Before the pandemic, I resided and worked in Los Angeles, where I engaged in various activities, including site-specific events, and dedicated a substantial amount of time to studying my surroundings. On one occasion, while riding in an Uber along Vermont Ave, I made a right turn onto the boulevard and noticed a verdant hill adorned with olive trees. Hills and olive trees are not unusual in Los Angeles; such landscapes can even be found in the heart of bustling areas like Hollywood. However, there was a distinctly European, almost Hellenic, quality to this particular hill. It was labeled quite unassumingly on the map as Barnsdall Art Park. Intrigued, I decided to explore the area the following day.
Situated on an almost perfectly square plot of land, this hill is encircled by vibrant streets hosting an array of amenities such as grocery stores, medical facilities, and religious centers. A portion of its summit is densely adorned with pine trees, and within a relatively compact area, you’ll discover an art gallery, a theater, and a center dedicated to children’s art. As you emerge from the pine grove, you’re greeted by a generous expanse of lawn offering a mesmerizing panorama of the Hollywood Hills, the Griffith Observatory, and the entirety of Hollywood and Central Los Angeles.
At the very center of the lawn, there stood a single-story house with a remarkably unique design, evoking elements of a ziggurat, an Egyptian tomb, and a Mayan ceremonial structure. As it turned out, my intuition had guided me to the correct location; this was the inaugural residence constructed in California by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright himself.
Frank Lloyd Wright, an iconic and highly regarded American architect of the 20th century, was also renowned as a designer, writer, teacher, and a true celebrity in his field. He initiated his career as a draftsman in the office of Louis Sullivan, often referred to as the “father of American skyscrapers.” However, Wright’s ascent to prominence came closer to the 1920s when he enthusiastically delved into experimental designs, exploring the forms and their integration with the unique characteristics of their surroundings. It was under Wright’s influence that the Prairie Style and the broader concept of organic architecture were conceived and evolved. Even if you aren’t a passionate enthusiast of architecture, you are likely familiar with Wright’s most renowned creation—the remarkable Guggenheim Museum building in New York City.
In 1917, Frank Lloyd Wright crossed paths with Aline Barnsdall, the wealthy heiress of an oil tycoon. Aline, on the verge of relocating to California with the intent of establishing a progressive theater community, enlisted Frank Lloyd Wright’s services to design both a residential and theater complex on Olive Hill in Los Angeles. A few years prior to this collaboration, the architect had endured a harrowing tragedy when one of his employees, Julian Carlton, suffered a breakdown and set fire to Wright’s residence in Chicago. In a gruesome episode, Carlton also brutally murdered seven people, including the architect’s wife and two of her children. Seeking a respite from the sorrow and trauma, Wright sought out various projects to keep himself away from Chicago, leading him to accept Aline’s offer.
Wright found immense inspiration in California and the opportunities it presented, and he promptly coined a new approach to his work, naming it “California Romanza,” signifying a harmonious and natural connection with the locale. The architect was determined to handle Olive Hill with the utmost care and meticulously documented in his diaries his belief that the group of structures atop Olive Hill should not overpower the landscape. Instead, they should seamlessly blend into and become an integral part of the environment. One of his creations was a house for Aline, which he christened “Hollyhock” in honor of her favorite flower. Wright used the flower’s form as the foundation for the building’s overall aesthetic. Throughout this process, he delved into pre-Columbian construction techniques and the use of local materials, firmly believing that organic architecture would harmoniously merge interior and exterior spaces, aligning human ideals with the omnipotent forces of nature.
Regrettably, Wright’s vision did not align with Aline Barnsdall’s original intentions. He quickly lost interest in the theatrical aspect of the project and, over the course of two years, failed to design or construct the intended theater center and guest cottages, causing the budget to nearly double. Disappointed with the outcome, Aline terminated the collaboration with the renowned architect in 1921. She promptly handed over the hill, along with the “unconventional and peculiar house,” to the city. Despite the house remaining incomplete and undergoing two subsequent renovations in the past century, it stands as a true architectural gem. In 2019, it earned UNESCO’s recognition as a cultural heritage site.
Let’s revisit the remarkable figure of Aline Barnsdall within the cultural backdrop of her era. Aline was an extraordinarily energetic woman with a deep passion for travel and the arts. She was also a staunch advocate for women’s rights, demonstrated by her act of preventing Emma Goldman’s deportation to the Russian Empire through a $5,000 contribution. During her encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright, Aline was actively engaged in the Little Theater movement, where she took on the roles of producer and director for experimental theatrical productions in Chicago.
The Little Theater Movement, originating in Chicago in 1912, aimed to establish experimental hubs for dramatic art, distinct from the conventional production mechanisms prevalent in mainstream commercial theaters. By the second decade of the 20th century, the predominant characteristic of mainstream theater had become melodrama with stereotypical characters and exaggerated plots. The small theaters in Chicago rebelled against the perceived “vulgarity of Hollywood” and showcased works by esteemed European playwrights. Their performances took place in intimate venues, residential spaces, and open-air settings. These productions exhibited a profound interest in addressing social issues and drew inspiration from the ideas of renowned figures such as the German director Max Reinhardt, design techniques by Adolf Appi and Gordon Craig, as well as production methods pioneered by the Théâtre-Libre in Paris, Freie Bune in Berlin, and the Moscow Art Theater.
In 1919, Aline Barnsdall made a significant mark in history. She acquired Olive Hill with the intention of constructing a theater center and also played an active financial and institutional role in the establishment of another open-air theater venue: the Hollywood Bowl, which would later become an iconic symbol of Los Angeles.
The overall ambiance of ancient Greek theater and open-air spectacles profoundly influenced Los Angeles during the early 20th century. This period saw the migration of numerous renowned spiritual schools, communes, and their leaders to the city. The Theosophical Society, New Thought movement, followers of Aleister Crowley, Chinese healers, and various other practitioners found a home in Los Angeles.
Perhaps it was this convergence of influences that led Olive Hill, with its monumental Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house, to evoke comparisons with the Greek Acropolis, even for someone of European descent like myself.
Christine Weatherville Stevenson, another prominent heiress of an American tycoon, stood out as one of the early pioneers in organizing outdoor theater productions in the region. These performances often unfolded amid the picturesque setting of Beachwood Canyon in the Hollywood Hills, situated on the grounds of the Theosophical Society. In her creative endeavors, Christine frequently drew inspiration from Ancient Greek mystery plays, harboring a profound aspiration to establish a dedicated open-air venue exclusively for spiritual and religious performances.
The inaugural open-air public theater production in Hollywood, also orchestrated by Christine, showcased Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. This production was meticulously timed to coincide with the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s passing, and the proceeds were allocated to support the Actors Foundation of America. The performance, originally slated for a single night, featured an impressive ensemble comprising 5,000 actors, dancers, gladiators, and high school students from Hollywood and Fairfax. The overwhelming success of this event galvanized Christine and her associates to actively pursue a permanent venue for hosting such grand-scale performances.
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.
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 1st, Aline marks her 139th birthday. The curators, staff, and guides at Hollyhock House commemorate this occasion by reflecting on the indomitable spirit of Aline and her collaboration with the renowned master. Her house still graces the summit of Olive Hill, and although she did not realize all her ambitions during her lifetime, Olive Hill eventually evolved into the thriving artistic hub she had envisioned. Today, it features a theater, a contemporary art gallery, and a Kids’ Art center. During the summer months, people gather on the lawn surrounding the house, hosting celebrations and cultural events. Personally, I was deeply inspired by the beauty and serenity of Hollyhock House and the overall ambiance of Olive Hill. I underwent training to become a house docent and even completed a full shift in March 2020, just before the world entered a lockdown, marking the undeniable arrival of the 21st century.
I take immense pride in being a member of this group, and I also consider myself a part of the select community of professional women who contribute to the creation of open-air performances.
The innate human need for gatherings is a fundamental aspect of our nature. Through these gatherings, we acquire knowledge, evolve, and explore the world, all while inspiring one another. We owe a debt of gratitude to Aline for fostering this spirit. Happy Birthday!
For those interested, you can explore the interior of Hollyhock House and take a virtual tour on the Aline Foundation’s website, where you’ll find a closer look at the house’s photos.
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