Restoration of the Ennis House
by George Pudlo
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House in Los Angeles is in the process of being restored, and has been for the last decade. According to the contractors laboring over the “little palace”, as Wright called it, the Ennis House will undergo another two years of restoration efforts before work is complete. The Ennis House was the last, largest, and most complex of the four concrete block houses that Frank Lloyd Wright designed in LA, and subsequently has presented a unique set of challenges. For instance, the Ennis House uses concrete blocks in the roofing structure instead of just the walls, as seen in the Freeman House, Storer House, and La Miniatura. One of the contractors at the Ennis House location said there are about 20 men working on the physical restoration of the building, and he joked that the Ennis House is actually the biggest Lego set (Ironically, you really can build your own Frank Lloyd Wright Fallingwater Lego, Guggenheim Museum Lego, and Robie House Lego sets). The contractor offered an informal assessment of the restoration while taking a cigarette break, and he indicated through his tone and mannerisms that is has been nothing less than arduous.
This recalls a funny legacy of Wright's that has now extended more than half a century after his death -that contractors hate working on Wright buildings because they present all sorts of problems. Wright's architectural complexities were brilliant, though often a pain in the neck for the builders. There are stories about contractors receiving plans for Wright's Prairie Houses in the early 1900's, seeing the architect’s name on the plans, and rolling them back up to return to sender because they didn't want to deal with the headaches of building a Wright house. Now, almost 100 years after being built, the Ennis House has presented a new generation of builders with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore a masterpiece of America's greatest architect, even if that means accepting all the headaches that come with nursing a Wright building back to health.
When queried what has been the most challenging aspect of the Ennis House restoration, the gruff but charming contractor responded that waterproofing the building was definitely it. Leaking water has been the folly of the Ennis House, as the contractor explained that the concrete is permeable and water passes through the blocks when it rains. And although it doesn't rain often in L.A., when it rains, it pours. The exceptionally heavy rains endured during the rain season of 2005 resulted in foundational damage for the Ennis House. Subsequently, substantial funds were required to not only restore the building and waterproof it for the future, but to actually secure the foundation of the building to ensure that it didn't slide off the hillside during a mass wasting event.
Geologic hazards and mass wasting (landslides!) are common events in Southern California, especially on hillsides. The potential is increased by inevitable seismic activity from the numerous local faults in the area. When you build a structure on a hillside, you are a drastically increasing the chances that a geologic hazard will occur, including a debris slide or even a debris avalanche. This happens in part because of the added weight from the house on the compacting, and potentially creeping soil. The removal of vegetation exacerbates these effects, as the roots provide stabilizing support for the soil. Retaining walls usually provide an effective, if ultimately only temporary, solution to creeping foundations, especially if they incorporate pipes for draining water. If drain pipes are not present, water can build up in the soil behind the retaining wall if there is an impermeable surface such as a layer of granite beneath the soil. Downpours can lead to the collapse of retaining walls and foundational stability.
After the Ennis House Foundation poured millions of dollars into securing the foundation of the Ennis House after the torrential rains of 2005, it became apparent that access to more funding would be necessary to carry out the remainder of restoration. The Foundation came to the difficult decision of selling the building to a private owner on the condition that the new owner finish the restoration and that occasional interior tours of the Ennis House are available to the public once the restoration is complete. The Ennis House Foundation sold the Ennis House to business executive Ron Burkle for $4.5 million in 2011, and the house has been in a state of restoration since then. The aforementioned contractor said that with the price of the home and the cost of the restoration, the owner will have spent about $10 million on the Ennis House when everything is said and done. Despite the hefty price tag, even the contractor agreed it's still a good price for such an icon.
As of January 2015, waterproofing of the Ennis House is about 97% complete, and about another two years will be required to carry out the final aspects of the restoration.