Fixing Frank Lloyd Wright

After an Earthquake, Los Angeles' Ennis House Has Been Stabilized.

Built in 1924, the Ennis House achieves Wright's original intent that the building should rise organically from the hill to work harmoniously with topography and nature.

Credit: Trust for Preservation of Cultural Heritage

"Concrete is a plastic material—susceptible to the impress of imagination. I saw a kind of weaving coming out of it ... Lightness and strength!"—Frank Lloyd Wright

The last and largest of the four Los Angeles "textile block" houses that Frank Lloyd Wright designed, the monolithic Ennis House sits on a Hollywood Hills crest with a view of Griffith Park to on the north and the Los Angeles metropolitan area to the south.

Designed by the master architect to stand solidly on the slope for "a hundred years or more," the house built for Charles and Mabel Ennis in 1924 Ennis House had slowly begun to lose its footing and, by the turn of this century, threatened to slide down the hill.

"As a board member of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, I toured the Ennis House in 2000 and became alarmed at the state of the house," says Jennifer Emerson, owner of a Wright block-house and Ennis House Foundation member. "I encouraged the executive director to write the nomination for the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list."

In response, the Trust added the house to its list two years ago. "The plight of the Ennis House was becoming increasing dire after the 1994 Northridge earthquake and the heavy rains of 2005," says Anthea Hartig, director of the National Trust's Western Office in San Francisco. "We knew something had to be done to save this internationally recognized treasure."

With swift action, a number of organizations moved into place to rescue the Ennis House from the elements of nature. Last month, workers completed a $6 million stabilization project.

"I've had people come to the house, and they see it's coming back. They are so happy they just cry," says Robert Leary, president of the Ennis House board. "I had no idea that people so loved this property. Now we no longer have to apologize for the Ennis House. This national treasure has gone from a burden to a blessing, but I think the best days are still ahead."

Eric Lloyd Wright, grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright and an esteemed architect in his own right, serves on the Ennis house board. "I was able to give the board my knowledge of working on concrete-block houses, as I helped restore the Freeman, Storer and Millard house. When completed, the Ennis House will give back one of the most unique residential buildings in the world."

Before the project began in June 2006, the coalition had to nail down FEMA funding, settle a legal matter, record an easement, and secure a bank loan. The Ennis House board received funding from the Getty Foundation, the Parsons Foundation, Save America's Treasures, Friend of Heritage Preservation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express.

"One of our big challenges was to build relationships with the neighbors," says Emerson, who has a graduate degree from Columbia University in historic preservation. "Diane Keaton volunteered to do some fundraising that helped out tremendously." As an active board member, Keaton has generated public interest in the Ennis House.

Good publicity is priceless. "The Art Deco Society of Los Angeles was the first group of people to believe in us and write about the house," Leary says. "It makes it easier to ask for donations with a track record and positive press."

During the first phase of restoration, workers from Matt Construction, based in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., stabilized the motor court, the chauffeur's quarters, the 35- foot concrete-block retaining wall, and the gold- and- mosaic tile in the living room fireplace. They also rebuilt the exterior wall of the living room, interior finishes, and the art glass. According to Eric Lloyd Wright, the $10 million second phase of the restoration project will take on the issue of stabilizing the house with caissons.

Not surprisingly, one of the most daunting tasks turned out to be the cleaning of every single textile-block, inside the house and out. Some of the exterior blocks had completely deteriorated and had to be replaced. To restore the historic fabric of the exterior, the Ennis House board found a Los Angeles company that could duplicate the original blocks and deliver 2,200 blocks in the initial order with more to follow.

To everyone's surprise, Leary says, while cleaning the interior blocks in the entryway, workers discovered a hidden treasure: light fixtures behind a row of textile-blocks close to the ceiling, originally used to illuminate the entryway. Last summer, the grandson of the Judson Studios artisan who built the art-glass windows originally restored the very same ones.

In 1941, Frank Lloyd Wright received a call from then-owner John Nesbit to install a pool and a billiard room. Over the years, the billiard room went through many incarnations. Now, with the restoration of the original Usonian game room in place, the Ennis House is back to its 1940s glory.

If all goes according to plan, the project will be completed within the next three years.

"This restoration project is part conservation, part restoration, and the rest preservation," Leary says. "This house will be the way it looked when it was originally built. We're keeping the original design and integrity. Our goal is for the work to be invisible and for the house to look exactly the way it did in 1924."

Judith Stock is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.  

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

Subscribe to the Today's News RSS feed