A Woman to Know: Aline Barnsdall

She was as domestic as a shooting star. — Frank Lloyd Wright

She was as domestic as a shooting star. — Frank Lloyd Wright

(image via The Los Angeles Public Library)

She’s known now for the house: the Hollyhock House, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Californian temple/campus/estate that UNESCO named a new World Heritage site just last year.

But Aline never grew up in Los Angeles; she was raised to be a Midwestern daughter, albeit of an oil magnate. With a family fortune to rest on, she tried out different careers in the arts, hobnobbing with famous creators like Emma Goldman. But in 1917, when her father died, she suddenly became a multi-millionairess (people say maybe as much as $3 million back then). That same year, she got pregnant out of wedlock and — gasp — decided to keep the baby.

She’d been talking with Frank Lloyd Wright about collaborating on a buidling, and her original vision involved opening an opera house in Chicago. But after talking with friends about the burgeoning experimental art scene in Los Angeles, she moved locations on him. The plans grew even grander, adding a personal residence for Aline and her daughter (who she called “Sugartop”) and an expansive art space, school buildings and a rolling hill covered in her favorite flower: hollyhocks. One friend described Aline’s dream as “a miniature palace of some ancient civilization.”

But in 1921, after multiple conflicts, she fired Wright as architect. The two had become friends, but they realized they could never work as collaborators. Wright wanted steady work, and Aline had too many ideas. She was constantly taking suggestions from her eclectic group of bohemian friends, and Wright himself noted that “she would drop suggestions like a warplane drops bombs, and then sail away into the blue.” She’d abandon the project to direct a play or join in raising funds for the Hollywood Bowl, leaving Wright to watch the building’s progress from afar.

Once Aline and “Sugartop” finally moved into the house in 1922, she set up giant billboards around her 36-acre property, advocating for social justice causes and campaigning for her favorite candidates. But just five years later — to Wright’s fury and dismay — she suddenly decided to “give it all away” and donate Hollyhock House to Los Angeles. The house and its connected park became one of the city’s most beloved public spaces, still open to tours today.

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