Doheny Ranch Development, Beverly Hills, California, 1923

Attempting to reestablish practice in Los Angeles in 1922, Wright found himself challenged to propose new, more positive approaches than those being adopted by developers. He focused on one of the most enticing sectors of the large, undeveloped plots that skirted the city: the 411-acre Doheny Ranch, located in what is now Beverly Hills and later developed as the Trousdale Estates. The land was owned by Edward Laurence Doheny (1856-1935), then one of America's wealthiest citizens.

How understandable for Wright to have sought Doheny as a client, and to have proposed a residential development of unparalleled scale. No records have been discovered to document any contact between Wright and Doheny, who quite possibly never met. It therefore seems that Wright prepared his design in the hope of interesting Doheny rather than in response to any actual commission.

Few drawings survive, and they are largely pictorial; evidence suggests that all were completed during the early months of 1923. The proposal, unencumbered by the realities of an actual programme, suggests a prototype for a new type of Southern California suburb.

Ample precedents for Doheny exist in Wright's own work-for instance his design for the Sherman M. Booth house (unbuilt; Glencoe, Illinois, 1911). The new elements of massiveness, textured masonry, and walled gardens seem partly inspired by Italian vernacular buildings, which Wright came to admire following a prolonged visit to Italy in 1910. During his stays in Japan, he discovered landscapes that joined buildings and plantings into one composition.

From his fascination with pre-Columbian architecture-arguably a natural source for the indigenous expression he sought in California-came a renewed awareness of large-scale composition. Yet ultimately the conception of the Doheny Ranch was his. Fixity and mobility were to be joined in a single composition that anticipated, in both scale and function, more recent, adventurous approaches to the problems of the suburb.

Road map showing the proposed location of the Doheny Ranch Development, Beverly Hills, California

 

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Road map showing the proposed location of the Doheny Ranch Development, Beverly Hills, California. Charles Owens, cartographer. Motor Routes through the Heart of Southern California (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Trust and Savings Bank, 1920). Photolithograph. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (22)

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Hypothetical study model of the Doheny Ranch Development

The model is based on Wright's overall perspectives of the development in which variations of Houses `A' and `B' can be discerned together with other, more generalized forms. As a study of the actual site makes clear, he drew only a central section of the Doheny Ranch. In realizing that section as a hypothetical study model, it became clear that his massing studies corresponded closely to the original topography.

In the model, House `C', which seems ideally suited for the northern section of the site, has been so placed. Segments of roads correspond to Wright's perspectives, as do building elements on a far ridge, but no attempt has been made to add the additional buildings or complete the road system that would have been necessary had he continued to develop the scheme.

Hypothetical study model of the Doheny Ranch Development. Basswood and birch, 1995-96. Scale: 1 inch = 50 feet (area represented: approximately 1/2 mile by 1/2 mile). Created for the exhibition by George Ranalli, architect, with Aaron McDonald and Julie Shurtz, model makers (21)

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Sketch perspective for Olive Hill, Los Angeles

Anticipating his later design for the Doheny Ranch, Wright used building elements to terrace the hill, achieving a single, integrated composition in this sketch that reflects his hand.

Sketch perspective for Olive Hill, Los Angeles. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on paper, 1920. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (23)

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Perspective with pool for the community playhouse (The Little Dipper), Olive Hill, Los Angeles

Intended as a neighborhood kindergarten, The Little Dipper was partly built on its Olive Hill site before Aline Barnsdall, impatient with cost overruns, halted construction. Of interest as it relates to the Doheny Ranch project, the drawing demonstrates a clear advance in angular planning. Diagonal segments of the plan are smoothly integrated into bridging elements that link terraces and pools into a single, persuasive composition.

Perspective with pool for the community playhouse (The Little Dipper), Olive Hill, Los Angeles. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1923. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (24)

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Perspective from below for the Aline Barnsdall House, Beverly Hills, California

This commission from Aline Barnsdall for a second house was done while Wright was working out ideas for the Doheny Ranch Development. The detail of the arch in the roadway suggests how details for Doheny might have been designed.

Perspective from below for the Aline Barnsdall House, Beverly Hills, California. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on Japanese paper, 1923. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. Gift of Donald D. Walker, 1986 (25)

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Front elevation for the Aline Barnsdall House, Beverly Hills, California

 

Front elevation for the Aline Barnsdall House, Beverly Hills, California. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on paper, 1923. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. Gift of Donald D. Walker, 1986 (27)

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Perspective Views

Wright's design of 1923 responded to the expansive qualities of the Doheny site, respected local vegetation, and accommodated the automobile in both spatial and architectural terms. It was nothing less than an idealized prototype for what American suburbs might have become, but did not. As surviving perspectives demonstrate, buildings, roadways, and plantings are conceived as an integrated totality; it is the vision of the suburb as one structure.

Roadways depicted as powerful visual elements appear to terrace the hills, providing a unifying pattern. Developed in the manner of viaducts, they bridge intermediate ravines on gracefully arcuated spans or massively embank the steep terrain. Walls defining these roadways extend to become walls of the houses themselves.

Numerous roof terraces broaden the horizontal planes of the connecting roads, amplifying an architectural image of vast scale. Both roads and houses are clustered in ways that structure the site by selectively shaping and retaining the natural slopes. The more fragile segments of valleys and the steepest slopes are left largely untouched, but are joined in the full composition to achieve an effect of extraordinary unity.

Perspective for the Doheny Ranch Development

This view is taken from a position sufficiently near the bottom of the near ridge to show a ramped roadway leading north along the closer valley. It is a generalized image. In actuality, the intermediate ridge drops less to the north (or right) than is suggested, and glimpses of the ocean shown far beyond (to the west) would necessitate a higher vantage point.

Here I was looking around me in Los Angeles - disgusted. There they were busy with steam-shovels tearing down the hills. . . . Nearby . . . tan-gold foothills rise . . . to join slopes spotted as the leopard-skin, with grease-bush. . . . This foreground spreads to distances so vast - human scale is utterly lost as all features recede, turn blue, recede, and become bluer still. . . . What was missing? Nothing more or less than a distinctly genuine expression of California . . . that was all. 1932

Perspective for the Doheny Ranch Development. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1923. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (5)

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Preliminary perspective for the Doheny Ranch Development

Two preliminary perspectives record Wright's shaping of the development, with monumental clusters of plantings and connected building forms used as compositional elements.

Preliminary perspective for the Doheny Ranch Development. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on Japanese paper, ca. 1923. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. Gift, Donald D. Walker, 1986 (6)

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Preliminary perspective for the Doheny Ranch Development

Two preliminary perspectives record Wright's shaping of the development, with monumental clusters of plantings and connected building forms used as compositional elements.

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  • Preliminary perspective for the Doheny Ranch Development. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on Japanese paper, ca. 1923. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. Gift, Donald D. Walker, 1986 (6)

  • Preliminary perspective for the Doheny Ranch Development. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, ca. 1923. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (11)

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Perspective for the Doheny Ranch Development

Because the topography is more accurately portrayed and the architectural elements rendered with sharper detail than in the alternate, finished perspective, this drawing appears to be the later of the two. The northern slope of the central ridge corresponds with the site as seen today, and the higher vantage point (allowing, with some liberty, a hint of ocean on the left horizon) has left the bottom of the valley hidden within the folds of the hills below. The inscription in Wright's hand reads: "Looking down on terraced roofs. The whole becoming a terraced 'garden' suitable to the region."

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Perspective for the Doheny Ranch Development. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1923. Collection of Erving and Joyce Wolf (7)

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Houses 'A', 'B', and 'C', Doheny Ranch Development

While surviving perspectives of the Doheny development are sufficiently loose as to suggest that nothing other than a general layout was ever conceived, designs for three prototypical houses that could be adapted to various sites within it provide additional evidence.

Labeled 'A', 'B', and 'C', they embody a new spatial typology in Wright's work, related in their interior verticality and terracing to the Thomas P. Hardy house (built; Racine, Wisconsin, 1905), but now more decisively developed. There is an exaggerated mass to the designs, spaces are more formally differentiated, and the play of levels is greater. Consistent with Wright's earlier work, each building relates sensitively to its site, yet is more boldly shaped to strengthen an overall composition.

Houses 'A' and 'B', both linear in configuration, bridge shallow ravines and terrace sloping land rising behind. The roadway to 'B', contained within a viaduct, powerfully extends the line of the house. House 'C', dramatically angled in plan, seems to reconnect the landforms themselves. It marks Wright's most pervasive, compelling use of angled geometries up to this time.

Perspective with partial plan for House 'A', the Doheny Ranch Development

This prototype was apparently conceived for a location just below a major ridge, where it would bridge one of the many shallow ravines leading down from the top. Walled terraces with unglazed, corbelled openings extend from each side; to the left, these walls define an "entrance terrace," and to the right, a "terrace garden."

Perspective with partial plan for House 'A', the Doheny Ranch Development. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1923. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (8)

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Main floor plan for House 'A', the Doheny Ranch Development

Major spaces are placed on different levels. A formal stairway at the back, within an enclosed garden built against the slope rising behind, leads to the living room above.

Main floor plan for House 'A', the Doheny Ranch Development. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1923. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (10)

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Elevation for House 'A', the Doheny Ranch Development

 

Elevation for House 'A', the Doheny Ranch Development. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1923. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (9)

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Upper floor plan for House 'A', the Doheny Ranch Development

 

Upper floor plan for House 'A', the Doheny Ranch Development. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1923. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (12)

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Perspective for House 'B', the Doheny Ranch Development

The walls of the terrace extend to enclose a roadway on the right, a massive viaduct that bridges an intermediate valley. On the left, walls surround a long, narrow terrace.

Perspective for House 'B', the Doheny Ranch Development. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1923. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (13)

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Lower floor plan for House 'B', the Doheny Ranch Development

A long, open gallery-like a Roman cryptoporticus-is placed beneath the roadway and terraces above.

Lower floor plan for House 'B', the Doheny Ranch Development. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1923. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (14)

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Main floor plan for House 'B', the Doheny Ranch Development

The lack of windows along the back suggests that this prototype was intended to be placed tightly against a hillside. At the end of the roadway on the right, a circular turntable-not uncommon at the time-would have allowed cars to reverse direction within the narrow space.

Main floor plan for House 'B', the Doheny Ranch Development. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1923. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (15)

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Upper floor plan for House 'B', the Doheny Ranch Development

 

Upper floor plan for House 'B', the Doheny Ranch Development. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1923. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (19)

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Lower floor plan for House 'C', the Doheny Ranch Development

 

Lower floor plan for House 'C', the Doheny Ranch Development. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1923. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (16)

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Main floor plan for House 'C', the Doheny Ranch Development

This prototype could be located near the top of a ridge, where its main floor could overlook the walled court shown behind, while the back wall of the floor below, shown without windows, could retain the slope.

Main floor plan for House 'C', the Doheny Ranch Development. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1923. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (20)

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Perspective with partial plan for House 'C', the Doheny Ranch Development

The projecting terrace walls balance the inwardly angled house behind; additional terraces bridge steep slopes rising on each side. At the prow of the angled terrace, a stairway leads around an open well; on the top landing, a fountain creates the effect of a water cascade.

Perspective with partial plan for House 'C', the Doheny Ranch Development. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1923. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (17)

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Elevation and plan for House 'C', the Doheny Ranch Development

In this recently discovered drawing, ideas for a third house, "Type C", are developed. These ideas include a lower level with a roadway angling in and under the projecting terrace above, a feature dropped from the final perspective. Erasures visible in the perspective suggest that this roadway was originally indicated in that view.

Elevation and plan for House 'C', the Doheny Ranch Development. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on Japanese paper, ca. 1923. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. Gift, Donald D. Walker, 1986 (18)

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Perspective for the Alice Millard house (La Miniatura), Pasadena, California

 

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Perspective for the Alice Millard house (La Miniatura), Pasadena, California. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on Japanese paper, 1923. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Hochschild (28)

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Perspective for the Alice Millard house (La Miniatura), Pasadena, California

For the publication of a series of articles on Wright in the Dutch magazine Wendingen in 1925 the architect modified this photograph of his original drawing.

Perspective for the Alice Millard house (La Miniatura), Pasadena, California. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and gouache on gelatin photoprint, ca. 1925. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. Gift of Donald D. Walker, 1992 (158)

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Concrete Block Houses, 1923-24

Paralleling Wright's proposals for the Doheny Ranch were designs for Aline Barnsdall (1882-1946). Hollyhock House, which he began to plan in 1917, records his first response to the Los Angeles area. During and after the course of its prolonged construction (1919-22), Wright designed other buildings for her expansive Olive Hill site, including a theatre, a community playhouse, and adjoining houses as well as a long row of shops along one edge of her property. As a group, they relate in scale and appearance to Doheny but lack that project's more sweeping unity. Closer to the conception of Houses A, B, and C were the four block houses Wright realized in Los Angeles in 1923-24.

Fundamental to Wright's approach were the materials and methods by which his designs could be realized. Never, it seems, did he design without reference to these essential elements, though rarely was he bound by their conventional limitations, seeking instead to broaden their potential. His development of concrete blocks into what he called the textile-block system illustrates this approach. The first conceptions of architectural form and the means by which these forms could be realized were intertwined from the beginning.

The textile-block system that Wright developed during the 1920s underlies his designs for Doheny and related projects of the period, including four houses in the Los Angeles area: Millard (called La Miniatura, 1923), Storer (1923), Freeman (1924), and Ennis (1924). All four houses were built, illustrating in fragmentary form the ideal suburban image of the Doheny Ranch development.

Similar to the individual units in that project, each house was related to a roadway; when space allowed, these roadways were made an active part of the design. Each structure also embanked or retained the slope of its site through extended walls and terraces, so that an intermediate, clearly bounded area of cultivated garden was created. This garden area, in turn, linked each building to the surrounding, seemingly unchanged terrain.

Plan, elevation, and related sketches for the Alice Millard house (La Miniatura), Pasadena, California

Sketch details indicate Wright's early development of his textile-block system. As in other instances, he later dated this drawing 1920-21, earlier than the actual commission.

Plan, elevation, and related sketches for the Alice Millard house (La Miniatura), Pasadena, California. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, 1923. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (29)

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View of the Alice Millard house under construction, Pasadena, California

A building could grow right up out of the soil - wherever sand and gravel abound, a few steel strands dropped into the concrete for reinforcement. Steel has given new life to "concrete" - new possibilities, finer purposes. When it was found that the coefficient of expansion and contraction was the same for concrete and for steel, a new world opened to the architect. 1930

View of the Alice Millard house under construction, Pasadena, California. Kameki Tsuchiura, photographer. Gelatin silver print. 1923 (negative exposed), modern print from copy negative. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (173)

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Plan of lower level for the John Storer house, Los Angeles

 

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Plan of lower level for the John Storer house, Los Angeles. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on Japanese paper, 1923. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. Gif, Donald D. Walker, 1986 (30)

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Perspective for the John Storer house, Los Angeles

 

Perspective for the John Storer house, Los Angeles. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1923. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. Gift of Donald D. Walker, 1986 (31)

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Aerial perspective for the Samuel Freeman house, Los Angeles

 

Aerial perspective for the Samuel Freeman house, Los Angeles. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (32)

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Sketch plan for the Samuel Freeman house, Los Angeles

In this sketch, the roadway is firmly drawn into the composition, and terrace levels extending below recall similar forms in the Aline Barnsdall Beverly Hills design.

Sketch plan for the Samuel Freeman house, Los Angeles. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, 1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (33)

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Full-sized detail of pattern block for the Samuel Freeman house, Los Angeles

 

Full-sized detail of pattern block for the Samuel Freeman house, Los Angeles. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on Japanese paper, 1924. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. Gift of Donald D. Walker, 1986 (144)

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Blocks from the Samuel Freeman house, Los Angeles

 

Blocks from the Samuel Freeman house, Los Angeles. View showing edge of block. Concrete,1924. University of Southern California, Los Angeles. (135) (134)

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Perspective from below for the Charles W. Ennis house, Los Angeles

 

Perspective from below for the Charles W. Ennis house, Los Angeles. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite, and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1924. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. Gift of Donald D. Walker, 1986 (155)

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Perspective from below with partial plan for the Charles W. Ennis house, Los Angeles

The long retaining wall of this design, incorporating extensive terraces and a generously scaled parking court, comes closest of the four block houses to realizing the image of the Doheny Ranch Development.

Perspective from below with partial plan for the Charles W. Ennis house, Los Angeles. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Ink, graphite, and colored pencil on tracing paper,1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (34)

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Concrete Blocks

A building could grow right up out of the soil - wherever sand and gravel abound, a few steel strands dropped into the concrete for reinforcement. Steel has given new life to 'concrete' - new possibilities, finer purposes. When it was found that the coefficient of expansion and contraction was the same for concrete and for steel, a new world opened to the architect. 1930

As realized, each of the California block houses departed from the ideal construction Wright originally envisioned, which would have used blocks woven on steel rods for walls, floors, and roofs. In practice, blocks were also combined with more conventional frame construction.

Yet in each successive house Wright manipulated the blocks themselves with increasing ease, gradually extracting a degree of richness through sensitively located bands of ornament, stepped planes, and battered profiles. These effects, only suggested in the Doheny drawings, were most fully realized in the Ennis house.