Barnsdall Art Park in East Hollywood already has a lot going for it. People of all ages take art classes at the Barnsdall Art Center and learn about art at the Municipal Art Gallery. Hollyhock House, the residence famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed for art lover/philanthropist/oil heiress Aline Barnsdall, is Los Angeles’ first UNESCO World Heritage Site. But now, visitors can expect something new and different: the rejuvenation of the park’s historic olive grove. This is just the thing for a city with a climate similar to the Mediterranean, and it fits right in as part of LA’s strategy of planting more trees to tackle climate change.

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staircase through olive grove

Several movers and shakers on this project — which involves the City of Los Angeles, Barnsdall Art Park Foundation and Los Angeles Parks Foundation, among others — answered Inhabitat’s questions about what’s going on with the 11.5-acre park and its beautiful olive trees. We spoke with Daniel Gerwin, President, Barnsdall Art Park Foundation; Katherine Pakradouni, Project Manager and Horticulturist, Los Angeles Parks Foundation; Craig A. Raines, Acting Landscape Architect II, Planning/Maintenance/Construction, Advanced Planning Group, City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks; and Carolyn Ramsay, Executive Director, Los Angeles Parks Foundation. 

Related: Los Angeles is the largest US city to be certified as a biodiversity haven

black and white image of Olive Hill in the 1930s

Inhabitat: Who first planted olives on Olive Hill in the 1890s, and why?

Daniel Gerwin: Joseph H. Spires, who was a Canadian immigrant and real estate broker for the Los Angeles Pacific electric railway, purchased the open land and established a successful commercial olive grove in the 1890s. According to an article about the history of Olive Hill written by Nathan Masters in 2014, Spires selected olives because that crop was three to four times more profitable than the produce from lemon trees. His ultimate goal was to build a grand hotel atop the hill. He never realized that dream, and his widow sold the entire 36-acre property to Aline Barnsdall in 1919.

black and white photo of olive grove in 1924

Inhabitat: How have the trees fared over the years? About how many olive trees are currently there?

Craig A. Raines: The original olive grove included 1,225 trees. Aline Barnsdall, Frank Lloyd Wright and his son, Lloyd Wright, incorporated the olive trees as part of their ambitious vision for the property. Over time, hundreds of trees were lost as portions of the site were subdivided into several private developments. By 1992, only 90 trees remained. The 1995 Barnsdall Park Master Plan, created by Peter Walker William Johnson and Partners, Lehrer Architects, Levin & Associates Architects and Kosmont Associates, proposed adding 1,376 new olive trees. Many dimensions of that comprehensive landscape plan were completed in 2003 — including the addition of 315 olive trees.

Katherine Pakradouni: In my preliminary survey, I determined that there are at least 333 olive trees, including 19 very old trees that are likely from the original commercial olive grove. About a third of the entire grove’s trees require special care to bring them back to health.

olive stem sample

Inhabitat: What’s included in the new Barnsdall Olive Grove Initiative?

Katherine Pakradouni: The first phase of our project included a survey of the quantity and overall condition of the grove’s existing trees. I took tissue samples from the trees’ roots, stems and surrounding soil and had them analyzed at a laboratory to confirm that there was no disease present in the grove. That important information allowed us to determine that an improved irrigation plan, consisting of deep root watering and a careful pruning strategy are the most effective ways for us to restore the health of the trees that are currently struggling and in need of special attention.

We’re in the process of exploring the use of GIS mapping software to map the precise locations of each olive tree as part of our continued analysis and stewardship of the grove. One of the most exciting discoveries of the project was finding 58 olive seedlings in the understory of the oldest fruiting olive trees in the grove. We’re hopeful that those special seedlings may be nurtured into vibrant saplings at the Los Angeles Parks Foundation headquarters at the historic Commonwealth Nursery in Griffith Park and replanted at Barnsdall Art Park and other locations throughout the city.

Daniel Gerwin: In addition to providing the funding for the required care of the existing olive grove, the Barnsdall Art Park Foundation is raising money for the next phase of our partnership with the Los Angeles Parks Foundation and the City of Los Angeles, which will be used to plant new fruiting olive trees at the park.

olive grove full of trees in 2021

Inhabitat: Tell us about the plans for the new landscaping, and how it ties into LA’s initiative to plant more trees in parks.

Carolyn Ramsay: The Barnsdall Olive Grove Initiative is a key part of the Los Angeles Park Forest program created by the Los Angeles Parks Foundation to address climate change and help achieve LA’s goal of planting 90,000 trees throughout the city’s neighborhoods. The hundreds of rejuvenated existing olive trees at Barnsdall Art Park and the new olive trees that will be planted there will improve LA’s air quality and support the region’s wildlife ecosystem.

Inhabitat: What future plans do you have for the olive grove? Harvesting? Outdoor events?

Daniel Gerwin: We’re excited to explore new ways that the Barnsdall Art Park Foundation may work with City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Parks Foundation to educate the public about the historical and ecological significance of the park’s landscape and actively participate in its ongoing care. We’ve learned that people have fond memories of picking olives at the park with their families, and it would be wonderful to establish a series of community harvesting days.

sketch of olive grove and Hollyhock House

Inhabitat: What has it meant for Hollyhock House to become LA’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site? Has it changed anything?

Daniel Gerwin: Hollyhock House is Los Angeles’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site and only the third UNESCO site in the entire state of California. That extraordinary distinction elevated the public’s awareness and appreciation for the beloved landmark. Since the olive trees are an integral element of Frank Lloyd Wright and Lloyd Wright’s landscape design, the public-private partnership to revitalize the olive grove honors and preserves the original vision for this internationally acclaimed destination.

Inhabitat: What kinds of things would locals or visitors expect to do when visiting Barnsdall Art Park?

Daniel Gerwin: The City of Los Angeles’ Department of Cultural Affairs provides an array of activities for people of all ages to enjoy at Barnsdall Art Park. Public tours of Hollyhock House are a highlight for fans of Frank Lloyd Wright’s groundbreaking architecture. Each year, the Barnsdall Art Center and Junior Arts Center provide about 75 modestly priced art classes for children and adults. The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery has presented pioneering contemporary art exhibitions and programs since 1954. The Barnsdall Gallery Theatre is a popular venue for diverse performances and cultural events.

+ Barnsdall Art Park

Images via Katherine Pakradouni, LA Public Library, Stephen & Christy McAvoy Family Trust, Paul Farnham, California Historical Society and William Johnson