Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Los Feliz: Frank Lloyd Wright

Los Feliz is another one of L.A.'s pleasant, walkable neighborhoods that people from NYC and the Bay Area tend to like. Vermont Avenue between Prospect and Franklin has restaurants, shops, cafes, and Skylight Books which, so far, is my favorite book store in Los Angeles. Los Feliz is also home to two large and distinctive houses built by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).

The magnificent Ennis House, built in 1924, is located at the top of the hill and looms over Los Feliz like a futuristic Mayan fortress. It is one of four houses, all in the Los Angeles area, that Wright built with patterned concrete blocks in the early 1920s. The somewhat ominous looking house has been featured in many TV shows and movies including Blade Runner.

In Frank Lloyd Wright's own words: "No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other." Here is the Ennis House rising out of its hill and mirroring the silhouette of the mountains in the background:

The Ennis House has a panoramic view stretching from the San Gabriel Mountains in the East over the entire Los Angeles Basin out to the Pacific Ocean and the Catalina Islands in the West. Here is a view of downtown L.A. from the front patio:

A view over Los Angeles from the side terrace:

The Ennis House is not currently open to the public, however, I was in the right place at the right time and got myself invited into the house during a private tour for some out-of-town donors. The interior of the house is gorgeous but has a slightly sinister feeling. Here are the pictures that I took of the living room and the raised dining room area:

The long, low hallway has layers of the same patterned concrete blocks that form the exterior of the building:

A close-up of the concrete block design:

The exterior windows and interior glass door panels include beautiful art glass in classic Frank Lloyd Wright designs:

This original glass mosaic above the living room fireplace is supposedly the only remaining glass mosaic in any Frank Lloyd Wright house:

The Ennis House includes three corner panorama windows with unbroken views over the city:

The Berendo Stairs lead up to the Ennis House from Los Feliz:

Down at the Southern edge of Los Feliz, the Hollyhock House, a Mayan-inspired concrete home that Frank Lloyd Wright built between 1917 and 1920 for eccentric oil heiress Aline Barnsdall, is less impressive than the Ennis House. However, it is nicely situated on a scenic hill that was previously an olive grove and which is now owned and administered by the City of Los Angeles as the Barnsdall Art Park. In addition to the Hollyhock House, the park includes a gallery, a children's art center, and an outdoor sculpture garden with beautiful views of the city and Griffith Park.

A view of the exterior of Hollyhock House:

The Hollyhock House was Wright's first building in Los Angeles and he experimented with integrating indoor and outdoor spaces to try to find a style that would work well for the temperate Southern California climate. The house is open for public tours, but I only recommend the tour for people who are specifically interested in architecture or Frank Lloyd Wright. The one hour tour that I went on was led by a somewhat belligerent docent and lasted for almost two hours. The house is also not one of Wright's more livable, attractive designs and, in fact, Aline Barnsdall herself only lived in the house for a few years before moving out.

The hollyhock was Aline Barnsdall's favorite flower and she requested that it provide the motif for the building. Here is a detail of the stylized hollyhock pattern that decorates the interior and exterior of the house:

And some actual hollyhock flowers from the gardens:

Another detail from the exterior of the house:

This house, refered to simply as Residence A, is the other original Frank Lloyd Wright structure on the Barnsdall Art Park:

A view of the Griffith Park Observatory from the Art Park:

Walk number 23 in my favorite book "Walking L.A." by Erin Mahoney Harris covers Los Feliz including the Barnsdall Art Park/Hollyhock House, the Ennis House, the Bonvue and Berendo stairs, and the nice part of Vermont Avenue. If you are from Berkeley and feeling homesick, the quiet residential streets off of Hillhurst and Vermont look a lot like the East Bay.

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Cat of the Week: Bandit

"Bandit" of Venice prowling around the alleys in the evening:

Union Station Harvey House

In 1875, a businessman named Fred Harvey (1835-1901) opened two restaurants in Kansas and Oklahoma along the Kansas Pacific Railway. At that time, the railways did not serve food on trains and Harvey's restaurants quickly became popular with travelers. Within a few years, Harvey contracted with the Santa Fe Railway to build and operate restaurants at dozens of stops throughout the Southwest. The Harvey House chain operated until the 1960s and at its height included 84 restaurants stretching from Kansas to California.

The last of the Harvey Houses was built in 1939 in Los Angeles by architect Mary Colter (1869-1958) next to L.A.'s Union Station. Colter, who built a number of the Fred Harvey restaurants, drew inspiration from Navajo themes and her restaurants and hotels continue to be influential in Southwestern architecture. The glossy red and brown tiled floor of the Los Angeles Harvey House resembles a Navajo rug:

The restaurant has many beautiful architectural details such as the floral-patterned studding on the leather siding of this raised dining area:

A detail of the concrete parrot tiles that line the walls of the restaurant:

After having bad experiences with male employees in the Southwest, Harvey decided to hire only educated, single women between the ages of 18 and 30 from the East Coast and Mid-West to work at his restaurants. Harvey hired the young women on one-year contracts, paid them quite well, and required that they live in boarding houses adjacent to the restaurants run by house-mothers who enforced strict rules of conduct. In popular lore, the respectable "Harvey Girls" civilized and populated the Southwest by marrying local men after their year-long contracts with Fred Harvey expired. There is even a musical entitled "Harvey Girls" produced by MGM Studios in 1946 starring Judy Garland as a young woman from the East Coast who became a Harvey Girl.

The Los Angeles Harvey House stopped operating as a restaurant in 1967 and the space is now rented out for special events and movie shoots. The central dining room at the Harvey House is dominated by a large U-shaped lunch counter that used to be surrounded by built-in seating and is now used at a bar during events:

The view from behind the bar:

There are raised dining areas on both sides of the central room with built-in leather seating:

The L.A. Harvey House is generally not open to the public, but the L.A. Conservancy walking tour of Union Station includes entrance into the Harvey House. More information about the Conservancy's walking tours including their Union Station tour is available on the L.A. Conservancy website. I highly recommend that people who are interested in historic buildings in Los Angeles join the Conservancy and go on Conservancy walking tours. For more pictures and information about Union Station, check out my Union Station blog post.

The Harvey House is located adjacent to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles:

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Watts Towers

Over the course of 34 years from 1921-1955, Italian immigrant Simon Rodia (1879-1965) built a series of giant structures in his backyard in Watts out of scrap metal and concrete. Rodia's Watts Towers are the largest folk art monument in the country built by a single individual.

Watts lies with the flight path of the Los Angeles International Airport so Rodia limited the tallest tower to 99.5 feet (30 meters) in order to avoid having to comply with special regulations governing structures over 100 feet tall.

Rodia was a construction worker and tile-setter and worked on his backyard structure in the evenings and on the weekends. Within the exterior wall surrounding the plot, there are over 15 separate sculptures including towers, gazebos, seating areas, and small fountains.

Rodia made the structures climbable so that he did not need scaffolding to work on the higher portions of the towers.

A detail of a support buttress between two of the towers lined with hearts:

Rodia decorated the sculptures with tile remnants, broken glass and pottery, hand-drawn and imprinted designs, and sea shells:

For many years, Rodia worked at the Malibu Tile Company and was able to acquire broken and remnant Malibu Tiles for his towers:

Bottle bottoms:

At the narrow point of his triangular-shaped plot, Rodia built a sculpture called the "Ship of Marco Polo" with its helm pointed East toward Italy:
Ginger ale bottles decorating the arch over a doorway:

The Watts Towers and the adjacent community arts center are open to the public for tours on Thursdays (10:30-3), Fridays (11-3), Saturdays (10:30-3), and Sundays (12:30-3). The tours are $7 for adults, $3 for seniors and teenagers, and free for kids under 12. There is additional information about the towers and the adjacent community arts center at The Watts Towers Arts Center website, however, the information on the website is not up-to-date. For updates on hours and visiting info, call 213-847-4646.

The Towers are located at 1761-1765 East 107th St. in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

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Monday, July 12, 2010

Huntington Museum, Library, and Gardens

In 1919, California railroad magnate Henry Huntington (1850-1927) founded the private non-profit Huntington institution. The Huntington, which is located just east of Pasadena in San Marino, houses an art museum and a rare-books research library that focuses on American and British history and literature. The Huntington is also one of the best botanical gardens in the country and includes Chinese water gardens, Japanese gardens, lily ponds, rose gardens, waterfalls, Australian gardens, jungle gardens, a greenhouse conservatory, and a desert garden.

A view toward the rose garden:

Statues line the grassy promenade leading up to the Huntington mansion:

Here is a traditional pedestrian "moon bridge" or "drum bridge" in the Japanese garden:

My favorite part of the Japanese gardens complex is the wonderful Bonsai Court which houses the collection of the Golden State Bonsai Federation:

California Juniper bonsai trees:

Next to the bonsai court is a beautiful dry garden with raked gravel:

The cacti and succulents in the outstanding desert garden are my favorite part of the Huntington:

Everything in the Chinese water garden has a charming name like "Pavilion for Washing Away Thoughts," "Lake of Reflected Fragrance," or "Isle for Welcoming Cranes." Pictured below are the "Jade Ribbon Bridge" and the "Pavilion of the Three Friends." The three friends represent courage during hard times and include the pine, which stays green all through the winter; bamboo, which is strong and flexible; and the plum tree, which flowers in cool weather.
The arches in the Jade Ribbon Bridge create beautiful full circles with their reflections. If you look closely in the picture, you can see a duck with four fluffy ducklings heading toward the bridge.

Orchids in the conservatory:

One of many fountains on the grounds:

I highly recommend that tourists to LA visit the Huntington. It is preferable to visit on a weekday if possible because the entrance fee is cheaper and the gardens are often very crowded on Saturdays and Sundays.

The Huntington is kid-friendly - children will enjoy the fish ponds, waterfalls, ducks, and little bridges in the Japanese and Chinese gardens; the lizards and hummingbirds in the desert garden; and the interactive activities in the conservatory and children's garden.

Visiting information is available at the Huntington website.

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