June 26, 2017
Wright in LA
In Los Angeles, Wright’s influence has been seminal and LA’s effect on him was equally profound, especially in his thinking about his legacy and modern urbanization.
Over time, while working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation or as a Board member of the Los Angeles Conservancy and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, I helped Wright owners figure out preservation options whether for the Zimmerman House in Manchester NH, or the Sturges and Ennis Houses in Los Angeles. My husband and I were married near the 1941 FLW Usonian Pope-Leighey House, on the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation near Alexandria, Virginia, a National Trust Historic Site. On these and many other Wright properties, I experienced the power of Wright’s architecture which embraced nature- land, light, water and as well as human craftsmanship.
Whether modest or grand, within a Wright building I always had the sense of sanctuary in every sense of the word. However, I also understood owners’ frustration with Wright roofs, heating systems and structural innovations. It has been a delight and relief to see that technology simply needed to catch up with his creativity, and to see that Wright buildings of every type are proving their value culturally and economically.
In Los Angeles, Wright’s influence has been seminal and LA’s effect on him was equally profound, especially in his thinking about his legacy and modern urbanization. Wright’s work in Los Angeles in the 1920s during the city’s greatest building boom led to his later support for the city’s preservation ordinance and influenced his 1932 book, The Disappearing City, in which he outlined his Broadacre City concept.
My work for the Getty Conservation Institute designing the Los Angeles comprehensive, citywide, historic resource survey, SurveyLA, revealed Wright’s early support in the 1950s for a proposed citywide preservation ordinance. Seemingly contradicting some of his well-known disparagement of other architects, Wright was clearly concerned for the future of his Los Angeles masterpieces along with those of peers—Irving Gill, Richard Neutra, and Rudolf Schindler, as well as the brilliant midcentury architects such as Gregory Ain, Quincy Jones, and others. The American Institute of Architects Committee leading the ordinance passage effort used his support.
The 1962 Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission Ordinance—the first of its kind (the New York City Landmarks Preservation Ordinance was enacted in 1965)—protected buildings, sites, and areas of historic, architectural, and cultural significance without regard to the age of the resource, thus allowing designation of the city’s 20th century heritage. Wright’s 1921 Hollyhock House was the 12th historic resource to be designated within months of the ordinance’s passage, in January 1963.
One of my first experiences with Wright in Los Angeles is now combining with my most recent. UCLA professor Thomas Hines taught several generations about the importance of Los Angeles and its architecture. I had the good fortune to take his graduate seminar on Los Angeles in my first year in the city, and I wrote a paper on Broadacre City. Currently, in working to revitalize one of the city’s great suburbs, Westwood, I have realized how suburban development in 1920s LA would have influenced Wright’s concept for Broadacre City.
While Wright was designing Hollyhock House, the Storer House, and the Ennis House, he would have been well aware of the large-scale planning and experiments in innovative suburbs citywide. In the Los Angeles region a skillful planning department with high standards worked with developers who employed nationally recognized urban planners and developers. These included Palos Verdes designed by the Olmstead Brothers and the pioneering work in Westwood by the Janns Development Company with the planner Harlan Bartholomew of St. Louis, who at the time was as well regarded as the Olmstead firm. Like Broadacre City’s four square miles, Westwood’s five square miles was to holistically create a diverse community with varied housing and architectural choices centered by a commercial village, community institutions, employers, and a great university, UCLA.
Although Wright’s Broadacre City one-acre lots and self-supporting agricultural emphasis seem unrealistic, Wright was gamely participating in the dialogue about a community within a city and addressing issues of social inclusion and economic diversity, employment, transportation, communication, and sustainability. I well remember being intrigued and hopeful for what we now call transportation drones; and now it seems they should arrive any day.
Kathryn Welch Howe is a Member of Scenic America Board of Directors and President of KWH Associates Inc., a preservation planning and adaptive use development firm. As a consultant, Kathryn prepared the restoration and usage program for the revitalization of Grand Central Terminal for the Municipal Art Society and Metro-North Railroad. For the Getty Conservation Institute Kathryn led the development of the Los Angeles Historic Resource Survey. She has been a regional director and vice-president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and president of the Los Angeles Conservancy Board of Directors.
If you liked this reader-submitted article, you may also enjoy “Philosophy on Exhibit: How Wright Brought His Biggest Ideas to the World.”