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House on Haunted Hill
Natural disasters. Neglectful owners. Hand grenades. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Los Angeles masterpiece has been under siege for 81 years. Now it’s being saved
“You’ve hit a dead man,” Eric Lloyd Wright tells the puzzled group gathered around a large hole in the motor court of the Ennis House, the massive Mayan outcropping that looms over the Los Feliz neighborhood. On this late summer morning 81 years after the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Eric’s grandfather, completed work on the at-once entrancing and forbidding structure, the property is again a construction site. Bulldozers scoop earth and drills bore into granite to make way for the installation of 20 giant steel caissons (the largest weighs 5,000 pounds and stands 39 feet high) that will tie into bedrock, at long last securing the house to the hillside. All had been going well until one of the drills smashed into a seemingly impenetrable obstacle, prompting a delay and concern. Eric, however, knew immediately what had happened. “For stability, my grandfather poured three rows of concrete footings at various heights beneath the motor court,” he says. “Each one is a foot wide and two to three feet deep. They’re called dead men because there’s only one way to remove them—you have to drag them out.”
The Ennis House has entombed so many. Within its walls reside not just Frank Lloyd Wright’s genius but the spirits of a long line of owners, inhabitants, and even the buildings contractor, Lloyd Wright, Frank’s son and Eric’s father. These dead men left their marks on the structure, and it in turn left its mark on them. To live in the work of America’s greatest architect has never been easy, yet the Ennis House demanded more than most. The opening sequences of House on Haunted Hill, the campiest of all horror movies, catch the building’s imposing aura. The 1959 picture begins with a shot of the Ennis House’s exterior over which the ghostly face of Vincent Price is superimposed. In the foreground, a funeral procession carries a group of revelers up the hill. As the cars near the motor court, Price’s character offers $10,000 to any of his guests who can survive 12 hours in the place. “The hearse is empty now,” he intones, “but after a night on Haunted Hill, who knows?”
The Ennis House, the best of Wright’s several Los Angeles buildings, may be the city’s most exotic architectural jewel. Few other houses speak so powerfully to Los Angeles. With its staggered volumes covered with 16-by-16-inch concrete blocks patterned to resemble abstracted squares, the house is as much temple as domicile. The notion that one’s home should be a sanctuary is, of course, central to the Southern California myth, but Wright realized it on an almost otherworldly scale. Not that there aren’t grace notes. Everywhere art-glass windows in a stylized wisteria motif pay homage to nature, while mitered-glass windows located in strategic corners give onto views of downtown and the Pacific. The design alone, however, cannot account for the place’s hold on the city. The Ennis House articulates Los Angeles’s past even as it looks to its future. Its bulk evokes the pagan history of pre-Columbian California, yet its “textile block” construction technique—so named for the system of horizontal and vertical rebar that holds the concrete blocks in place—embodies the sort of experimentation intrinsic to the modern city.
“There’s a weight to the house like that of a castle,” says the architect Leo Marmol, a partner in the influential firm Marmol Radziner and Associates. “It’s inherently dramatic. From the city you can’t help but wonder what that majestic thing on the hill is. Then when you get up there and look back at the city, it’s breathtaking. It’s both an object that invites us and piques our curiosity, and once you arrive your curiosity is only enhanced. The house is sort of a freak, and I mean that in the best way. It’s an aberration, as all truly individualistic things are.” Little wonder that in 1982, the director Ridley Scott used it as the location for Harrison Ford’s apartment in the most dystopian vision of Los Angeles ever put on film—Blade Runner.
For the past 12 years, however, all anyone who looked at the Ennis House could see was that it was crumbling before their very eyes, and that, too, was emblematic, as Los Angeles has lost so many of its significant buildings. The crisis had been decades in the making. Even before the place was completed in 1925, the clients, Charles and Mabel Ennis, complained to Wright about bulges in the fortress-like pediment on which their home would stand. Time, missteps, and the elements—particularly the 1994 Northridge earthquake—only exacerbated the problems. Then the record-breaking rains of 2005 nearly delivered the coup de grace. Damage from the deluge prompted the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety to red-tag the house, signaling that it was uninhabitable. Subsequently, the authorities judged the structure stable enough for limited use, but there was no doubt that it was in extremis. The distinctively battered retaining walls that surround the property had given way in many spots, resulting in herniated breaches from which dirt geysered. Equally troubling, many of the house’s concrete blocks—all 24,000 of them fabricated on the site from decomposed granite excavated during the digging of the foundation—had begun popping off, exposing rusty rebar and interior walling. As for the blocks that remained in place, an untold number were peeling or disintegrating, giving the exterior the appearance of a scabrous neck sinking into hideous folds. “The whole house was ready to go,” says Eric Wright. “You could feel it. It was an emergency, especially the walls outside the motor court and the living room walls. I was very worried.”
In June 2005, the National Trust for Historic Preservation took notice, putting the Ennis House, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, on its annual list of America’s II most endangered architectural treasures. At that point, says Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, “we decided there needed to be an intervention.” Members of the L.A. Conservancy, the National Trust, the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy, and the former director of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (owner of Wright’s splendid Fallingwater) began holding discussions. The first decision was to reorganize the nonprofit association that since 1981 had owned the Ennis House. “We needed to get to the next phase,” says Franklin De Groot, the association’s last executive director. In the wake of this move, the newly formed Ennis House Foundation—whose board members include Eric Wright and Diane Keaton—took control, and plans were made to publicize the plight.
Keaton, long a champion of architectural preservation, volunteered to be the Ennis House’s spokesperson. “When I heard the house was in trouble, I just knew I had to play a part in securing a permanent place for it on the L.A. landscape,” says the actress. “My sense of the house was that it’s a lot like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. It had been this astonishing beauty, but nobody cared anymore. I believed that if people in L.A. only knew about this, they’d help to save it.”
With an estimated cost of nearly $10 million, the restoration of the Ennis House is an expensive undertaking. Thus the foundation sought out the producer Joel Silver (The Matrix, V for Vendetta), who during the 1980s had owned and refurbished another of Wright’s Los Angeles gems, the Storer House. In turn, Silver contacted Ron Burkle, the billionaire managing partner of the Yucaipa Companies. “I’ve been a Frank Lloyd Wright fan for years,” says Burkle. “In fact, when I was a young guy, I was so interested in the Ennis House that I drove up there and stuck a note in the mailbox that said, ‘If you let people in for tours, please call me.’ Someone called, and I went and fell in love. So when Joel asked if he could put me in touch with the new board, I said yes.” Burkle initially wanted to play only a modest part, but eventually he agreed to guarantee a $4.5 million construction loan from First Republic Bank. “My feeling,” he says, “is that Los Angeles must take care of its architectural treasures. They’re more important than new buildings.” The $4.5 million was critical, as it freed up $2 million in FEMA grants issued to repair damage from the 1994 earthquake. Although the $6.5 million falls short of the total amount needed, it will enable the Ennis House Foundation to accomplish its most vital goals, which include stabilizing the structure, replacing 2,200 of the cracked concrete blocks, and restoring the art-glass windows, garage, and chauffeur’s quarters.
“It’s wonderful what’s now happening,” says Eric Wright as he makes his way around pieces of heavy equipment chugging across the motor court. Clad in blue slacks and a red work shirt with a pen, small notebook, and comb tucked into its pocket, the 77-year-old Wright is, at six feet, two inches, a taller incarnation of his five-foot, eight-inch grandfather. He has the same high forehead, the same swept-back hair, the same piercing eyes. He, too, is an architect. “It’s interesting,” he says. “My grandfather designed this house, and my father was the contractor, and now here I am, the third generation, trying to save it.”
With that, Eric enters the Ennis House’s foyer—in the best Wright tradition, a low space meant to enhance the dramatic impact of what follows—and walks upstairs to the living room. Even stripped of its furniture and dusty from the construction work, the cathedral-like chamber with its 21-foot-high teak ceiling inspires wonder. It is a room for contemplation and joy Eric’s face registers these emotions, but he speaks of sadder things. “There have been so many disappointments and difficulties here.”
Eric means both the recent threats caused by the elements and problems going so far back he’s not sure where to begin. Indeed in 1940, when Eric was ten, he stood where he’s standing today with his father and Frank Lloyd Wright, at the time in his early seventies. The architect had returned to the property to undertake an ambitious renovation that could possibly have buttressed the Ennis House against future difficulties while rectifying past failings. Wright was so enthralled by the prospect that on hearing of it he told his son, “Good news. I hope the curse of the Ennis House can be removed.”
In 1924, when construction began on the Ennis House, Frank Lloyd Wright was 57 years old and widely viewed as a man whose best work was behind him. It had been two decades since he’d dazzled the architectural world with the low-slung Chicago “prairie houses” that evoked the flat golden beauty of his native Midwest. Except for his ambitious Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which withstood that city’s devastating 1923 earthquake, most of his recent efforts were deemed hopelessly backward. He was, in Philip Johnson’s dismissive assessment, “America’s greatest 19th-century architect.” If irrelevance weren’t enough, Wright was also regarded as a moral reprobate. In 1909, he had left his family to run off with a client’s wife, eventually ensconcing her at Taliesen, his Wisconsin country estate. In 1914, a deranged servant set fire to Taliesen and axed Wright’s mistress and several others to death as they tried to flee. Eventually Wright divorced and remarried, but his new wife was a morphine addict, and many public scenes ensued. So Wright did what Americans hoping to start over have always done—he moved to California.
Around 1901, the Ennises had come west from Pittsburgh, where Charles had been a manager and buyer for Joseph Home & Company, a grand downtown department store. After a brief partnership with another Los Angeles merchant, Ennis opened his own shop on South Spring Street. It specialized in “absolutely correct clothes” and featured Stetson hats. Little is known about the Ennises other than that Charles was a Mason and that he and Mabel lost their children early in life. They were not the sort of people whose names made the newspapers. Nonetheless, they possessed sufficient wealth, artistic taste, and social aspirations to hire Wright to design an audacious 6,500-square-foot home at 2655 Glendower Avenue, adjacent to Griffith Park.
By the time Wright got going on the Ennis House, he had already spent a productive on-again, off-again four years in Los Angeles. At Hollyhock House, his first commission in the city, he experimented with Aztec and other Mesoamerican motifs. In part, he was seeking a style suited to California’s landscape and past, but he was also reflecting the anything-goes influence of Hollywood, which in the 1920s was an inescapable force, as Egyptian and Babylonian sets for such period epics as Intolerance were left standing on the city’s streets long after shooting was completed.
Wright christened his look “California Romanza,” and he drew on it for the design of the Ennis House, but what would set this greatest of his Los Angeles projects apart was less its style than that he used a new building technique that he hoped would enable him to reclaim his place as an architectural pacesetter. As he would put it in his autobiography:
Wright’s initial textile-block house was “La Miniatura,” undertaken for antiquarian book dealer Alice Millard in Pasadena. It was followed by his home for Dr. John Storer on Hollywood Boulevard and one for Samuel Freeman, a jeweler, and his dancer wife, Harriet, in the Hollywood Hills. While each of these structures was bold, all were built on relatively low budgets. Not so the Ennis House. At the time Lloyd Wright said the cost was $56,000, although Eric Wright would later estimate that the couple spent as much as $150,000, a staggering sum for the 1920s.
The Ennis job began promisingly. “Ennis delighted,” Lloyd Wright telegraphed his father. “Work progressing rapidly, effectively.”
Yet less than six months into the project, things began to go awry. The surveys on which the retaining walls were based proved inaccurate. As a result, the concrete blocks, in a sign of things to come, buckled in key places, prompting delays and cost overruns. Upset, the Ennises were also angered that Wright had returned to Taliesen and left construction in his son’s hands. “Don’t allow any influences, or uneasiness of your own minds as to costs or conduct alienate you from Lloyd or Lloyd from you,” the architect urged his clients. “He is very sincere and earnest in behalf of your work—and while he may make mistakes they will be less than anyone else.” Yet even as father was publicly championing son, he was, true to his lifelong habit, privately berating him. “I think we should not try to work together anymore,” Frank telegraphed Lloyd. “But that needn’t prevent getting this awful mess into a fair shape.”
The Ennises soon staged a coup. “Mrs. N. blown up insists on running job,” Lloyd informed his father. “Says she sees building now and can run it. Taking suggestions from formen [sic].” Lloyd asked Wright to ban her from the site, but he refused. “To throw her off would only arouse her suspicions and be bad for the result. Keep her in touch patiently.” Soon thereafter Wright attempted to charm the Ennises, writing, “The time is approaching when things always look darkest in the building of a building. It is about now that you need your Architect’s counsel and moral support and I am sorry not to give it in person. I hope to appear on the scene when the house is about finished…. Do not let the struggle as the details of it begin to get warm make you unduly anxious…. The new thing under the sun—the better order—was never ushered in with grey gloves and white spats. If we can avoid a revolution—we are lucky.”
This was Wright at his most beguiling, but the Ennises would have none of it, and on December 10, 1924, less than nine months after work began, client and architect parted ways. Although the exterior of the house was well under way, the interior was raw. In completing it, the Ennises ignored many of Wright’s specifications. Shale floors proposed for a 100-foot loggia that runs the length of the building were scotched in favor of more fashionable but less appropriate marble. Vaulted ceilings planned for the living and dining rooms were replaced with flat ones, destroying what Wright had imagined would be a dramatically elevating effect. Tiffany chandeliers, which Wright saw as garish, were purchased for the living room, while a bas-relief of the Mexican fire god that he regarded as imitative was installed over a dining room fireplace. Some of the details were finished as Wright wanted them—the art-glass windows and a glass-tile fireplace were triumphs—but Lloyd Wright cataloged 17 sins committed by the Ennises, attaching the list to a letter in which he charged, “With your builder, you have revised or entirely destroyed the architect’s plans for the building as accepted by you, and you were fully aware of the fact that you were doing so. The errors thus made have seriously marred what is a magnificent building. It is a great pity, and one that no one that knows what the building might have been will ever forget or forgive.” When the Los Angeles Times ran a photo spread on the house in 1926, the accompanying copy didn’t even mention Frank Lloyd Wright, instead proclaiming, “Everything in the house was designed by Mr. and Mrs. Ennis or by their builder.”
By this juncture Wright had abandoned Los Angeles to pursue a new love—Olgivanna Hinzenberg, a Montenegrin beauty 30 years his junior who would become his third wife—and a new life. Although he would use the textile-block construction technique again at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, he went in a different direction with such great later works as Fallingwater outside of Pittsburgh, the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Still, his Los Angeles period was a turning point for Wright, liberating him from his past, and the Ennis House was never far from his thoughts. In fact, Lloyd, who remained in California, periodically updated him on the atrocities he believed the ungrateful owners continued to commit. “The Ennis place is a sight,” son wrote father in 1928. “Hideously maintained, painted and botched. The stonework is splendid however…. If the Ennises would obligingly die something might be done with their present monstrosity.”
Ten months later Charles Ennis obliged. His funeral was held in the living room, the commander of Knights Templar Lodge Number 9 officiating. Soon Mabel Ennis auctioned off the house’s contents, among them Persian floor coverings and bronze floor lamps. In 1933, the place went on the market.
For Augustus Brown, the last of the Ennis House’s seven owners, the first few weeks he and his wife spent at 2655 Glendower were a terrible trial. Night after night, teenagers defaced walls, rang the doorbell, and even tossed rocks through windows. During the day, the couple battled leaky ceilings, disintegrating plaster, and crumbling concrete-block walls. A San Francisco—born union organizer and acolyte of the labor leader Harry Bridges, Brown had been around his share of tough situations, and he had no intention of running. “My dad was a fighter,” says his daughter, Janet Tani. “He grew up on the streets fighting with his fists, and then he fought management.” This, however, was a different sort of battle, much of it sparked by the strong-willed residents who came before him, all of whom believed they were equal to the task of living in a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece.
Lyle Shellman Corcoran, who sold the Ennis House to Brown, had inadvertently incited the vandalism by renting the home to Allied Artists for use in House on Haunted Hill. No sooner did the picture show up in theaters than fraternity boys conducting initiation rites and kids on a lark began appearing at all hours to see if the place really did contain the torture chambers Vincent Price used to dispatch his guests.
Corcoran was not one to take such intrusions kindly. Owner of the Hollywood Gun Shop on Hollywood Boulevard, he was a crack marksman who once bagged two elephants in the Belgian Congo with just two shots. He had killed a robber who broke into his business, bringing him down with his .357 Magnum. “I shot to hit him,” he told a reporter. Corcoran responded to the raids on the Ennis House by loosing two weimaraners on the property and patrolling the motor court with a shotgun. His confrontational approach escalated the hostilities. One night in 1966, an unknown assailant tossed a hand grenade into the yard. The explosion shattered six panels in one of the art-glass windows.
Although Corcoran bore the responsibility for the assaults on the Ennis House, almost all of the previous owners were implicated in the place’s decay. Laura Belknap, a real estate speculator who bought the house from Mabel Ennis, was stunned to find that the concrete blocks leaked. In 1937, she asked Lloyd Wright for advice. He said the only way to waterproof the structure would be to remove a number of the blocks and apply sealant from within. Belknap rejected the plan, opting instead to coat the exterior with sealant, making the problem worse by trapping moisture in the blocks and preventing them from breathing. After Lloyd excoriated her for the decision (“stupid, unethical, malicious,” he wrote), she moved out. The house “overwhelmed her,” noted Manly P. Hall, who next took up residence. Founder of the Philosophical Research Society on Los Feliz Boulevard, author of The Secret Teachings of All Ages (a history of esoterica), and a spellbinding speaker, Hall was one of Los Angeles’s most charismatic figures of the 1930s. Although he worried about the leaks (“water gathered in the zigzags of the blocks,” he later recalled), he did nothing to stop them. For him, the house was a stage set for an outsize life. Using the glass-tile fireplace as a backdrop, he set up an ornate lacquered Buddhist shrine and held court for an array of seekers and celebrities.
John Nesbitt, host of Passing Parade, a documentary program that aired on NBC Radio, represented the Ennis House’s best early hope for salvation. When he bought the place in 1940, he was making the transition to Hollywood. MGM had hired him to produce short-subject films under the Passing Parade rubric. Taking on topics ranging from poverty in the Bowery to the history of American slang and hiring young directors like Fred Zinnemann (who would later make High Noon), Nesbitt billed himself as “the studio highbrow.” It was during his ownership that Eric Wright accompanied his father and Frank Lloyd Wright to 2655 Glendower. At Nesbitt’s request, Lloyd Wright oversaw the building of a swimming pool and a billiards room, and Frank Lloyd Wright came up with fabric treatments for the ceilings of the living and dining rooms that would create the vaulted effect the Ennises had rejected. He also designed furniture for the dining room and foyer. Wright was so intrigued by the possibilities that he renamed the house Sijistan, after the palace of a Persian hero. But the architect’s hopes for the building would not be realized. After winning an Academy Award for Main Street on the March!, Nesbitt, possibly fed up with the house’s persistent leaks, commissioned the great modernist and Wright protégé Richard Neutra to design a home for him in Brentwood. The drawings for Wright’s proposed alterations are filed at UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library.
In 1968, when Gus Brown purchased the Ennis House for $119,000, it had been on the market for two years, a giant FOR SALE sign visible from Los Feliz Boulevard, half a mile away hanging from the south wall. Lyle Corcoran, who had essentially shuttered the place and was living in a room adjacent to the kitchen, had allowed everything to deteriorate. As Eric Wright later observed, his grandfather’s great work had become “a white elephant.”
For all of Brown’s combativeness, he approached the task of rescuing the Ennis House with considerable diplomacy. “This home now has a new owner,” began the flyers he placed in a box at the front gate. “We hope the many tourists and particularly the young folks who make side trips to see the house will be kind and thoughtful.” Slowly; the vandalism stopped, and on the few occasions someone did ring the bell at night, Brown or his wife would go to the door and explain that the house was a work of art by Frank Lloyd Wright and that it should be treated respectfully “My dad wanted them to see the place like he did,” says his daughter. “He fell in love with the house and had a very long love affair that lasted until he died.”
The early years of the relationship were charmed. The Browns doted on the house, removing an unsightly 1940s addition off the loggia and restoring the space to its original use as a pocket garden. The couple also simply enjoyed being there, spending afternoons reading in the living room while classical music boomed from the stereo. Shortly after his wife’s death, Brown created the Trust for Cultural Heritage, a nonprofit association, and donated the house to it for $10 and the right to remain there for the rest of his life. For a time the era of good feeling continued. In fact, Eric Wright was so overjoyed he announced that the residence would be renamed. “In recognition of Brown’s contribution to the house and initiating the restoration of the premises,” Eric later wrote, “the house was changed to the Ennis-Brown House.” To pay for upkeep, the trust opened the building for tours and private parties.
By 1985, the Ennis-Brown House, as it became almost universally known, was a popular attraction. This is when troubles began anew. Following complaints about noise and traffic, the Los Feliz homeowners association mounted a petition drive that led to a public hearing. A Los Angeles zoning administrator ordered the trust to cease renting the property for events like weddings and bar mitzvahs. Brown and Eric Wright protested, and the trust was granted a variance that allowed it to continue offering tours for architecture lovers. But one of the house’s key sources of income was gone.
Despite Brown’s earlier efforts, the Ennis-Brown House still required a substantial amount of regular maintenance, and its longstanding problems—especially the cracking concrete blocks—were growing worse. As the ’80s drew to a close, Brown began to look for a way out. “For about one-half of what you paid for the FLW dining room set you can own the crown jewel of FLW’s work, the Ennis-Brown house,” he opened a 1988 letter to Thomas Monaghan, chief executive of Domino’s Pizza and an avid cob lector of Frank Lloyd Wright’s works. Following lengthy negotiations, Monaghan’s advisers turned down the offer, in large part because Brown refused to cede control of the house to museum-trained professionals, demanding to remain both in residence and in charge. “Experts in the field must be contracted,” Sara Ann B. Briggs, director of Domino’s Center for Architecture and Design, wrote Brown in 1989. “Your terms [are] totally unsatisfactory.”
Undeterred, Brown next attempted to donate the house to USC and then the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In each instance, the deals fell apart for the same reason: Brown would not step aside. Finally, in a moment of desperation, Brown stunned the architectural world and made headlines by threatening to remove some of the exquisite art glass and sell it to pay for upkeep. Brown expressed remorse but maintained that he had no choice. “I have put my heart and soul into this house,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1989, “only to be frustrated by elitist preservationists more interested in shuffling papers than preserving landmarks.”
So the war began. After the newspapers reported that members of the board of the nonprofit association that owned the house were “increasingly questioning the wisdom of Brown’s dual role as resident of the house and executive director of the trust,” Jack H. Rubens of the law firm Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton asked the California attorney general to open an investigation. “Our clients,” the lawyer argued, “believe that Brown has (a) engaged in a number of self-dealing transactions, (b) committed gross abuses of authority and discretion, … (c) breached a number of fiduciary duties….” The 38-page document outlined along list of alleged improprieties, accusing Brown of everything from refusing to pay bills to failing to maintain accounting records to operating independently of board oversight.
“The whole thing was awful and unfair,” says Janet Tani, who served on the board and for several years worked at the house, itself a suspect activity to some board members. “My father wasn’t embezzling money. Anyone could see that he didn’t have a scam going that personally benefited him. He drove a 1969 Lincoln and dressed like a bum. The only benefit he got was that he could live in the house.”
While the attorney general refused to file charges, the legal move against Brown set the tone for the last ten years of his life. He and his board now at loggerheads, the fate of the house was lost in a flurry of charges and countercharges. When the 1994 earthquake put the structure at serious risk, Brown wasn’t even speaking to several of his board members.
“My dad was such a difficult man,” says Tani. “Instead of trying to win friends and influence people, he butted heads with them. That was just his nature. This made raising money for the house almost impossible at the end. He was in declining health, and I was trying to get him to retire. Which created a terrible rift between us. I was so angry at him that I resigned from the board. Still, I respect how he felt about the house. It lived and breathed for him, and he lived and breathed for it.”
Tani maintains that during Augustus Brown’s final illness, Franklin De Groot changed the locks on the house, forcing her to hire a lawyer to retrieve her father’s possessions. De Groot denies the charge. Tani also says that no one at the newly formed Ennis House Foundation informed her of the next step—the decision to remove her father’s name from the building. “These great Wright homes are almost always known by the name of the first owners,” says Linda Dishman by way of explanation. “Gus had a vanity about being owner,” adds Eric Wright. “As the years went by he wanted control, and that made it hard to get donors because they felt they were donating to Gus and not to the house.”
While Brown’s name is now gone, De Groot believes he’ll always be a part of the saga—except for Frank Lloyd Wright, he’s the story’s most important dead man. “I think Gus did all that he could to save the house,” De Groot says. “I don’t think hell be written out of the history The preservation of the house was always paramount with Gus. It had been on the market for two years when he bought it. At the time there was little sensitivity to historic preservation. Not only did Gus possess such sensitivity, once he purchased the house he didn’t do anything to alter it. The kitchen, the bathrooms—all are intact. There are people in the preservation community who hate Gus, but my guess is that if it hadn’t been for Gus, the house wouldn’t have survived. It would have been torn down 30 years ago.”
Since the late summer and fall, laborers in hard hats have been crawling all over the Ennis House. Yet even when the first phase of the restoration is completed in May 2007, the structure’s fate will be undecided. Not only will $4 million worth of work remain to be done on everything from the roof to the interiors, but the Ennis House Foundation will face difficult decisions about the use of the house. Board members say that they want to see it reopen to the public, but there’s a strong view among preservationists that historic properties are best served by private owners. “Preservation is an expensive sport,” says the architect Leo Marmol. “The only way to assure that the Ennis House will survive is for some rich actor to buy it and move in.” Either way, the integrity of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design is protected by legal covenants set up by the foundation. “Before this process began,” says Linda Dishman, “the question was, Will the Ennis House be saved? We’ve now answered that with a definitive yes.” Considering Los Angeles’s sorry record in protecting its architectural history—2006 is, after all, the year the L.A. Conservancy lost its battle to save the Ambassador Hotel—this is no small accomplishment. Not only that, the building’s restoration bears out words Frank Lloyd Wright wrote to Charles and Mabel Ennis as their relationship was falling apart in the autumn of 1924: “The final result is going to stand on that hill a hundred years or more. Long after we are all gone it be pointed out as the Ennis house and pilgrimages will be made to it by lovers of the beautiful—from everywhere.”