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National Public Radio – For Sale

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By Steve Inskeep

July 30, 2009

If you’re house-hunting, looking for a bargain in this market and you have an extra $15 million or so to spare, there is a home for you in Los Angeles known as the Ennis House. It’s an architectural masterpiece designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. And like a lot of old houses, it needs a little work, as NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates reports.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Drive past the grime and glitz of Hollywood towards the hills of Griffith Park and suddenly, there it is: a Mayan temple perched above the city. Ennis House is one of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous creations – and not only to architecture buffs. The house has starred in several movies, from ’50s horror flicks to thrillers like “Day of the Locust” in the 1970s. It featured prominently in an ’80s cult film.

(Soundbite of song, “Love Theme from Blade Runner”)

BATES: 1982’s futuristic classic “Blade Runner” was set in 2019 Los Angeles. Here, bounty hunter Rick Deckard, played by a young Harrison Ford, argues with an android beauty, played by Sean Young, just outside the house’s chauffeur’s quarters.

(Soundbite of movie, “Blade Runner”)

Ms. SEAN YOUNG (Actor): (As Rachael) I don’t know why he told you what he did.

Mr. HARRISON FORD (Actor): (As Rick Deckard) Talk to him.

Ms. YOUNG: (As Rachael) He wouldn’t see me.

BATES: Ennis House was the darkly elegant residence of the head of Tokyo’s yakuza, or mob, in “Black Rain,” starring Michael Douglas.

(Soundbite of movie, “Black Rain”)

Mr. TOMISABURO WAKAYAMA (Actor): (As Sugai) You have no part in this.

Mr. MICHAEL DOUGLAS (Actor): (As Nick Conklin) I am the solution to your problems.

BATES: Actually, it was rain that did extensive damage to the house’s distinctive, cast-concrete-block exterior. Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy and an Ennis House Foundation board member, explains what happened.

Ms. LINDA DISHMAN (Executive Director, Los Angeles Conservancy, Ennis House Foundation Board Member): When the rains of 2004 and 2005 came, there was substantial damage from the motor court, so it looked like the house was falling down the hill, ’cause the blocks had totally tumbled.

BATES: So the house that starred in movies got what a lot of movie stars here get: a facelift. A few years and several million dollars later, it’s been partially restored.

And now it’s for sale. The three nonprofit agencies that oversee the house agree that maintaining it is a financial challenge. Linda Dishman believes the house needs a buyer with deep pockets and the passion to own an architectural gem.

Ms. DISHMAN: What this house offers is, really, it’s a trophy property. Some people have trophy wives. This is a trophy house.

BATES: The deep pockets have already been calling, says Aaron Kirman. He’s a Beverly Hills Realtor who deals in pricey, architecturally significant properties.

Mr. AARON KIRMAN (Beverly Hills Realtor): It seems that the majority of the people that are looking are people that have multiple homes in different cities, more or less, all over the world.

BATES: The house has only been on the market for a short while, but Kirman says they’ll wait to find exactly the right buyer. It’s easier to understand why all the avid interest if you visit Ennis House. The outside, with its high walls and sharp edges, is definitely dramatic, but it’s the inside that takes visitors’ breath away.

Jim DeMeo is Ennis House Foundation’s president. He takes me through. As he unlocks the door…

(Soundbite of door squeaking)

BATES: …DeMeo has one instruction.

Mr. JIM DEMEO (President, Ennis House Foundation): Get ready to be dazzled.

BATES: Enter the low, dim foyer and take a short flight of steps up to the living room, and all of a sudden, you’re in this explosion of space and light. The ceilings soar several stories. Beautiful windows with stained-glass flourishes give a panoramic view of the city. The oak floors glow deep russet. The brass lighting fixtures gleam. The large windows bring the outdoors in – a Wright signature – and also provide something Wright houses are not famous for. Jim DeMeo.

Mr. DEMEO: Yeah, that’s one of the primary distinguishing features of the Ennis House. When people come in, they’re just really floored by the amount of light, and it really captures the beautiful Southern California sunlight at different parts of the day.

BATES: Throughout the house, there are the constant little visual surprises that Wright loved: variations in height, a window placed where one normally wouldn’t be, the luxury of scarlet bathroom walls as a counterpoint to the sober elegance of wood and stone.

All this has held up for over 80 years. Jim DeMeo says the architect predicted this just after he finished Ennis House in 1924.

Mr. DEMEO: He said, you know, 100 years from now, people are going to remember this house as being literally, you know, the temple on the hill and they’ll make pilgrimages to this structure. And it’s very much true today.

BATES: Recently, some of the pilgrims have also been prospective buyers, and one may add a new chapter to Ennis House’s long history.

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