Monday, July 19, 2010

Ancient monument

Age is only what you feel, they say. Good strong bones endure, they say. This goes for houses as much as it does for people. Some age gracefully, some don't do so well.

The views and vistas of the mountains above the streets of Los Angeles have been prized since the city's beginning for home sites for the rich, famous, and glamorous. Roads twist and turn and switchback along the folds of the hills. Over the decades, architects and designers indulged in the fantasies of their clients, creating Alpine cottages, French chateaux, Swiss chalets and Spanish missions that climb the hills and offer themed environments just as fanciful as the dreams they arose from.

So it is not unusual, while downshifting your car to climb a steep and twisting incline, to crane your neck past amazing structures, crammed together on top of one another, or gawk at the next great edifice revealed by a hairpin turn.

Here in Los Feliz, on Glendower Avenue, as you pass the steep-roofed chalet with a witch-broom wind vane, in the break between the '70s era horizontal box and the '90s Tuscan villa, you suddenly glimpse a soaring majestic structure that looms against the sky. Something tells you this one is special.

The Ennis-Brown House occupies a loop of land bordered by a hairpin switchback of Glendower Avenue. When you encounter its south face, looming above you, it's an awesome experience.

The sheer face evokes a Sumerian fortress, a medieval castle, a Mayan temple. Its jointed planes and patterned, textured surface seems exotic, foreign, and somehow forbidding.

Built in 1924 for clothing merchant Charles Ennis and his wife Mabel, the Ennis House (as it was known then) was the fourth and most ambitious of Frank Lloyd Wright's concrete block houses.

Wright saw the concrete block as a tool for building that was versatile, inexpensive and easily adapted to the most organic designs, allowing the shapes and planes of a structure to work in conjunction with the topography of the building site. The 16" blocks themselves were molded decoratively with geometric abstract designs, which when arranged together, created rich textures and lines. Wright used the term "textile blocks" to describe the way he could arrange the molded blocks to work with plain blocks to achieve an arresting design.

Here's what Wright said about his idea:
"What about the concrete block? It was the cheapest (and ugliest) thing in the building world. It lived mostly in the architectural gutter as an imitation of rock-faced stone. Why not see what could be done with that gutter rat? Steel rods cast inside the joints of the blocks themselves and the whole brought into some broad, practical scheme of general treatment, why would it not be fit for a new phase of our modern architecture? It might be permanent, noble beautiful."

Wrap around the turn and you come to the entrance of the house, a wide wrought-iron gate piercing a block wall, revealing a broad paved plaza and a view of Los Angeles that stuns.

The complex consists of the main house and a smaller chauffeur's cottage across the entry plaza. When you peek through the intricately patterned gate, here's what it looks like:

The metalwork of the gate was inspired by Mayan imagery and architecture. The house also includes classic art glass windows, and a glass mosaic tile fireplace that is said to be one of the last remaining examples of the many such fireplaces Wright designed. The house's interior is said to be somewhat claustrophobic and sinister. You can read about one blogger's visit inside, see views of the interior and decide for yourself.

The Ennis family didn't spend much time in the house. Charles died in 1928, and Mabel left the house in 1936. It was sold in 1940 to John Nesbitt, who commissioned Wright for some remodeling, adding a swimming pool and a billiard room. In 1968 the house was bought by Augustus Brown, until it was severely damaged by the 1993 Northridge earthquake. Large sections of the retaining walls broke away. Some of the concrete blocks had eroded over time, and crumbled under the strain. A very rainy winter in 2005 compounded the damage. The house was red-tagged by the city's building department.

Entry to the main house, see from the gateway

Gus Brown founded the Trust for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, which became the Ennis-Brown House Foundation. He donated the house to the foundation in his will at his death in 2002.

After the 2005 damage, the foundation raised funding for restoration. The south face was shored up. A FEMA grant and a gift from Diane Keaton helped fund the needed repairs. Here's a photo gallery from the Los Angeles Conservancy, showing the restoration.

Mayan-inspired motif from the iron gate

This being Hollywood, after all, the house has been used as a location for motion pictures, including the 1959 B-movie horror flick "The House on Haunted Hill" and the amazing 1982 L.A. future-noir film "Blade Runner," where it appears as the apartment home of Harrison Ford's character Deckard. It's been in other films, too, and its unique structure has been reproduced in studios as well.

Even so, the place has become a huge money-pit. In 2009, the Foundation announced its decision to put the house on the market, reasoning that a private buyer would be best suited to care for it. The price-tag for this fixer-upper? $15 million. It's estimated that another $5 to $7 million is needed to bring it up to snuff.

Frank Lloyd Wright was an arrogant and often selfish man, with a huge ego. In 1921 Wright wrote in a letter to Charles and Mabel Ennis:
"You see, the final result is going to stand on that hill a hundred years or more. Long after we are gone it will be pointed out as the Ennis House and pilgrimages will be made to it by lovers of the beautiful from everywhere."
Over the years, like the Ennis house, many of Wright's buildings have suffered from flawed engineering and weakness of structural design. The Ennis house sits, alone, on its hill. It is stable for now. You can make your pilgrimage to it. You can peek through the gates. You can touch the roughened surfaces of its blocks, trace the cracks and crevices and wonder. Even with another $7 million dollars, how much longer will it last before it crumbles?


Gilly said...

Only in LA could concrete survive like it has in that amazing house! To me, it looked prison-like, but maybe 'in the flesh' its a bit more alluring!

It sounds as though the car driver might not perhaps see as much as the pasenger on those twisty, hilly roads!! ;)

Nej said...

I'm a HUGE Wright fan!!!

Sue said...

My husband love Frank Lloyd Wright homes. There are also some near here. They are too streamlined for my taste, but this one is quite interesting. Love the history lesson.

smalltownme said...

I love your travels. That house has always fascinated me.

Cloudia said...

love this post!

ever heard of Mercer tiles?

Anonymous said...

FLW thought much of himself, didn't he? But I suppose that it was required, because he had some really different ideas to be sold. It is sad to know that this house is no longer habitable.

SUEB0B said...

I go to church in a Mayan inspired building. The architect, Robert Stacy Judd, thought that Mayan architecture should be to the Americas as Roman architecture was to Europe's great buildings. Didn't work out that way, but my church is still dang cool.

LisaNewton said...

You did a great job and I love your photos.