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Frank Lloyd Wright’s forgotten Hollywood sandcastle

I lived next door to Wright’s least-famous textile-block house—and it shaped my career

In true Hollywood fashion, I didn’t even notice my famous neighbor until after I moved in.

I was standing on the threshold of the first apartment I would ever occupy by myself, chosen specifically for its location: walkable to the quickly morphing grid of Los Angeles, but just high enough in the hills to claim an actual view, with Highland Avenue pulsing like a central nervous system down the middle. From my front porch, I could see the entire LA basin unfolding before me, a budding freelancer who had given up all gainful employment to somehow make a living writing about this vast changing city.

After wrestling for hours with the life-sized Tetris game of moving boxes that overwhelmed my living room, I had gone outside to confront my growing sense of doom about my career (or lack of career?) and the sudden realization that I would be sleeping alone on this strange hillside. Looking up past a dense canopy of pines, I glimpsed something familiar, something I hadn’t spotted during my previous visits. Peeking out from a corner of the property above was—I squinted in disbelief—what appeared to be a little piece of Blade Runner in my backyard.

My uphill neighbor was the Freeman House, Frank Lloyd Wright’s least famous textile-block home. I was well acquainted with its celebrity sibling, the Ennis House, which occupies a hillside a few canyons over, from its cameo in the 1982 Ridley Scott film. And I knew of the Storer House, also in Hollywood, two miles west, and the Millard House, known as La Miniatura, in Pasadena, due to recent high-profile sales of the properties.

All four textile-block houses were completed around 1924, but the Freeman House was smaller than the others, harder to find, not open to the public, and largely absent from contemporary pop culture. In many ways, it had been forgotten, even though it’s easily the most visible—it’s right there in historic images of Old Hollywood, in the opening segment of the Oscars, in many tourists’ photos of one of the most famous places on Earth.

“It was the cheapest (and ugliest) thing in the building world,” Frank Lloyd Wright once said about why he chose to work with concrete blocks. “Why not see what could be done with that gutter rat?”

Each textile-block home is stamped with its own distinctive pattern, like a family crest, and the monumentality of the Mayan-inspired blocks evokes the opulence of an exotic temple. But Wright designed the homes with a utopian vision that homeowners could build these houses themselves, using affordable materials and a site-specific plan. However, as I could clearly see from my backyard, Wright’s vision did not intersect with LA’s geological realities.

None of the textile-block homes have aged particularly well, but the Freeman House is especially challenging. To make the buildings appear integrated with the landscape, Wright instructed crews to use sand found on-site to mix the cast-concrete blocks. But this hillside’s sand was filled with imperfections; it reacted with the skeleton of iron rebar and caused the textile blocks to crater. Without protective flashing on the roof—which Wright disapproved of, aesthetically—the blocks absorbed decades of rain like sponges, causing severe water damage and requiring a brigade of tarps and buckets at the slightest chance of drizzle.

Still, when the University of Southern California’s architecture school was given the home in 1984, it was deemed structurally sound, despite needing some critical repairs. Ten years later, however, damage from the Northridge earthquake made the home uninhabitable. USC received emergency funding from FEMA and additional grants totaling $1.5 million from groups like the Getty Conservation Institute, which was enough to stabilize the house and perform the necessary seismic upgrades. The school had just begun the arduous process of fundraising for the home’s restoration when I moved in below it.

When I first I learned of the state of the Freeman House, I looked out my back door with apprehension. At the slightest twinge of an earthquake—and it certainly did seem like I felt a lot of them while living there—I would immediately glance uphill, worried that the crumbling sandcastle would crush me from above.

The house is near the dead end of a quiet street overlooking Hollywood, although it’s not altogether hidden—the two textile-block panels at center have both been stolen.
Miter-cut windows became a signature detail for midcentury architecture, but in 1924 these types of uninterrupted, wraparound views were rare.

But as I learned more about the history of the home, I realized how lucky I was to live in the shadow of such a special place.

Samuel and Harriet Freeman were drawn to Hollywood in the 1920s for the freewheeling bohemian culture that attracted artists, writers, and, of course, filmmakers. Samuel had invested in a successful Downtown jewelry business that had made the couple wealthy, allowing them to devote time and money to becoming patrons of architecture and the arts. Harriet taught dance, sometimes to extras at movie studios. The Freemans were known for hosting salons, and guests included dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, photographer Edward Weston, and the German painter and art collector Galka Scheyer. For a time, a young actor named Clark Gable was the Freemans’ tenant.

There’s a 1953 photo by the architectural photographer Julius Shulman of the living room where the salons were held. A still-young Hollywood can be seen through the windows; one can almost hear jazz wafting out of the clubs on the boulevard and see klieg lights swooping through the sky. At the southern corners of the room, two planes of glass intersect. These two-story, freestanding miter-cut windows were said to be the first of their kind—a claim that is pretty much impossible to substantiate, although it’s very likely that this was one of the earliest experimental versions, at least in the United States. This home, like its owners, was pioneering a new way of living.

The Freeman House in 1953. The three prominent buildings seen from the center window are all still standing, and the view remains relatively similar today.
Julius Shulman/© J. Paul Getty Trust/Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.

The story of those history-making windows, like everything else in the house, is more about the process than the final product. After Wright designed the home, he left it to his son, Lloyd Wright, to build it, as he’d moved on to other projects. Renovations to the house completed over the next few decades were executed by Rudolph Schindler, who worked alongside Wright on the Hollyhock House (where the Freemans met Wright when they were staying with arts patron Aline Barnsdall). These included carving the house into three separate living spaces after the Freemans’ marriage dissolved and the two began living essentially as roommates. Even the legendary windows are not original, but actually a re-creation by Wright’s protege, John Lautner, who added an aluminum support structure to replace the decaying wood.

So reverting the house back to its original state would actually mean erasing some rather notable alterations, argues Peyton Hall, managing principal of Historic Resources Group, which has served as the historic preservation consultant for the Freeman House and many other LA landmarks. “People ask, why don’t we make it ‘Wright’?” he says. “But the house has been subjected to important changes over time which are not to be taken for granted.”

The house also offers a tremendous opportunity to witness the ravages of time and the choices conservationists have made. This is why it makes such an excellent teaching tool for USC, argues Jeffrey Chusid, who lived in the home and served as its preservation architect, in his book Saving Wright: The Freeman House and the Preservation of Meaning, Materials and Modernity. But a funding lag between preservation projects has presented serious tradeoffs in fulfilling its goal as an asset for the community, says Trudi Sandmeier, director of USC’s graduate programs in heritage conservation. “It’s both a good thing and a bad thing that we haven’t been able to move forward with the house,” she says. “From an educational perspective it’s great because you can see it midstream. It’s hard to communicate that when it’s not open to the public.”

The view from the terrace includes a concrete addition that helped to stabilize the house after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
The hearth once featured Schindler-designed furniture, which has been placed in storage until it can be properly restored.

The school offered limited tours in the 1990s, but now even the architecture-curious are usually turned away—I called USC in 2004 asking for a visit and was denied, but in hindsight I should have taken my chances and knocked during a stroll-by. Over the past decade, I’ve happened to become friends with the person who lived there while I did—an architect, of course. And not just an architect, but the daughter of the person who is often credited with saving the home.

As part of USC’s architecture program, students can apply to reside at the Freeman House in scholarship. Elizabeth Timme—now principal of Los Angeles design firm LA-Más (and a 2014 Curbed Young Gun)—was selected to live on the hill at approximately the same time I was living below the house.

Timme’s father was Robert H. Timme, who was dean of USC’s architecture school when Harriet Freeman gave the home to the institution. It was her father who began the restoration process, which she describes as “politically contentious” due to all the dissenting opinions about conservation. In 1998, the lack of action on the property outraged architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, then at the Los Angeles Times, who accused USC of neglecting the home in an article titled “Wright, Done Wrong.”

But the school’s architects and structural engineers were exploring ways to restore the house, says Timme. That included her father, who was known to spend hours at the house experimenting with ways to repair the structure himself. “He was kind of a madman about it,” she remembers. In one of the more controversial decisions, the school purchased a hydraulic press and had a 3D plate milled with the house’s textile block design; in one section of the house, Timme’s father poured new walls of solid concrete and glued the facsimile textile blocks to them. This type of restoration technique was eventually tested for the repair of a retaining wall at the Ennis House, says Timme. “I remember him jumping up and down with glee because he was right to do what he did.”

While she was living in the home, Timme helped her father’s restoration efforts by rebuilding the koi pond out front. She also threw an epic party that almost got her kicked out due to neighbor complaints (the neighbors are still talking about it, confirms Sandmeier). The street, barely improved from its origins as a winding dead-end dirt road, is not forgiving to vehicle-bound visitors, nor are the driveways of neighboring residents. In Timme’s defense, the eclectic gathering of actors, musicians, and designers seemed like an event of which Mrs. Freeman would have likely approved, aside from the inconvenience of a few dozen towed cars.

The home that consumed her father’s professional life also served as a backdrop for her own life-changing moment, says Timme: It’s where she fell in love with her husband. Their wedding announcement features the couple standing on the roof, the textile blocks recognizable beneath their clasped hands.

“It was a bohemian period for us, too,” she says. “You do feel influenced by the ethos of the house, looking out over the city and feeling that anything is possible.”

When I finally got to go inside the Freeman House, 12 years after I’d moved away, I immediately looked out the windows to locate my old apartment. I saw the glorious vista familiar to me from the Shulman photo. But the view from my apartment had been better, I decided, because in addition to the exact same perspective of Hollywood, I had the Freeman House perfectly framed in my uphill window.

According to Sandmeier, a major repair of the Freeman House roof begins this fall, informed by a 1,000-page report that dutifully documents, among other things, the status of every single textile block, some of which are in storage. “We don’t have unlimited money, and the money we do have we want to spend thoughtfully and carefully,” she says. “The report gives us a blueprint for thinking about the house holistically and how we start intervening again.”

Unlike the flower-inspired motifs of the Hollyhock House, the significance of the Freeman House’s textile-block pattern isn’t known. Some scholars believe it looks like a tulip.

I hope those interventions will somehow make the home fit for the public to visit (within reason, and without cars), provide teachable moments to students, and also properly trace the contributions of Wright and Wright, and Schindler and Lautner, and even of Dean Robert H. Timme, who died of lung cancer just as his daughter graduated from USC. And that they will somehow capture how essential the Freemans were in shaping a very specific moment in time for Los Angeles.

I didn’t recognize it at the time, but the Freeman House shaped an essential part of what I became during those years I lived in Hollywood—among other things, a person fiercely passionate about the preservation of buildings. I remember the way the windows would ignite with golden light at the magic hour, visible from dozens of blocks away as I walked home, a beacon that showed I was on the right path. Soon, I was making actual money writing about architecture, organizing salon-type events for the interesting designers I met, and working hard to make the city below me a better place.

All the while the house was watching over me, nudging me down toward the action, but reminding me to pause and take it all in, because only one of us would get to stay on this hill forever.

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