How Jeffrey Herr Restored Hollyhock House to Its 1920s Splendor

The Frank Lloyd Wright design reopens to the public on February 13
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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House, which is perched on 36 acres of land in Barnsdall Art Park, is ready to reopen after a three-year-long restoration. Originally completed in 1921, the project—Wright’s first in L.A.—was built to be the home of oil heiress Aline Barnsdall and her daughter, though she gifted it to the city in 1927 in honor of her father. The house opened as a public museum in 1976 and has since weathered a slew of structural impairments: a leaky roof, damaged plumbing, and foundational issues that were a result of the 1994 Northridge earthquake (to name a few). The restoration process got underway in 2010, although that year was spent mapping out the overwhelming re-haul. More than $4 million dollars later, the house has been restored to its 1920s glory and will reopen to the public on February 13. We spoke with Jeffrey Herr, curator at the Hollyhock House (which has been newly nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) to talk about the facelift.

How did you get this restoration off the ground?
When we applied for the California Cultural Historical Endowment grant, we had to state what we intended to do with the money. Our primary goal was to fix leaking roofs. Because this is a National Historic Landmark, we have to go through extra steps that the ordinary home owner would not, like sending plans and drawings to the State of California and to Park Services, because we need the approval of both. There was a year of planning and drawing and approvals before we were able to start doing any kind of work. And when you begin to do these selective demolitions, you tend to find additional problems. For example, once we got started, it wasn’t just the roofs; all the drain pipes were clogged and had to be replaced. So you go back through the whole process all over again. More drawings, maybe a structural engineer’s report, and approvals—this is a continual process throughout any kind of any major restoration because the deeper you dig, the more information you find. Why don’t you know in advance? Because it’s undocumented. And it’s hidden under layers of plaster or wood.

Why did the restoration process take so long?
Not only did we have to go through administrative research and an approval process, but we’re dealing with a Frank Lloyd Wright building that has a number of architectural details, many of which had been obliterated over the last 50 to 70 years. Once you find that something is missing, you have to determine what it is and whether you can recreate it. For instance, we found that some of the windows had been reduced in size and some had been removed completely. We opened up those apertures to recreate the original sizing, and then we installed windows. Other things we were able to do that we had no idea were even possible include recreating the original plaster surface textures and color. It’s not like applying paint from a can, though; it’s a much more complex process that has to be sorted out by a materials conservator, who comes up with a reasonable replication. I say “reasonable” because California no longer allows the chemicals used in paint in the 1920s. So you need a creative, intelligent materials conservator to engineer something that replicates the look even though you cannot replicate the actual formula.

Did the process have any surprises?
Frank’s son Lloyd participated in two major programs here at the house: a renovation that he did in 1946 and then a restoration he was in charge of in 1974. None of his work was really well documented. When we went to fix the leaks in the sunroom, we found that he had changed the proportions of that room dramatically so as to insert steel I-beams to structurally support the balcony above. This was a huge surprise—what do you do with these I-beams? Do you incur the expense of removing what’s visible and make it invisible, or do you look for another solution? We looked for another solution. It was pretty obvious the balcony needed that kind of reinforcement, so we returned the room to its 1921 proportions but left the I-beams exposed. Now people can see the layered history of the house.

There was another huge surprise that we discovered by chance: some of the clearstory windows in the dining room had been altered in the ‘50s. We decided that we would restore them to their 1921 design. These are stained glass windows with metal separations, and I noticed there was a residue on them. I asked the materials conservator what it was and even he didn’t know, so he brought in a XRF gun, which analyzes metal. We discovered that these windows had been plated with Hexavalent Chromium, which everyone knows as the Erin Brockovich chemical. So that wasn’t good!

How do you feel now that the house is reopening?
I feel pretty damn good. We have done so much to restore the major public areas to their 1921 appearance. For anyone who knows the house, it will be a revelation. For anyone who doesn’t know the house, my hope is that they’ll walk in and go, “This is great, what did they do?” That’s the sign of a really good restoration.

Will it need to be restored again? When?
This restoration is a triumph for Hollyhock House, but it’s not done yet! It is a house that’s coming up to its centenary. Any house that’s 100 years old needs maintenance and work. Add that it’s a Frank Lloyd Wright house, and it becomes an eternal project. We continue to find new documentation of what existed in 1921—we have to recalibrate and say, ‘Ok, we need to do this now.’ We already have another project on the books to restore the motor court at the front entrance! We’re not letting any grass grow under our feet.

This interview has been edited and condensed.