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How the mighty are falling

Wright's Ennis House, a feature in many movies, is a prime example of a famous work that needs to be protected

The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Ennis House, which was built in 1924 high on a hill near Los Angeles's Griffith Park, needs $10 million in repairs, according to the foundation that owns it. The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Ennis House, which was built in 1924 high on a hill near Los Angeles's Griffith Park, needs $10 million in repairs, according to the foundation that owns it. (Justin sullivan/getty images)
Email|Print| Text size + By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / November 25, 2007

LOS ANGELES - You've probably seen the Ennis House.

The house is, in its own way, a minor movie star. It's been part of the set of more Hollywood movies than I can count.

The one you're most likely to remember is "Blade Runner," in which the Ennis is the home of Harrison Ford.

It also appeared in "House on Haunted Hill," where, writes movie historian Leonard Maltin, Vincent Price offers $10,000 to anyone who'll spend a night in this "spooky old mansion with murder-laden history."

Then there are "Day of the Locust," "Black Rain," "Predator 2," "The Karate Kid Part III," "The Thirteenth Floor," "Rush Hour," and several more. The Ennis has also been seen on TV, in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and the animated "South Park."

The Ennis, high on a hill near Griffith Park overlooking much of the LA basin, is one of the masterpieces of America's greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. It was completed in 1924.

I'd seen the Ennis a couple of times in the past, but not since 2005. That was the year the city forced the Ennis to be closed to the public. Earthquakes and rainstorms had weakened the foundation to the point where there was fear that the huge house might simply slide off and crumble into the valley.

A few weeks ago when I was in town, a friend arranged a visit, and I had a chance once again to be saddened by the Ennis's deterioration and thrilled by its architecture.

The architectural drama is typical Wright. You have to poke around a little to find the entrance: Wright liked to hide entrances, so visitors would have to interact with the house by doing some exploring right from the start. Then when you come in, you're in an entry space that's dark, with a low ceiling. As you move forward, you rise on a few stairs into a double-height living/dining room, where the sudden expansion of space and light come like an explosion after the cramped entrance.

Wright plays a similar game in many of his houses, notably the Coonley and Robie houses in Chicago, where again he brings you up from below into a kind of heaven of light and space. When the trick is done by him, it never fails to astonish.

But the Ennis, as noted, is in bad shape. It's now owned by a private conservancy, the Ennis House Foundation, that has at least succeeded in making it stable. But far more remains to be done. Ten million dollars is the estimate.

The Ennis is, as far as I'm concerned, the poster child for a problem nobody seems to be interested in solving: How do we protect our great works of architecture?

How is it, for example, that a buyer will spend $135 million for a painting by Gustav Klimt, but nobody will foot the bill to save a masterpiece of architecture? Wright's best houses are certainly, in my view, greater total works of art than all but the most remarkable of individual paintings.

The problem, I suppose, is that a plutocrat can't hang a building on the wall to impress his or her friends. The United States needs to find a way, as so many European countries have, to find a permanent solution for our great architecture.

Buildings don't last forever on their own. They require maintenance. Some require more maintenance than others, and Wright's perhaps the most of all, because he was always inventing some new way of building that turned out to be less than durable.

That was the case with the Ennis. Wright devised a completely new method of construction. It was a system of concrete blocks, cast with deeply textured ornamental surfaces and held together only by mortar and steel reinforcing. The blocks are the structure that holds up the floors and roof, and they are also the finish material, both indoors and out. They began crumbling almost from the day the house opened.

It's a bit like what has happened with Frank Gehry's Stata Center at MIT, where the school is suing the architect and contractor for faults in construction. I have no idea whether Gehry was at fault. But Gehry, like Wright, loves to invent daring new structures, and the result can be unforeseen problems.

The Ennis reminds me of a visit I made, years ago, to a meeting of the Frank Lloyd Wright Homeowners' Association, which convened at another of the great houses, Fallingwater, in Pennsylvania. Fallingwater is a terrific party house, and the homeowners, at cocktail time, were saluting one another from upper deck to lower deck or out across the waterfall. But during the day, they were attending sober seminars on what to do about leaky roofs, sagging cantilevers, slipping foundations, and other problems in their houses. They'd all loved Wright, and they loved their houses, but they were paying a price for his daring. Fallingwater itself recently underwent a major reconstruction.

I hope to see the Ennis in movies again in the future. If anyone feels like helping, the e-mail address of the foundation is support @ennishouse.org.

Robert Campbell is the Globe's architecture critic. He can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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