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The Ennis House, completed in 1924, is the fourth, last and largest of Frank Lloyd Wright’s so-called textile block residences in Los Angeles. The asking price is $17.3-million (U.S.). (Mario Anzuoni/Mario Anzuoni/REUTERS)
The Ennis House, completed in 1924, is the fourth, last and largest of Frank Lloyd Wright’s so-called textile block residences in Los Angeles. The asking price is $17.3-million (U.S.). (Mario Anzuoni/Mario Anzuoni/REUTERS)

The Perfect House

Buyer needed to rescue a Wright masterpiece Add to ...

When does a crumbling architectural masterpiece become too expensive to save from the wrecker's ball?

This question has been rolling around in my mind ever since I learned last week that Frank Lloyd Wright's majestic Ennis House, completed in 1924 on a hilltop in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles, has been put up for sale by the exhausted non-profit organization that owns it.

Here's hoping a buyer with deep pockets and heroic patience quickly comes along to rescue this work by the greatest U.S. architect.

It can't happen fast enough. James DeMeo, president of the Ennis House Foundation, said the ailing U.S. economy, with the resulting drop in donations, is one reason his group can no longer continue to pour money into the project. "Our goal has always been to be a good steward of the house," Mr. DeMeo said. "We've made a lot of progress, but at this point a private owner with the right vision and sufficient resources can better preserve the house than we can as a small non-profit."

The privilege of continuing the trust's renovation and restoration won't come cheaply. The asking price for the building and property is $17.3-million (U.S.). On top of the $7.5-million already spent by the foundation to shore up the house, the new owner will be required to inject an estimated $6-million to $8-million to restore the building to its original appearance. How many millions more will be needed to sustain the Ennis House into the future is anybody's guess.

But the new owner, if he or she is not bankrupted by the place, will have the pleasure of saving a remarkably handsome experiment from the dawning days of U.S. modernism.

That said, the fourth, last and largest of Wright's so-called textile block residences in Los Angeles - the building is faced with 27,000 precast concrete panels, blank or moulded in various patterns - has been an architectural problem child since construction began in the early 1920s. Cost overruns and other issues prompted the clients, Charles and Mabel Ennis, proprietors of men's clothing shops, to seize control of the building before the roof was on and make changes that diverged from Mr. Wright's design. Even before the house was completed, lower sections of the walls had cracked and given way under the weight of the superstructure.

Ever the artist, Mr. Wright wanted the house to appear to be emerging organically from its lofty location. To that end, he mixed crumbled granite from the site into the concrete to tint the textile blocks - thus inadvertently compromising the structural integrity of these elements.

Not every Ennis House woe can be traced back to Mr. Wright's mistakes and the vagaries of clients. Much of the work done by the foundation over the past several years has involved repairing damage to the 6,000-square-foot structure caused by a 1994 earthquake and then by torrential rains in 2003.

This labour has gone a considerable distance toward restoring a distinguished residence that should be treasured. The house is unusual, not least because of its striking originality. At the time the Ennis House was on the drawing board, the pioneers of the modern movement in Europe - Le Corbusier in France, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius in Germany - were keen on stripping exterior and interior walls of all ornament and decoration. Mr. Wright, in a gesture of defiance to these simplifying, purifying impulses, proposed another kind of modernism in the textile block houses - intricately patterned and richly detailed, with surfaces like skeins of block-printed fabric draped over straight walls.

The inspiration for Mr. Wright's surface art at this time came from ancient Mexico, especially the elaborately sculpted walls of Mayan architecture. But the Mesoamericans also supplied Mr. Wright with his forms. Like a temple raised in the jungles of Yucatan 1,000 years ago, the Ennis House is a monumental composition of great rectangular volumes arrayed horizontally on its hilltop site. Though the residence is not large, the visual impact of its contrasting surface delicacy and palatial massing is powerful and memorable.

The strong horizontality of Mr. Wright's houses during the 1920s, and of the prairie houses that preceded them, influenced the Europeans' similarly flat-topped, spread-out residential designs. The decorated skins of the textile block houses, however, were not copied by later designers. That's one good reason the Ennis House should be rescued and allowed to stand for another generation - to let younger architects and fans of architecture revisit a moment when modern architecture took an interesting, suggestive detour in the direction of the fantastic.

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