Tuesday, July 19th, 2011
Billionaire supermarket magnate Ron Burkle has bought Los Angeles’ Ennis House, the historic concrete block home Frank Lloyd Wright built in 1924, for the bargain basement price of $4.5 million. The non-profit Ennis House Foundation initially put the house on the market in 2009 for $15 million, but the horrible real estate market and the vast restoration and upkeep requirements (it would cost estimated $7 million to restore the house fully) of this architectural gem kept it from selling.
The 6,000-square-foot Ennis House, named after its original owners Charles and Mabel Ennis, was one of the first private residences built out of concrete, and the largest of four in Southern California constructed in what would become known as “textile-block” style after the way the concrete blocks, decorated and plain, were woven together for decorative purposes and for structural strength. Frank Lloyd Wright was inspired by Maya Puuc architecture, as seen at the Maya site of Uxmal in Mexico. Puuc style combines blank rectangular stone blocks on the bottom of buildings with intricately carved ones decorating the top. The symmetrical reliefs on the Ennis House blocks were inspired by Uxmal designs.
Unfortunately, Wright’s experimental approach caused structural problems from the start. He used granite powder to color the concrete and the impurities from the granite combined with air pollution to degrade the concrete. Before the house was even finished concrete blocks began to crack and walls buckled. Its eighth and last private owner was Augustus O. Brown who bought the house for $119,000 in 1968 and made extensive repairs. In 1980 he donated it to the Trust for Preservation of Cultural Heritage, the non-profit that would change its name to the Ennis House Foundation in 2005.
Despite having spent $6.5 million on shoring up the structure, replacing damaged concrete blocks and windows and building a new roof in 2007, the foundation turned down large offers from corporations waiting for an offer that would come with a commitment from the buyer to act as a responsible conservator of the historical landmark. A member of the board of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, Ron Burkle has loved Ennis House since he was a boy dreaming of being an architect. He also has guaranteed the construction loan that allowed the foundation to restore the house.
As time passed and no other big money history buff appeared with a silver valise full of thousand dollar bills, the foundation took the $4.5 million offer, secure in the knowledge that Burkle is dedicated to the house’s conservation. There’s good news for Lloyd Wright fans who haven’t had a chance to see inside the house because its been closed to visitors due to the potential danger: one of the conditions of the sale is that the public must be allowed to view the home at least 12 days per year, and the condition is binding on any future buyers as well.