Aline Barnsdall & Frank Lloyd Wright
By Cheryl Lee Johnson
Aline Barnsdall, the donor of Barnsdall Art Park, was the ultimate iconoclast, whose support of radical causes kept her under the watchful eye of the FBI for 24 years. She supported many radical causes not because she believed in them, but they shared her opposition to all conformity.
A fiercely independent feminist, a bohemian, a devotee and producer of experimental theatre, and an enormously wealthy heiress, she was a single mother at 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 theatre colony she envisioned for Olive Hill, here in Los Feliz.
While on the roads and seas much of her life or in her many homes sprinkled around the nation, it was here at Olive Hill that Aline Barnsdall died and left a priceless legacy, to art, architecture, and Los Feliz.
Aline and Frank
Without Aline Barnsdall, Frank Lloyd Wright would never have come to California. Yet, with Frank Lloyd Wright, Aline, like many others, had a stormy, emotional and bizarre relationship. They were kindred spirits in many ways, railing at conventions and each other, both sometimes petulant, and he forever imperious.
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.
An egotist par none, Wright reciprocated with a maddening neglect of Barnsdall’s expansive plans for Olive Hill. His autobiographical reflections on Barnsdall are less than flattering, commenting about her strong will, her “disingenuous expression” and describing her as “neither neo, quasi, nor pseudo” and as “domestic as a shooting star.”
And while Barnsdall, for her part, thought that Wright was brilliant, she often despaired of his neglect, even hiring another architect to replace him, despised the Hollyhock House Wright finally constructed for her on Olive Hill and promptly gave it away, and was in litigation with Wright only to hire him thereafter to design yet another house for her in Beverly Hills.
The Barnsdalls—Marriage Be Damned
Fortunately Aline’s family fortune allowed her to indulge the extravagance as well as the frustrations of dealing with Frank Lloyd Wright.
Aline’s father, Theodore Barnsdall, was the largest independent oil producer of his times in the United States. At 6?5? and 250 pounds, he towered in a stormy relationship with Aline’s mother, a young music teacher whom he married nine months before Aline’s birth in 1882. But later when he wanted a divorce, she refused, so he went ahead and had a second child by another woman.
Meeting Mr. Wright
In later years, Aline would travel extensively with her father throughout Europe, where she studied theatre, her real passion in life. That passion landed her in Chicago in 1913, where a pioneering, avante garde theatre troop was resident in the Fine Arts Building, one that also housed Frank Lloyd Wright, who Barnsdall met shortly after his Taliesin disaster.
Wright was a celebrated, prominent architect at the time, that is, before his major self-destruction.
In 1909, Wright had fled to Europe with the neighbor’s wife, abandoning his wife and six children as well as his thriving architectural practice and reputation in Chicago. He later brought his mistress and her children to a home and studio he built in Wisconsin, dubbed “Taliesin”.
On the day World War I was declared, August 15, 1914, a servant of Wright’s went berserk at a dinner party and burned and axed down his new mistress and her kids along with several other dinner party guests at Taliesin. Wright was just beginning to overcome the notoriety of his having abandoned his family when this bit of horror put him back in the headlines.
And so it was that Aline Barnsdall and Frank Lloyd Wright first intersected in Chicago. She promptly engaged Wright to design a new Chicago theatre that was never built.
Anarchists, LA, and Out-of-Wedlock Lifestyle
At the same time, she also became good friends with Emma Goldman, a radical anarchist who had evolved into a socialist, but who was traveling in the same theatre circles as Aline. The two shared a passion for theatre, which Goldman viewed as a powerful vehicle to expose social injustices. For her part, Barnsdall, after a foray in acting, had turned to directing and producing her theatrical productions, which while getting a mixed reception, nonetheless firmly established her in the theater crowd.
By 1916 however, Barnsdall had tired of Chicago, and took up residence in San Francisco for a short time, only to leave it for Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles she spent a year producing plays at a theatre at Ninth and Figueroa, which drew enthusiastic raves, one even drawing a congratulatory telegraph from Charlie Chaplin. That year Barnsdall was seen in the company of her leading star, Richard Ordynski, a Polish actor and director whom she had under contract. When shortly thereafter, Barnsdall revealed that she was pregnant and was open about the fact that Ordynski was the father, he promptly resigned and left.
Apparently money brought him crawling back. A few weeks later he returned, requesting Barnsdall bankroll his play, which she reluctantly agreed to do with disastrous results. At the end of the year, she closed down her theatre. She also released all her players under contract, including Mr. Ordynski, who she concluded was a Casanova preying on rich women, and whose name she asked to never hear again.
Her father 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. Doesn’t sound like much today, but that amount of money went a very long way back then.
In the meantime, 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 generally referred to as “Sugartop” was born in Seattle on August 19, 1917; for his part, Mr. George received an unmortgaged ranch.
Neither the pregnancy nor the closure of her theatre productions in L.A. dampened her desire to produce a new visionary theatre venue. Even without any particular site in mind, much less a city in California, Aline pestered Frank Lloyd Wright in early 1916 to design a new theatre colony.
Wright’s New Mistress
Her timing was very bad though. Wright, having virtually no domestic practice left, 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, whom he took up with shortly after the gruesome death of his former mistress.
Ms. Noel was by all accounts highly neurotic mercurial, a self-proclaimed artist, and some would say, a morphine addict.
Wright’s emotional battles with Ms. Noel continued as reflected in an incident described by one of Wright’s colleagues with him in Tokyo:
“In the middle of a cold night, Mme. Noel in nightclothes burst into our bedroom crying and lamenting about the cruel treatment she was subjected to by the master [Wright], who accused her of ignoble crimes in coarse language. She could stand no more.
We offer her an armchair: Naomi kneels at her feet. The door opens again.
Frank, in an old-fashioned short-sleeved nightshirt, strides in, takes an impressive pose, and pointing a finger at me calls me a “traitor,” giving “this creature” comfort and plotting against his master, and on and on.
Then he gets into our bed, throws the bedcover over his shoulder in a most dramatic gesture a la Mussolini, and keeps up his accusations of all three of us in a sarcastic voice. I beg him to cease. We could surely better discuss all this in the morning.
Whereupon Miriam looks down upon Naomi. ‘My dear! Your are shaking! What can be the matter?’
Shortly after, Frank gets out of our bed, and they walked back to their room together.”
Ms. Noel and Wright argued and fought endlessly, and exchanged highly salacious, inflammatory letters, she accusing him of womanizing and even physical torture. Their disgruntled housekeeper intercepted the letters and turned them over to the press who had a veritable field day at Wright’s expense. Worse yet, the housekeeper insisted that Wright be indicted for violations of the Mann Act, a charge that required Wright to retain Clarence Darrow to defend.
But in the midst of his troubles, somehow between 1916 and 1918, Wright managed to steal a few moments to knock out some rough sketches of a theatre and residence for Barnsdall. These earlier sketches including those of the Hollyhock House however, were done without any idea where the house would be sited.
Buying Olive Hill
Finally, in 1919, Barnsdall settled on the 36-acre plot of land in Los Feliz bounded by Vermont, Hollywood, Sunset and Edgemont, a plot that had been planted with olive trees by the owner. It had already achieved landmark status, being a prominent oasis in a rapidly developing area and was the site of annual Easter sunrise services.
Barnsdall bought this parcel with its gently rising hill with vistas of the Pacific Ocean and the surrounding citrus groves and olive hills in 1919 for $300,000. The purchase was not without controversy. Anticipating a fight from a local park association that believed the Olive Hill parcel would make an ideal park, Barnsdall responded by offering to donate a corner to the Hollywood Community Theatre if money were raised. It never was.
A few days after Barnsdall’s purchase of Olive Hill, the press reported her plans for Olive Hill included an ambitious art community with “one of the most exquisite theaters the world has ever seen” to face Vermont Avenue with seating for 1,250 persons, with “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 was an active member of the Board of Directors of the Hollywood Bowl, and helped finance the land on which the Bowl sits; she was most likely instrumental in the relocation of the services.
“We Can’t Learn Anything from Europe”
Wright came to Los Angles with several sketches of Olive Hill showing the proposed theater and house. When she met Wright several months later to see the developments in the plans, she brought with her Norman Bel Geddes, a young stage designer, screen writer and director who she had hired during her LA theatre run.
Geddes had been forewarned by Barnsdall of the “importance of Mr. Wright to our plan. A place to work that is also an architectural masterpiece would be an inspiration to everyone. It would also have an element of permanency which would bring confidence from the community and even the country.”
Wright, after pontificating about the ongoing Imperial Hotel project, finally mentioned the Olive Hill project and brought out some blueprints of the theatre and the house. When Barnsdall protested that they were the same blueprints he had shown her five months earlier, Wright brazenly promised new drawings of a bold new theatre in a couple of weeks.
Geddes questioned Wright on the nature of his bold inspiration, and asked if he was familiar with some of the European theatre innovations. Wright retorted “We can’t learn anything from Europe. They have to learn from us. Europe is a dying civilization. The theatre in Europe died in Athens in 500 B.C.”
“Will You Give It Up?”
Several months later, Geddes and Barnsdall again met with Wright who had in fact continued to work on the theatre, but Wright knowing little about theatre, had neglected to include curtains, scenery and lighting, and had provided poor sight lines. When Geddes persisted in questioning Wright on the deficiencies, Wright shot back that the simple stages used by the Greeks were ample, and warned that if he was left alone “I will give you the finest theatre in the world. If you are unable to leave me alone, I will not waste my time going any further with it.”
In the face of Wright’s prickly and dilatory ways, Barnsdall exercised the patience of a saint. But when the plans for the Olive Hill project were not completed even a year after the purchase, she finally contacted another architect who designed a house for her on Olive Hill estimated to cost $300,000.
This however prodded Wright to actually produce the long-overdue plans with amazing alacrity. When Wright insisted Barnsdall should commence construction of the theatre—though he had no complete drawings—she threatened to abandon the project all together if he could not get his act more together:
“If you cannot have your Theatre complete, even as to form of lighting equipment before you start contracting for work, I would rather not begin… The house must be finished—but if you find it impossible to continue with the theatre in the only way that is safe for me—we must decide to give it up. Though I earnestly hope this will not be necessary… We won’t argue further—only give it up as too gigantic an undertaking. Will you give it up? Take a year or two to complete it in detail? Or have it ready by spring, beginning everything at once, after we have an intelligent, workable understanding?
Son of Wright
When Wright finally delivered a set of theatre plans through his son, Lloyd Wright who had been engaged to do the Olive Hill landscaping, she was decidedly displeased and let Wright know that the plans lacked ingenuity and care; that there was not enough light and too many windowless rooms. Even the angles in the lobby entrance she found were wrong and she made her disappointment in his lack of attention to her Olive Hill project well known.
While Barnsdall fretted about the deficiencies in the theatre, Wright focused on the house that was not her priority, further escalating frayed nerves. By fall 1919 however, construction began on what was to be the Hollyhock House with Lloyd Wright, 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—was multiples of the estimated amount, and estimated to be between $125,000 and $150,000.
The construction of the Hollyhock House and the other residences on Olive Hill, now known as Barnsdall Park, have spawned entire studies and books, the most authoritative being Kathryn Smith’s “Frank Lloyd Wright: Hollyhock House and Olive Hill.”
Schindler and Neutra
The process by which Hollyhock House and the two additional residences were actually constructed was one that pitted the absent Frank Lloyd Wright against the less-than-amused Barnsdall who often fled to Europe to avoid both the construction and consternation.
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, born and educated in Vienna, had come to Chicago hopefully to work with Wright. Unfortunately due to the notoriety of Wright’s lifestyle, Wright was not in a position to offer Schindler any work until the work progressed on the Imperial Hotel and Barnsdall commissions in 1918. Indeed, according to many architectural historians, it was Schindler who drew or refined many of the plans for the home, a director’s house, and apartments for the actors and terrace shops on Olive Hill. He also organized and supervised the construction after the permit for the Hollyhock House was issued.
In Vienna, Schindler had kindled a long friendship with Richard Neutra, who like Schindler, came to California via Chicago which was a Mecca for architecture since it was being rebuilt after the great fire and had newly developed skyscraper architecture.
At the urging of Schindler, Neutra came to Los Angeles in 1925, after most of the construction on Olive Hill was either finished or abandoned, but worked on the garden and pergola on the Theodore Barnsdall memorial site on Olive Hill, 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.
The Mother of Modern Architecture
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 Sugartop’s education, Barnsdall hired a teacher, Mrs. Leah Lovell, who ran the school together with Rudolph Schindler’s wife. Mrs. Lovell, with her husband, Philip Lovell, a successful “health nut” and writer were to become extremely important clients for both Neutra and Schindler (and namesakes for the Lovell homes that each built).
Mrs. Lovell was the sister of Harriet Freeman, who like Barnsdall, was interested in progressive social causes and was a well-known dancer, heavily involved in the modern dance movement. She with her husband, Samuel Freeman, a jewelry salesman, were so moved by Wright’s architecture on Olive Hill that they too engaged Wright to build what is now the “Freeman House”, though they were financially challenged.
In addition to this triumvirate of Modern Architecture, Barnsdall was also the inspiration for yet a fourth, Lloyd Wright, who designed some of the architectural masterpieces in Los Feliz in the shadows of Olive Hill. After meeting Barnsdall, he became a part of her theatrical circle and in fact, married one of the actresses in Barnsdall’s stage company. When Lloyd Wright was replaced by Schindler on Olive Hill, he started his own practice, building homes in our neighborhood for Ramon Navarro, Martha Taggert and John Sowden.
Giving It Up
Unfortunately Barnsdall did not think much of living in the architectural monument that Frank Lloyd Wright and his coterie of budding titans had built her on Olive Hill. The Hollyhock House, so named for her favorite flower, had 17 rooms and seven bathrooms, was 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 either wanted or was willing to live in.
Indeed her dislike of the Hollyhock House was such that she conspired to give it away before it was finished, and decided against completion of the artist colony she dreamed of for Olive Hill. So in 1923, changing course, 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 which Wright lived in for a time.
Her generous donation was spurned by the City of Los Angeles who apparently didn’t want the maintenance or to relieve Ms. Barnsdall of the tax liability. Finally in 1927 the city changed its mind and accepted the donation, with the hill and its buildings to be used and devoted to an art park for the Los Angeles public.
In the meantime, fur flew between Barnsdall and Wright, with them squaring off in litigation against one another over the construction and cost of Barnsdall. The matter was quickly resolved, and revealed Barnsdall’s enormous capacity to forgive and forget. For when she eyed a 24-acre parcel in Beverly Hills next to Pickfair, she once again turned to Wright to design her a new home, although she never consummated the lot’s purchase.
Thereafter, Barnsdall did not abandon Olive Hill altogether. Rather, as a condition to her donation of Olive Hill, Barnsdall provided that she could continue to live in Residence B on Olive Hill, a smaller house on the Edgemont side of the Hill that she actually preferred to her Palos Verdes home. (It has been subsequently demolished.) It was this residence that Barnsdall rented to Frank Lloyd Wright when he needed housing and a studio in 1923, and it was here that she lived on and off from 1928 to her death in 1946. Before she moved in however, she hired Schindler to remodel it to be more to her tastes.
Mr. Mooney and Mr. Hoover
While the rest of her life was more focused on raising her child and collecting art, she never abandoned her passionate embrace of progressive and socialist causes. To the consternation of her Olive Hill neighbors, Barnsdall used Olive Hill as the sounding and poster board for her many causes. Her support for the release of Thomas Mooney, a militant labor leader was perhaps her most celebrated, long-standing cause.
Mooney was charged and convicted of planting the bomb that exploded in a 1916 San Francisco Preparedness Day Parade. Many, including Emma Goldman and several of Barnsdall’s other friends convinced Barnsdall he was innocent and she should fund his defense. But it was not only her “pinko” friends who believed Mooney was framed; the conservative judge that found him guilty, six months later was stumping around the state proclaiming Mooney’s innocence.
Barnsdall became the chief financier of Mooney’s defense, with Olive Hill at one point being its headquarters. For years the Olive Hill property was ringed with bill boards protesting Mooney’s innocence, and in the early thirties, Lloyd Wright redesigned the billboards so they would be less obnoxious. Barnsdall used the billboards as her own personal newspaper, urging everything from the election of Upton Sinclair and Culbert Olson as governor to opposing entry into the war.
Barnsdall’s support for Mooney, even though he was eventually released and declared innocent, along with her friendship with Emma Goldman and other socialists lead the FBI to trail Barnsdall for 24 years, believing her part of the “lunatic fringe.” For more than two decades FBI reports of her prosaic doings, including her hair salon appointments and hotel trips were dutifully sent to J. Edgar Hoover, before they belatedly concluded she was just a harmless wealthy lady with bohemian leanings.
Neglect and Abuse from the City
Books could be written about Barnsdall’s wars with the City of Los Angeles for its terrible neglect of her bequest of the Barnsdall Art Park as a cultural center. The City at one point tried to turn it into a recreation park with volleyball courts and a swimming pool. Later it would allow the Park to go into such disrepair, that it contemplated razing all the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings on it, and came within inches of demolishing the Hollyhock House.
The saga of the City’s delinquent oversight continues, though Aline Barnsdall is now long gone.
Cheryl Lee Johnson is a long-time resident of Los Feliz and is very active in community affairs. She is on the board of the Los Feliz Improvement Association where she heads the Beautification Committee, and is Vice President of the Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Council.
Johnson graduated from Barnard College, Harvard University and Columbia University with a B.A., Ed.M. and J.D., respectively. She is a partner in the law firm of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey and specializes in complex business litigation with an emphasis on intellectual property, unfair competition, antitrust, legal malpractice and banking.
The Oilman’s Daughter: A Biography of Aline Barnsdall
by Norman M. & Dorothy K. Karasick
Carleston Publishing, Inc., 1993
Frank Lloyd Wright: Hollyhock House and Olive Hill
by Kathryn Smith
Rizzoli New York, 1992
Barnsdall Park, A New Master Plan for Frank Lloyd Wright’s California Romanza
by Melanie Simo
Spacemaker Press, 1997