I recently received a call to use some of my photos to promote conservation efforts for the Freeman House in Hollywood. I think you will find this home interesting, and I can help you understand the urgency many feel to save the home. In the opening shot, the balcony doors open to frame a view of Highland Avenue. The perforated blocks with glass and the horizontally mullioned windows continue the views to Hollywood and the verdant Southern California landscape surrounding the home.
In this living room with its views and soaring ceilings, owners Samuel and Harriet Freeman hosted dinners and salon evenings with dazzling guests from the arts, the entertainment industry, architecture, culture and politics, beginning with the home’s completion in 1924 and continuing for decades.
The Freeman House is the fifth and last of the knit-block homes that Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built in the Los Angeles area. First was the Aline Barnsdall House, better known as the Hollyhock House because of the hollyhock motif in the concrete blocks, which was completed in 1921. The Freemans were dinner guests in the Hollyhock House, and it inspired them to commission Wright to design their own home, the smallest of the block homes on a modest, steep site. In the photo, the home appears as one story, but it steps down the hill in two more levels. Sources estimate the size of the home as 1,500 square feet.
Wright’s LA block homes exhibit pre-Columbian architectural influences with their massive masonry and are said to recall the temples of the Mayans and Aztecs. The material is concrete, and Wright instructed that for all the block houses in Los Angeles, sand from the site be used for the concrete mix so that the color and texture of sand would be indigenous to the site. Unfortunately, the impurities in the sand resulted in the blocks not holding up over time. The knit-block system consisted of two parallel rows of concrete blocks separated by an air cavity with steel reinforcements rods tying the walls together vertically and horizontally. Blocks varied in surface treatment: smooth, patterned, or perforated patterns.
Approximately 12,000 cast concrete blocks make up the Freeman House. David Gebhard, the architectural historian who collaborated with me in the late 1980s on Romanza, the California Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, commented that it was the most adventurous of the homes. “Wright realized a concrete block dwelling that was light, airy, and delicate, aspects not usually associated with this material,” he said.
Wright created a unique design for each home’s blocks. There is no general agreement about the meaning of the blocks’ designs. Some call it the tulip, and I heard another theory that it represents the plan of the house, including a eucalyptus tree that Wright called out to be planted.
Another characteristic of this home is the integration of landscaping into the home’s design, including its patios and balconies. Frank Lloyd Wright’s son Lloyd Wright, who was trained in landscape architecture, managed the project and oversaw construction.
The entrance to the home is typically Wright in that it is not at all obvious. Here, one goes down the stairs to discover the front door to the right.
One enters a long, low, narrow hallway where the wood slats follow the lines in the courses of blocks to maintain a strong horizontal character. The feeling of compression releases when entering the soaring height of the living room.
The hearth, as is typical of Wright’s work, is the heart of the home. The first photographs I made were in the 1980s, several years after Mrs. Freeman’s death and donation of the home to the University of Southern California. The Architecture department was charged with managing and restoring the home and used it as a laboratory for the students, who lived in the space.
My friend Al Struckus, an architecture enthusiast who was especially knowledgeable about organic architecture and architects of Southern California, accompanied me on the first shoot. Struckus was somewhat dismayed about the condition of the modernist architect Rudolph Schindler’s custom designed furniture in the living room and the detritus. He and I straightened it up as best we could. The Freemans had hired Schindler as their architect after the home was completed. He had previously worked for Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio and had been the superintendent of the Hollyhock House construction. Schindler redesigned parts of the kitchen and designed some paneling, display cases, light fixtures and the seating and tables.
The tall narrow iron lamp on the left side is one of several that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for the home. Glass between the perforated blocks allow additional light into the home. The windows’ horizontal mullions continue the horizontal lines of the blocks. The corners of the glass are mitered: the glass comes together without any framing to continue the horizontal lines uninterruptedly and to allow an unobstructed view out the corner. At the time, this was considered very advanced technology. Originally, the mullions were made of wood, but later John Lautner, another famous Los Angeles area architect friendly with the Freemans (and also a Wright apprentice), had the wood replaced with steel. With today’s advances in window technology, I have been curious about how Frank Lloyd Wright would have incorporated these windows into his designs.
I returned to the Freeman House to make additional photographs for a book collaboration with Judith Dunham in the mid-1990s, and it had been severely damaged by the Northridge earthquake in 1994. Additionally, it appeared more neglected. The furnishings had been removed to storage, and access was restricted because it was unstable. Robert Timme, the Dean of the USC School of Architecture, later initiated a three-phase rehabilitation program, but sadly he passed away before beginning the third phase.
I am unaware of further work on the home. Last year, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Wright lamps and Schindler furnishings had disappeared from the USC warehouse.
I am pleased that efforts are renewing to draw attention to the Freeman House and to call for restoration. It was only a year ago that a number of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings were listed as UNESCO heritage sites.
Two years ago, I was contacted by preservationists for photos of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Lockridge Medical Center in Whitefish, Montana. Despite their hard work, the building was destroyed.
I am hoping for a better outcome for the Freeman House. It is not only a Frank Lloyd Wright design with Rudolph Schindler touches, it is also part of the history of Hollywood because of the Freemans’ role in gathering together notable people of the time.
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