“This is up here?” a friend recently said of the scene that greeted her upon ascending the steps to Barnsdall Art Park in East Hollywood. A native Angeleno, she had driven past the park many times but was surprised to see a wondrous pine grove with paved walkways and multiple historic buildings — not to mention clear views of the Hollywood sign and Griffith Observatory.
Her reaction is understandable. Those traveling on Hollywood Boulevard likely would notice only the park’s block-long fenced parking lot, large Art Deco sign and a tree-blanketed hillside — little indication of the prized architecture and magical landscape at its crest, which is why it’s often called a hidden gem. But with the reopening of Hollyhock House, which had been closed since before the COVID-19 pandemic, more are discovering its magic.
Named after oil heiress, socialite and passionate arts supporter Aline Barnsdall, who donated the property and its structures to the city in 1927, the 11.5-acre park may be tiny compared to the 4,210-acre Griffith Park about a mile north, but it is mighty in its offerings. With activities for everyone to enjoy, here are some of my favorites.
1. Tour the Hollyhock House, L.A.’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site
Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and located in the center of the park is the clay-block, Maya temple–inspired Hollyhock House, which also has elements of Pueblo and Spanish Colonial architecture. It is named for Barnsdall’s favorite flower, which Wright applied in a very stylized, abstract way to such features as the home’s frieze and columns. Completed in 1921, the two-story, originally 17-bedroom home is as stunning inside, with furniture Wright designed specifically for Hollyhock that are art pieces unto themselves. It also has the distinction of being the architect’s first Los Angeles commission and the only residence he designed here that is accessible to the public.
Hollyhock recently reopened for self-guided tours, with docents on hand to answer questions. Give yourself an hour to take in every detail of the modernist Hollyhock House’s splendor — especially its embellished art windows and magnificent fireplace — and stroll around the semicircular pool, inner courtyard and rooftop terraces. Tickets are $7 for adults, $3 for seniors and free for kids under 12 (with a paying adult), advance reservations required. Tour reservations sell out fast, so check the website at least a month before you'd like to visit.
If you're looking for an event doesn't require reservations, at 10 a.m. Oct. 8, the beloved Bob Baker Marionette Theater will be putting on a free show on the Hollyhock House lawn.
2. See art
There are quite a few ways to experience visual art at Barnsdall. You can visit the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery to truly get a taste of local talent, as nearly all the art exhibited is by Angelenos, often from communities that are underrepresented in the art world. Founded in 1954, it is actually one of the longest-operating art galleries in the city. It’s free to visit and it has featured a wide variety of contemporary art, from video installations and soundscapes to mixed-media paintings, large sculptures and interactive exhibits.
The gallery is temporarily closed, but it has expanded its virtual exhibitions in the meantime, and the lobby is open to the public to view display cases featuring highlights, ephemera and photographs of artwork from the gallery’s landmark 1976-86 show, “The Magical Mystery Tour.” Appointments are available on Fridays and walk-ups will be accommodated on a first come, first serve basis.
At the Barnsdall Arts Center and Junior Arts Center, south of the gallery, many colorful murals by local artists and past students decorate the walls, including one that honors Aline Barnsdall and, gracing the Junior Arts Center wall facing the road, Frank Romero’s 1987 mural “Olive Hill.” If you walk around the upper road that runs around the arts complex, you’ll also come across outdoor sculptures. They include a ceramic tower made in 1971 by community members, students and teaching artist Flaven Hyland and “Temple II,” a 22-foot-tall kinetic steel sculpture by Gene Flores, installed in 1986, in memory of animator and teacher Adam Beckett, known for his special effects work on the first “Star Wars” movie.
3. Make art
People of all ages have long enjoyed the affordable art classes and free drop-in Sunday workshops offered at Barnsdall Art Center and the Junior Arts Center. They range from printmaking and producing comics to craft activities celebrating international holidays, such as the art form of pysanka, or hand-painted Ukrainian Easter eggs, and Chinese New Year dragon puppets. Even before the park hosted a “Plein Air” series of painting classes in July, artists flocked to the park to paint landscapes of its sweeping views as well as its grounds. Join them. Fun fact: Although photography is not allowed in the Hollyhock House, visitors are allowed to do sketches of its interiors, as long as they’re in pencil.
Both facilities are currently undergoing renovations, but the centers will be hosting outdoor workshops in late October and early November in the interim.
4. See a live performance, film screening or lecture at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre
A producer of experimental theater, Aline Barnsdall always had a community theater as part of her grand vision for the park complex, and today, the 299-seat venue plays host to diverse cultural events and performances produced by local organizations that rent the venue, as well as ones by the city. From the recent Haiti International Film Festival and short films with live orchestra accompaniment to Silverlake Conservatory recitals and discussions on Buddhism, you never know what you can experience there. And you too can host your own arts or cultural event at the theater; it is the only building at Barnsdall that is available for the public to rent.
5. Get your steps in on the park’s steep staircases while admiring its historic olive trees
There are multiple staircases on practically all sides of the campus that are great for exercise and city views. From the Hollywood Boulevard entrance, access three consecutive straight staircases from the bottom parking lot that cut up Olive Hill — named for its historic olive grove that dates to the late 1800s — then another set leading up to the Barnsdall Art Center for an approximate total of 130 steps.
On your way up to the park, take note of the newly restored exterior of Residence A, which was intended to be a guesthouse. From the park, Wright fans also can see his other celebrated Mayan Revival-style abode, the Ennis House. Look for its iconic textile-block façade in the distance, east of the observatory, in the Los Feliz Hills.
Make sure to admire the trees on both sides of the lower staircases as you make your climb. There are just over 500 olive trees in all at the park, thanks to 40 new ones planted in June. From East Barnsdall Avenue off Vermont, running behind the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, you can enter through a park gate that is typically open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., and clock approximately 100 steps on your ascent to the park. There is also a steep, multilevel staircase behind the Barnsdall Arts Center building made famous by a pivotal scene in the HBO series "Big Little Lies," where a character meets his demise.
6. Watch or join an outdoor martial arts class in the pine grove
The pine grove is a favorite meeting spot for martial arts enthusiasts, with many groups happy to give brief demonstrations or even have you join them. Just ask. You may find people practicing kali or escrima (Filipino stick fighting) there, or see others doing tai chi below the pines. And the Los Angeles chapter of the United Capoeira Assn. offers donation-based classes by the entrance of the Municipal Art Gallery from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and 2 to 3 p.m. Saturday. Bring water and wear clothes that are easy to move in.
7. Picnic, play and watch the sunset on the lawn
It’s a no-brainer to lay down a blanket and enjoy the views from the lawn — that’s where the action always is. There are no food vendors on-site, so pack your own picnic or drop by the neighboring Jons supermarket or the handful of food options in the same shopping strip. (Try Oi Asian Fusion for tasty rice bowls.) Or get takeout beforehand from the wide selection of Los Feliz restaurants up Vermont Avenue or west on Hollywood Boulevard.
Any day of the week, expect an almost festival atmosphere here, with people of all ages (and often their furry companions) socializing as the sun goes down and into the evening. You may also, whether you like it or not, eavesdrop on some priceless L.A. conversations that seem to get even louder as night falls.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.