Issue: Winter 2024

Aline Barnsdall: Creating Hollyhock House

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 Schindler, and Richard Neutra to California to work on the avante garde theater colony she envisioned for Olive Hill in Los Feliz.

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 generous, supportive and patient while Wright was consumed with his personal travails and the construction of the monumental Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. 

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. This pioneering, avante garde theater troop was located in the same building as Frank Lloyd Wright, and they met shortly after his Taliesin disaster.  

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. 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.

By 1916, however, Barnsdall had tired of Chicago and after a short stay in San Francisco, left for Los Angeles where 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 Aline and her half-sister, Francis, who bought out Aline’s interest in the Barnsdall Oil Company for $3 million. Aline had retreated to the Seattle area with Roy George, a writer and author who agreed to be named as the father of Barnsdall’s baby girl nicknamed “Sugartop.” For his part, George received a mortgage-free ranch.

Neither her pregnancy nor the closure of her LA theater productions dampened Aline’s desire to create a 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 no domestic practice left, and had thrown himself into construction of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo between 1917 and 1921. 

Between 1916 and 1918, Wright did manage to do some rough sketches of a theater and residence for Barnsdall. These earlier sketches, including those of the Hollyhock House, were made without any idea where the project would be sited.

In 1919, Barnsdall settled on the 36-acre plot of land bounded by Vermont, Hollywood, Sunset and Edgemont planted with olive trees. She bought this parcel with its gently rising hill and vistas of the Pacific Ocean, surrounding citrus groves and olive hills for $300,000. [$5.4 million today—still a bargain!] 

A few days after Barnsdall’s purchase of Olive Hill, the press reported her plan to include an ambitious art community with “one of the most exquisite theaters the world has ever seen” with seating for 1,250 persons, “supreme attention to acoustics,” promenades among the olive groves, a residence for Miss Barnsdall, and buildings for the training of actors and dancers. 

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.” 

Construction began on what was to be the Hollyhock House with Wright’s son, Lloyd, 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 actual cost 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. His son would go on to become a prominent architect in his own right.

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 of Hollyhock House. 

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. 

Barnsdall’s influence in bringing together these titans of architecture did not stop with her employment of them. Through her connections, they obtained other commissions that would also become recognized architectural landmarks. 

Barnsdall did not think much of living in the architectural monument that Frank Lloyd Wright and his coterie of fledgling architects had built for her on Olive Hill. The Hollyhock House, so named for her favorite flower, had 17 rooms and seven bathrooms—a massive, almost medieval castle with a Mayan motif.  While its details and architectural breakthroughs place it in the pantheon of famous Wright houses, it was not what Barnsdall wanted or was willing to live in.

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.  

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. At one point the park had fallen into such disrepair that the city contemplated demolishing the Hollyhock House. 

Hollyhock House and its Residence A survived and was painstakingly restored. Thankfully, Jeffrey Herr, Curator Emeritus, retired from LA’s Department of Cultural Affairs, championed the Hollyhock House nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was designated along with four other Wright landmarks. Other UNESCO sites in California are Yosemite and the Redwoods—Aline Barnsdall’s legacy. DH

Cheryl Johnson is a lawyer specializing in Antitrust, Pharmaceuticals, Healthcare, and Patents. She is a former co-president of the Barnsdall Art Park Foundation.