You could say that Jeffrey Herr’s first encounter with a Frank Lloyd Wright building made a lasting impact. When his professor in a modern art class suggested Wright’s Hollyhock House would make a good paper topic, Herr visited the Los Angeles house and interviewed its then-curator, Virginia Kazor. “I guess the rest is history,” says Herr, who has worked at Hollyhock House since 2005. Author of the property’s National Historic Landmark nomination (designated 2007), he manages the interpretation of Hollyhock House, conducts research and recently directed a four-year restoration, reopening it to the public in 2015. The Conservancy honored Herr with a Wright Spirit Award in 2016 for his efforts. Born in Hanover, Pennsylvania, Herr trained in decorative arts (“A Wright house is perhaps the largest decorative art object one can find”) then “did the Hollywood thing, which obviously didn’t work out all that well.” He went to work in the savings and loan industry before returning to graduate school to study art history. “Before assuming my role at Hollyhock House I curated art exhibitions and restored a 1850 Victorian Mansion (Banning Residence),” says Herr. “I’m approaching the quarter century mark working for the City of Los Angeles.”
Can you describe a work of architecture that was demolished—something that could have been prevented through the efforts of an organization like the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy—that really affected you in a personal way, or spurred your interest in preservation advocacy?
The Ritz Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard. Built for live stage performances, it was one of the first theatres in Los Angeles to be converted for ‘talking pictures.’ Its interiors were rich with Spanish and French Baroque ornamentation. In 1977, I was working next door at a Savings and Loan when it was razed to make room for a parking lot. I was so incensed that I wrote an op-ed piece: ‘What the World Needs Now is Another Parking Lot.’ It was never published.
Is there one work of Wright’s that has touched you more than any other?
Well yes. I guess the surprise would be if I didn’t say Hollyhock House. My intimacy with it over the years has provided and continues to provide discoveries that have deepened my appreciation for this house. I also feel a bond with its quirkiness that somehow connects me to both Aline Barnsdall and Frank Lloyd Wright.
What have been your biggest challenges and biggest pleasures so far in your work to restore Hollyhock House?
A better question would be a list of the biggest challenges. However, in the category of restoration the biggest challenge is a dearth of historic images and documentation of all kinds relating to the construction and early history of the house. Imagine a jigsaw puzzle with an enormous number of missing pieces. The pleasure comes in finding a missing puzzle piece. Most recently was the restoration of the laylight over the living room fireplace. Not only were four missing art glass panels recreated and installed but the ones in situ were repositioned by turning them 180 degrees to correctly orient the design. It’s the little things that give pleasure.
You represent Hollyhock House on the World Heritage Committee—can you briefly describe what the World Heritage process has been like and what it would mean to the 10 sites nominated to be officially inscribed?
First, the World Heritage process has been thoroughly fascinating, unrelenting in its demands and as suspenseful as a Hitchcock movie. Inscription would mean many things to the sites on the list and come with a host of benefits and challenges. But the honor, and it is an honor, it would bestow on the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright is paramount. I also think that all Wright sites will benefit when we have achieved this designation.
How long have you been a Conservancy member?
Not that long in Frank Lloyd Wright years. Approximately 10.
What have you enjoyed most about being a part of the Conservancy?
The conferences. The educational opportunity they provide through exploring architecture, moderated panels and scholarly presentations, and meeting great people is unparalleled. A Wright Spirit Award really can’t be beat either.
Posted June 23, 2017