of annual Easter sunrise services. Barnsdall bought this parcel with its gently rising hill and vistas of the Pacific Ocean, surrounding citrus groves and olive hills for $300,000. A few days after Barnsdall’s purchase of Olive Hill, the press reported her plans, which included an ambitious art community with “one of the most exquisite theaters the world has ever seen” with seating for 1,250 sons, “supreme attention to acoustics,” promenades among the olive groves, a residence for Miss Barnsdall, and buildings for the training of actors and dancers. The Easter Sunrise services continued at Olive Hill under Barnsdall’s ownership until they were permanently moved to the Hollywood Bowl. Barnsdall, an active member of the Board of Directors, helped finance the site on which the Bowl sits. Barnsdall wrote of the “importance of Mr. Wright to our plan, i.e. a place to work that is also an architectural masterpiece that’s an inspiration to everyone. It would also have an element of permanency, which would bring confidence to the community and even the country.” In the face of Wright’s prickly and dilatory ways, Barnsdall exercised the patience of a saint. But when the plans for Olive Hill project were not completed a year after the purchase, she finally contacted another architect to design a house for her on Olive Hill for an estimated cost of $300,000. This prodded Wright to actually produce the long-overdue plans with amazing alacrity. Construction began on what was to be the Hollyhock House with Wright’s son, Lloyd, who had no formal training, designated as the supervisor in his father’s absence in Tokyo. Though Aline told Wright she wanted the house to cost no more than $30,000, the building permit estimated the cost would be $50,000, while the actual cost (like all of Frank Lloyd Wright’s projects) came in between $125,000 and $150,000. When things got too out of hand, Wright induced Rudolph Schindler to come to Los Angeles to take over from his son, Lloyd Wright, who would go on to become a prominent architect in his own right. Schindler who was born and educated in Vienna, had come to Chicago hoping to work with Wright. Indeed, according to many architectural historians, it was Schindler who drew or refined many of the plans for the home, director’s house, apartments for the actors and the terrace shops. He also organized and supervised the construction after the permit for the Hollyhock House was issued. At the urging of Schindler, Richard Neutra came to Los Angeles in 1925, after most of the construction on Olive Hill was either finished or abandoned. Neutra worked on the garden and the pergola on the Theodore Barnsdall memorial, while staying with Schindler. Four years later, Barnsdall asked Neutra to design her a modernistic dramatic aluminum and steel Cliffside house on the ocean, but it was never built. Barnsdall’s influence in bringing together these titans of architecture did not stop with her employment of them. Through her connections, they got other commissions that were soon to become recognized architectural landmarks. Some came through her school on Olive Hill. To provide for her daughter’s education, Barnsdall hired Mrs. Leah Lovell, who ran the school together with Rudolph Schindler’s wife. Mrs. Lovell, with her husband, Phillip Lovell, a successful “health nut” and writer, became important clients for both Neutra and Schindler (and namesakes for the Lovell homes that each built). In addition to this triumvirate of modern architecture, Barnsdall was also the inspiration for yet a fourth Lloyd Wright, who left his own architectural masterpieces in the shadows of Olive Hill and throughout the region. When Lloyd Wright was replaced by Schindler on Olive Hill, he started his own practice, building homes in Los Feliz. She decided to give the Hollyhock House and crown of Olive Hill to Los Angeles as a public library and park, and to remain in the smaller, more commodious Residence B. Her generous donation was initially spurned by the City. Finally in 1927, the city accepted the donation, with the hill and its buildings to be used and devoted to an art park for the Los Angeles public. Barnsdall did not abandon Olive Hill altogether. Rather, as a condition to her donation, she continued to live in Residence B on Olive Hill, a smaller house on the Edgemont side of the Hill, from 1928 until her death in 1946. Books could be written about Barnsdall’s wars with the city of Los Angeles for its neglect of her gift of Barnsdall Park as a cultural center. Later, the City allowed the park to fall into such disrepair that it contemplated demolishing the Hollyhock House. Through the years, the park has undergone several renovations and the saga of the City’s oversight of the park continues to this day.