When people think about Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Hollyhock House in Hollywood, CA, they don’t realize that there is an interesting, though little-told back story, of how Frank Lloyd Wright got his first Los Angeles commission at a time in his life when he was a social pariah.
Enter, Aline Barnsdall, oil-heiress, philanthropist, art patron, socialist, world traveler, Feminist and single parent – all in a time and place that was traditional, conservative, and under the Hearst Newspaper Empire, not at all friendly to an Independent woman of considerable means, with the determination to build her dream of an artist’s colony in the boomtown of Los Angeles of the early 1900’s, not far from the studio where “Birth of A Nation” was filmed.
In 1919, Aline purchased Olive Hill, an outcropping of decomposed granite that stood tall among the flat fields of Hollywood. The price was a jaw-dropping $300,000 for 36 acres of olive trees and native scrub. Her plan was to build a grand complex with an outdoor, Greek-inspired theater; movie palace; artist’s residences with retail stores to sustain the colony; guest houses and a residence for herself and her daughter.
Aline’’s favorite flower was the Hollyhock, and she insisted that FLW use that flower as an inspirational motif. To this day, Hollyhocks bloom throughout the year on the grounds, and one can see the abstracts of the flowers on the structures’ exteriors, and in the interior wood and concrete furnishings and finishes.
She had met Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago when she was in her 30’s and he in his 50’s, and she was insistent that FLW be her architect for her visionary LA artists’ retreat. When she hired him, he was a outcast in his social world for having run off with one of his client’s wives, and Aline was one of the few who would hire him.
She, herself, because of her left-wing political views, was on the FBI’s “watch list” for 27 years. She published her own political tracts because none of the far-right, Hearst Newspapers would give her a forum. She financially supported Socialist candidates and political prisoners. She gave Emma Goldman $50,000 when she was exiled from the United States. She posted political signs along her property on Hollywood Blvd., and traffic was often backed up as people stopped to read her latest postings.
Aline’s grand vision for a self-sustaining artist’s colony was never fully realized–she ran out of interest and patience with the project – as FLW’s costs to complete became more and more grandiose and, he was often absent from the project.
She was truly a visionary woman who exemplified the underlying spirit of her time in a city that, in spite of its moralist and conservative attitude, finally embraced Aline’s extraordinary gift of the one-of-a-kind, Hollyhock House, a guest house (currently undergoing restoration) and an 11-acre gift of land to the City of Los Angeles.