On the top of the hill

Before the pandemic, I lived and worked in Los Angeles, and was involved, among other things, in site-specific events, and devoted quite a lot of time to researching my habitat. Once I was riding an Uber along Vermont Ave, and turning right onto the boulevard, I noticed a green hill covered with olive trees. Hills and olive trees are common in Los Angeles, this type of landscape can be found even in the middle of a dense and bustling area like Hollywood. But there was something specifically European in this hill, even Hellenic. The location on the map was named pretty neutral – Barnsdall Art Park. So I went to explore the area the next day. 

Barnsdall Park Plot Plan

The hill stands on an almost perfectly square lot, surrounded by bustling streets lined with grocery stores, medical and religious centers. Part of its top is densely covered with pine trees; on a rather small territory, there are a gallery, a theater, and a kids’ art center. Coming out of the pine grove, you find yourself on a spacious lawn with a breathtaking view of the Hollywood Hills, Griffith Observatory, and all of Hollywood, and Central Los Angeles.

In the very center of the lawn there stood a one-story house of a very unusual design, something between a zikurat, an Egyptian tomb, and a Mayan ritual building. As it turned out, my intuition led me to the right place – this was the first house built in California by Frank Lloyd Wright himself.

Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the most famous and beloved American architects of the 20th century, designer, writer, teacher, a real celebrity. He began his career as a draftsman at Louis Sullivan’s office, the father of American skyscrapers.  But he came to success closer to the twenties of the 20th century, when he began to actively experiment with the shape and interaction of buildings and peculiarities of their places of construction. Thanks to Wright the prairie style, as well as the broader concept of organic architecture, were born and developed. Even if you are not an architecture enthusiast, you probably know Wright’s most famous work – the fantastic building of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Frank Lloyd Wright

In 1917, Wright met Aline Barnsdall, the wealthy heiress of the oil tycoon. Aline was about to move to California to create a progressive theater community so she hires Frank Lloyd Wright to create a residential and a theater complex on Olive Hill in Los Angeles. A couple of years before the architect experienced a horrible tragedy: one of his servants Julian Carlton, having a breakdown, set on fire Wright’s Chicago house and chopped to death seven people with an ax, including the architect’s wife and two of her children. To distract himself from the tragedy, Wright agrees to participate in many projects just to stay away from Chicago. He takes Aline’s offer. 

Wright is incredibly inspired by California and the opportunities the sunny state provided. He immediately gives the name to the new method of his work – California Romanza, as something melodious and organic to the place. The architect planned to deal with the hill as carefully as possible and made many notes in his diaries that he thinks the group of buildings on top of Olive Hill cannot dominate the landscape. All the buildings must organically complement it, be part of the habitat. He builds a house for Aline, which he names “Hollyhock”, in honor of Aline’s favorite flower. Wright takes the shape of the flower as the basis for the overall decor of the building. In the process, he became interested in pre-Columbian construction technologies, the use of local materials, believing that organic architecture would integrate the interior and exterior spaces of buildings, a man with his ideals and the almighty nature. 

Unfortunately, this was not at all what Aline Barnsdall asked the architect to do. Frank Lloyd quickly lost interest in the theatrical component of the project, and within two years Wright did not build, or design a theater center, cottages for guests, and almost doubled the budget overrun. Aline was disappointed, fired the genius in 1921, and very quickly transferred the hill along with the “uncomfortable and strange house” to the ownership of the city. Even though the house was never completed, and was rebuilt twice during the last hundred years, it is a real gem of architecture. In 2019 it received the status of the cultural heritage of UNESCO. 

Aline Barnsdall

Let’s go back to the figure of Aline Barnsdall and the cultural context of the time. Aline was a woman of incredible energy, who is fond of travel and arts, she was an equal rights for women activist (for example, she saves Emma Goldman from deportation to the Russian Empire writing out a $5,000 check for her). At the time of her acquaintance with Frank Lloyd Wright, Aline was actively involved in the Little Theater movement, producing and staging experimental productions in Chicago. 

The Little Theater Movement, which emerged in Chicago in 1912, was dedicated to creating experimental centers for dramatic art, free of the standard production mechanisms that were used in prominent commercial theaters. By the second decade of the twentieth century, a pure melodrama with typeset characters and exaggerated plots had become the main characteristic of cinema. Small theaters in Chicago opposed themselves to the “vulgarity of Hollywood”, and put on plays by fashionable European playwrights. Performances in small halls, in residential buildings and outdoor venues, great interest in social issues, ideas of the German director Max Reinhardt, design techniques by Adolf Appi and Gordon Craig, as well as production methods at the Théâtre-Libre in Paris, Freie Bune in Berlin and the Moscow Art Theater become the main characteristics of the movement. 

1919 was a breakout year for Aline Barnsdall. She buys Olive Hill to construct a theater center, and also actively participates financially and institutionally in the creation of another open-air theater venue – the Hollywood Bowl, one of the symbols of Los Angeles. 

The general feeling of ancient Greek theater, open-air mysteries defined Los Angeles of the early twentieth century in many ways. During this period, all the most famous spiritual schools, communes, and their leaders moved to the city. The Theosophical Society, the New Thought, followers of Aleister Crowley, Chinese healers, and various practitioners. 

Maybe this is the reason, Olive Hill with the monumental house of Frank Lloyd Wright reminded me (a woman of European descent) of the Greek Acropolis. 

Christine Wetherwill Stevenson in front of her latest theatre created – Piligrimage theatre

Christine Weatherville Stevenson, another prominent heiress of the American tycoon, was one of the first to organize open-air theater productions in the area. The plays often took place on the grounds of the Theosophical Society in Beachwood Canyon, in the Hollywood Hills. Christine often used references to Ancient Greek mystery plays in her creations, and her biggest dream was to build an open-air venue to stage performances only of a spiritual and religious nature. The first open-air public theater production in Hollywood, which was also organized by Christine, was Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. It was timed to coincide with the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and the money was collected for the Actors Foundation of America. The performance, designed for one night only, featured 5,000 actors, dancers, gladiators and high school students in Hollywood and Fairfax. The enthusiasm for the success of this event leads Christine and her colleagues to seek a permanent venue for such large-scale performances. 

Julius Ceasar event

In 1919, she and Mary Rankin Clark (with the participation of Aline Barnsdall of course) organized a fundraiser to buy land to build such a venue. They picked a popular picnic spot known as the Daisy Dell in Bolton Canyon. A natural amphitheater in a shaded canyon was chosen for its natural acoustics and proximity to downtown Hollywood. 59 acres were bought for $ 47,500. This becomes Christine’s second playground, but she does not stop there, and a couple of years later she buys another piece of land in Hollywood Hills to build another theater for her own productions only. 

Gertrude Ross and Anna Ruzena Sprotte First Music Event 1920

Over the years Hollywood bowl welcomed Max Reinhardt’s open-air extravaganzas, the Barnum and Bailey Circus with its three rings(!), accompanied by fountains, Igor Stravinsky, and many many other amazing events.

Speaking of the shape of the scene. The same bandshell, known to us from many concerts, films, and cartoons (Tom and Jerry in the Hollywood Bowl), has changed its appearance many times. Two versions of these shells were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, Lloyd Wright. He also continued to work on Aline Barnsdall’s home until she died in 1946. 

On April 1, Aline turns 139 years old. Hollyhock’s curators, staff, and docents celebrate the date by remembering both the uncompromising Aline and her deal with the great master. Her house still stands on the top of Olive Hill, and although she did not accomplish her plans during her lifetime, Olive hill eventually became the very center of the arts that she dreamed of. Nowadays there is a theater, a gallery of contemporary art, and a Kids’ Art center. In the summertime, people gather on the lawn around the house, celebrations and cultural events are held. I myself was so inspired by the beauty and harmony of the Hollyhock House and the whole atmosphere of Olive Hill, that I went through a training program for house docents and even worked one full shift in March 2020, before we were all locked down, and the 21st century has finally and irrevocably arrived. 

I am proud to be a part of this group, and I also consider myself to be a part of a rare group of women professionals, who create open-air performances. 

The need for gatherings is inherent in human nature, by gathering we learn, grow, and experience the world, inspire each other. Thank you, Aline. Happy Birthday!

On the website of the Aline Foundation you can take a closer look to the photos of the Hollyhock house interior, and ake a virtual tour 

https://www.barnsdall.org/hollyhock-house/

https://hollyhockhousevirtual.org/home

If you want to learn a little more about the role of women in the history of the formation of early Hollywood, I recommend the book by Professor Rosanne Welch 

And also here is this article on the website of the documentary channel KCET 

https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/how-women-built-early-hollywood-and-transformed-los-angeles