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03.26.2008
Ennis in Limbo
Neighbors oppose re-opening famed FLW house
Ennis House
Courtesy NTHP

Frank Lloyd Wright’s renowned Ennis House, badly damaged in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, is finally ready for visitors after a lengthy stabilization and renovation. But because of a dispute with neighbors, the house has yet to open to the public, and may even be put on the market for sale.

The Mayan-inspired structure, completed in 1924 in LA’s Los Feliz neighborhood, is the largest and most recognizable of Wright’s Textile Block houses, gaining fame from its appearance in films like BladerunnerHouse on Haunted Hill, and Black Rain. Originally under private ownership, the house was donated to the public in 1980 by its eighth owner, Gus Brown, in the form of the Trust for Preservation of Cultural Heritage, renamed The Ennis House Foundation. The Northridge earthquake damaged several of its concrete blocks and caused large sections of its south retaining wall to break away. This, along with subsequent rain erosion, water damage, and neglect, left the house decaying and in serious danger of collapse. But thanks to over $6.5 million collected in 2005 from the Ennis House Foundation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, stabilization as well as an intensive renovation were able to go forward.

That project, headed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son Eric Lloyd Wright with Matt Construction and Historic Resources Group, included structural stabilization, refinished woodwork, ceiling replacement, floor repair, concrete block replacement, and cleaning. While restoration work continues (including replacing more blocks and finishing work on part of its retaining wall), the house is now ready for visitors, said Linda Dishman, chair of the foundation.

But the neighborhood isn’t ready. A group of about 20 adjacent neighbors is fighting plans to reopen the house to the public, arguing that the house should be sold to a private owner. They say that re-opening it will again create havoc on a tiny street that was never intended to host visitors, conferences, fundraisers, movie shoots, or parties (Gus Brown was notorious for loud parties and for constantly allowing movies to film there). They add that local zoning prohibits any house in the neighborhood from hosting public visits or events, and point to a letter signed by the foundation in 2005 assuring them that the house would not be re-opened to the public.

“It’s not a shrine, it’s a home,” said Frank Masi, who along with Donna Kolb is leading the group of opposed neighbors. “We want to restore the house to what it was meant to be—a single-family residence.” He added that a recent proposal from the foundation was inadequate because it called for hosting events or tours over 200 times a year. He says he might consider a compromise, but still prefers a sale, preferably to a reputable realtor who would be able to find a respectful owner. The house is landmarked, so its exterior could not be changed.

While Ennis House Foundation secretary-treasurer Stephen McAvoy said that right now the board has no plans to reopen the house to the public, Dishman said that the foundation is working hard to develop a plan allowing limited public access to the house that lessens impact on the neighbors. She said this could include carpooling to the site and having fewer visitors and events. But she admits that sale is a possibility. “If we can’t work out something with the neighbors, then we might have to look at that,” she said. “We’ve made a proposal. The ball is in their court.”

Sam Lubell