Issue: Issue Fall 2009

The Ennis House

By: Diane Kanner

A house which neighbors loved to hate today is the darling of the street where it resides, Glendower Avenue in hilly Los Feliz. Thanks to a $6.5 million renovation and the decision of its board of director caretakers to sell it on the open market, the most unique of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s California designs, the Ennis House, is receiving its first positive public relations in as long as anyone can remember.

Why has the Frank Lloyd Wright designed house drawn such strong feelings since its 1924 construction? To begin with, its Mayan influences make it audaciously un home-like. Writers have labeled it “frightening,” “monumental,” and an “exotic jewel.” Architectural historians David Gebhard and Robert Winter saw it as either a mausoleum or a palace. Its six to seven thousand square feet of decorative concrete blocks crawl across the hillside. You just can’t miss it, whether coming in for a landing at LAX, cruising on the Hollywood Freeway north of downtown, or headed for the Griffith Observatory on the hills above the house in Griffith Park.

To Diane Keaton, the actress known for speaking out on behalf of historic preservation, it is Wright’s most dramatic concrete block home, “the one that went too far. But my infatuation is nothing new,” she said in a 1995 BBC documentary. “Many of my kind in the entertainment industry have fallen for its exhibitionist beauty. Not the most popular or revered of Mr. Wright’s dwellings, it is his house most captured on film. Sixty movies, commercials, music videos and documentaries have been shot within its walls.”

And it was the ongoing arrival and departure of trucks and humanity into its hillside residential neighborhood which gave the Ennis House a bad name. How would anyone feel if seminars, TV and motion picture filming were encouraged by the people who lived across the street f rom their home? Former Los Angeles City Councilmember Michael Woo believed that in his eight years of representing Hollywood, the most hostile community meeting he ever attended was in the presence of Glendower Avenue homeowners livid because their concerns were ignored by the Ennis House owners. According to the neighbors, the owners - the Trust for Preservation of Cultural Heritage - appeared to be doing everything but preserving its cultural heritage.

The income from the ongoing commercial use of the property was not being used to upgrade the property. The Ennis House, then known as the Ennis-Brown House, was slowly being eroded, its concrete blocks losing their applied decorative elements. Eventually the community won a battle to limit the amount of public access after a ruling by the Board of Zoning Appeals.

The 1994 Northridge earthquake, as rough as it was on the Ennis House’s retaining walls, was a blessing in disguise. The damage it wrought, along with deterioration from heavy winter rains, brought the plight of the Ennis House to the attention of the national press. When the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety’s inspectors red-tagged the structure to demand that it be vacated, help was on its way.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation added the Ennis House to their annual list of the country’s eleven most endangered sites. A team was formed from respected preservation organizations to plot a strategy and the Ennis House Foundation was created in August 2005.

A loan was secured from “Food for Less” founder Ron Burkle which caused FEMA, which had been made aware of the house’s plight after the ‘94 quake, to pitch in additional millions. With construction funding secured and work accomplished to stabilize the crumbling retaining wall, repair the roof and perform other restoration tasks, the Foundation considered its options. The conclusion they reached was that the Ennis House needs “more stewardship at this point than a small nonprofit can sustain. The structure was put on the market for $15 million in July.

With nearly 6,000 square feet, the Ennis House has four bedrooms and 4 1 2 baths on about three-quarters of an acre with city, canyon and ocean views. Architectural details include high woodbeamed ceilings, original Wright-designed art-glass windows, a window-lined loggia looking out on the pool and a glass mosaictile fireplace in the living room. There is a billiard room, bar, library, den, office, pantry and basement. Chauffeur's quarters are above the four-car garage. Listing broker, Hilton & Hyland, expect overseas offers due to world-wide interest in Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. With new ownership, it’s hoped the Ennis House will get the care it so richly deserves. DH  

Editor's Note: Diane Kanner is the author of “Wallace Neff and the Grand Houses of the Golden State”. She lives in Los Feliz where she writes about Los Angeles history. We thank Jeff Hyland of realtor Hilton & Hyland, for his assistance with images for this article.