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Barnsdall Art Park from “Big Little Lies”

Jan 17th, 2018 | By | Category: TV Locations

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The Grim Cheaper is easily the most creative gift-giver I know.  Not only does he find incredibly thoughtful presents, but he always comes up with highly unique ways of presenting them.  I have only ever managed to match his ingenuity on rare occasions – one being Valentine’s Day 2011 when I created a scavenger hunt around Los Angeles during which he solved clues that disclosed GPS coordinates of spots I thought he would enjoy visiting.  The hunt included stops at Grub Restaurant, LACMA, Boardner’s of Hollywood, the HMS Bounty Bar and Restaurant, Annenberg Space for Photography, and Barnsdall Art Park.  The latter, a sprawling esplanade situated atop a hill in East Hollywood, boasts two of the largest staircases I’ve ever seen in my life – one leading from the lower parking lot to the northern side of the property and the other situated next to the complex’s Junior Art Center building on its eastern end.  While exploring, the GC and I climbed both, much to my chagrin.  (I’ve never been one for exercise, especially on a holiday.)  They were so long and daunting that images of them have remained ingrained in my mind ever since.  So when Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) was shown scaling the Junior Art Center steps in the second episode of Big Little Lies, titled “Serious Mothering,” I recognized them immediately.  I was floored when Barnsdall popped up multiple times in later episodes of the 2017 HBO series, most notably the finale in which it played a major role.  Though I mentioned the park’s use on the show in my post about Big Little Lies filming locations last April, I figured it was high time I get back out there to do a proper stalk and proper post about the place.

Barnsdall Art Park is the brainchild of Aline Barnsdall, a wealthy Chicago oil heiress who came to California hoping to establish a community center that would serve as the headquarters for her theatre company.  After purchasing a 36-acre site atop Hollywood’s Olive Hill, she hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design a complex consisting of a theatre, studio space, dorms for actors, homes for visiting directors, and a massive private residence for herself on the vast property.  It was Wright’s first Los Angeles commission.

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Aline’s home, which became the park’s centerpiece, was designed with Mayan and Japanese influences in a style that Wright dubbed “California Romanza.”

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The dwelling was named “Hollyhock House” in honor of Barnsdall’s favorite flower, the hollyhock, which Wright incorporated heavily into his creation.

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The unique poured concrete structure, made to take advantage of the idyllic outdoor landscape surrounding it, is quite striking, with a look that bears more resemblance to an ancient temple than a residence.

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As noted by Alice T. Friedman in her book Women and the Making of the Modern House, “The project on which Wright and Barnsdall collaborated between 1915 and 1923 represents one of the most unusual challenges Wright encountered during his long career, since it called for a rethinking of building types and particularly of notions concerning house design, family life, and domesticity.  Barnsdall’s Hollyhock House, the most important piece of that project to survive, was a house built not for the private life of a family but as a residential centerpiece in a public garden and theater complex; its large, formal spaces and evident lack of domestic feeling reflect this program.  Yet in rejecting the conventions of domestic planning and searching for an unusual hybrid type, architect and client were free to push the boundaries of architecture to new limits, focusing on theatricality, on the experience of monumental form, and on the vividness of the landscape as it was framed and defined by the house.”

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Even before construction had started, Aline referred to the complex as an “art park,” where, as again stated in Women and the Making of the Modern House, “Not only would theater patrons be encouraged to stroll outside during long intermissions, but there would also be a roof garden for ‘afternoon teas and theater suppers’ and extensive gardens for the use of the public.”  Sadly, and for numerous reasons, one of which was an ongoing discord with Wright, only three of the intended structures were completed.  It would be several decades before Barnsdall’s vision of a community “art-theater garden” came to be.

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Though Aline attempted to donate Hollyhock House and the eight acres surrounding it to the city in 1923, her offer was refused.  The generous bequest was eventually accepted in December 1926 and Barnsdall Art Park was born.   It was not until 1971, though, a full 45 years later, that a theatre and art gallery (the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre and Los Angles Municipal Art Gallery, respectively) were built at the site.  In an interview that took place in 1919, long before her home had been completed, the heiress said, “I propose to keep my gardens always open to the public that this sightly spot may be available to those lovers of the beautiful who come here to view sunsets, dawn on the mountains and other spectacles of nature, visible in few other places in the heart of the city.”  Her words were finally a reality.

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Barnsdall Art Park’s vistas are, indeed, spectacular and rare.  Even the Hollywood Sign can be viewed from the property’s expansive lawn . . .

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. . . as can the Griffith Observatory.

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The park is a fabulous place to spend a sunny afternoon.  With its shaded central courtyard, grassy terrace, theatre showings, art gallery exhibitions, countless offerings of art workshops for both children and adults, and self-guided and docent-led tours of Hollyhock House, the possibilities for both activity and leisure are endless.

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In Big Little Lies, Barnsdall Art Park masks as the supposed Monterey-area community theatre where Madeline works.


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Several times throughout the series she is seen walking up the massive, always under-repair set of stairs leading to the theatre.


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As I mentioned earlier, Madeline’s staircase can be found on the east side of the park, adjacent to the Junior Art Center.

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The steps are easily the most recognizable of the many Barnsdall locations used on Big Little Lies.

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Definitively dramatic, it is not very hard to see how they came to be adopted as a focal point on the series.

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Big Little Lies also utilized the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre.

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The venue’s interior is where the Avenue Q rehearsals and performance took place.  You can check out photos of the inside of the space here.



For the theatre’s exterior, though, producers instead chose to film the outside of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, which is situated just north of the Gallery Theatre.


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The park’s tree-lined central courtyard makes several appearances on the series.  Not only is Madeline shown walking on one of its pathways on her way to work in “Serious Mothering” . . .


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. . . but the Trivia Night costume party in the finale, titled “You Get What You Need,” takes place there.


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The red carpet that party attendees walk down on Trivia Night . . .


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. . . which is the same one shown in the series’ opening credits, was set up on a pathway on the northern side of the courtyard.  Said pathway runs through the center of the courtyard and abuts the double set of stairs situated between the Hollyhock House Garage and the Municipal Art Gallery.


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That double set of stairs served as the Trivia Night valet drop-off in “You Get What You Need.”


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It, too, was affixed with a red carpet for the shoot.


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The Trivia Night stage, where Ed Mackenzie (Adam Scott) so movingly sang “The Wonder of You” (fun fact – that was actually the voice of the Villagers’ Conor O’Brien you heard in the scene) was actually just the heavily-dressed exterior of the Municipal Art Gallery.


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For the episode, the structure’s portico was draped with material, stung with lights, and affixed with a small stage.


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In real life, it is almost unrecognizable from its “You Get What You Need” appearance.  In fact, it was so heavily dressed, it took me quite a while to figure out the stage’s exact position in the scene.


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The stairs that figure so prominently in the series’ climax are the very same ones that Madeline regularly climbed.


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The landing where the killing took place is situated in between the staircase’s two main flights, next to the western-most Junior Art Center building.


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A couple of other productions have also made use of Barnsdall Art Park.  In 1989’s ridiculously-named Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (and yes, that is a real movie!), Hollyhock House masks as the “secret temple of the Piranha Women.”  (I swear, I’m not joking!)



Upon first approaching it in the film, Dr. Margo Hunt (Shannon Tweed) says “Their architecture is surprisingly advanced,” to which Jim (Bill Maher) responds, “It looks like a big Lego to me.”



As I mentioned in a 2015 article for Los Angeles magazine, a Season 2 episode of True Detective was shot at the park.  In the episode, titled “Maybe Tomorrow,” Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) interrogates prostitutes he comes across in Barnsdall’s lower parking lot for information about a missing city manager.



Though IMDB says that Hollyhock House was featured in Dirty Love, I scanned through the 2005 comedy and didn’t see it anywhere.  IMDB also notes that the Season 1 episode of The Colbys titled “The Pact” was shot at the park, but unfortunately I could not find the episode available for streaming, so I could not verify that information.

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For more stalking fun, follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Los Angeles magazine and Discover Los Angeles.

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Until next time, Happy Stalking!  Smile

Stalk It: Barnsdall Art Park, from Big Little Lies, is located at 4800 Hollywood Boulevard in East Hollywood.  You can visit the park’s official website here.  As denoted in the graphic below, the stairs Madeline regularly walks up, which is also where the series’ climax takes place, can be found in the eastern portion of the property, adjacent to the Junior Art Center.  The exterior of the community theatre where Madeline works, which is also where the Trivia Night stage was set up, is the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in the center of the park.  Theatre interiors, where the Avenue Q performance was held, were shot inside the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, which is situated next to and just south of the Art Gallery.  The Trivia Night valet drop-off stairs can be found at the northern end of the park, adjacent to the Hollyhock Garage.  The Trivia Night red carpet, aka the opening credits red carpet, was set up on the pathway that runs just south of the stairs and through the center of the central courtyard.




Leave a comment »

  1. Gilles from France says:

    It was also used on “The Colbys” :

  2. Kim says:

    That park is beautiful. Props to your dedication in watching “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death”!

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