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The history of the Guggenheim Museum’s iconic New York City building

Curbed logo Curbed 10/7/2019 Amy Plitt
a group of people standing in front of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum © Tinnaporn Sathapornnanont/Shutterstock.com

In 1943, Frank Lloyd Wright received a commission that would lead to one of his most famous buildings: the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which to this day remains Wright’s only public building in the five boroughs. Though archicritic Paul Goldberger once said it was “absolutely the wrong building in the wrong place,” one thing is for certain: the Guggenheim was, upon its debut in 1959, a revelation, and upended the idea of what a museum could and should look like. (In many ways, it has yet to be matched by any museum since.)

Philanthropist Solomon R. Guggenheim and his art advisor, artist Hilla Rebay (who also became the museum’s first director), chose the architect based on his reputation; Wright was in the later part of his career, with landmark buildings like Oak Park’s Unity Temple and Bear Run, Pennsylvania’s Fallingwater behind him. There was just one stipulation from the museum co-founders: “The building should be unlike any other museum in the world.”

Wright delivered and then some.

a man wearing a hat © William H. Short/Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Archives.
Frank Lloyd Wright on the balcony of the Guggenheim Museum during construction in 1959.

But the 16 years between when Wright got the commission to when the building opened were tumultuous ones, with everything from New York City’s arcane building code to the death of Guggenheim throwing wrenches into the works. Wright himself died in April 1959, six months before the museum made its public debut.

So how did it come to be? It’s a long story, too long to recant in full here; entire books have been written on the subject. It’s also one that Wright likely would have preferred not taken place in New York City. Wright famously did not care for the city, and in a 1949 letter to his friend and collaborator Arthur Holden, he wrote, “I can think of several more desirable places in the world to build his great museum, but we will have to try New York.”

But as the Guggenheim itself notes, the museum’s final location on Fifth Avenue between 88th and 89th streets was something of a blessing for Wright thanks to its next-door neighbor, Central Park.

Per the museum:

Its proximity to Central Park was key; as close to nature as one gets in New York, the park afforded relief from the noise and congestion of the city. Nature not only provided the museum with a respite from New York’s distractions but also lent it inspiration. The Guggenheim Museum is an embodiment of Wright’s attempts to incorporate organic form into architecture.

Wright’s obsession with nature and organic forms is evident in many of his famous works, such as Fallingwater, so named because it’s situated atop a waterfall (and thus the falling water is as much as feature of the home as the Pottsville sandstone used to construct the building).

While the Guggenheim isn’t the most obvious example of this—you can’t really see Central Park from inside the museum, for instance—it was nonetheless envisioned in the same vein. Light floods the space from a large skylight perched atop it; the circular design, meanwhile, was inspired more by nature than typical building shapes. (Wright once said the completed design would make the Metropolitan Museum of Art, located seven blocks south, look like a “Protestant barn.”)

a close up of a map © The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Ar...
A drawing for the never-realized Gordon Strong Automobile Objective in Maryland.

The architect even copied from his one of his own earlier conceptual designs for the project. The Gordon Strong Automobile Objective was a tourist attraction that Wright designed on spec in the 1920s, and its design is strikingly similar to that of the Guggenheim: Visitors would be ferried to the top of Maryland’s Sugarloaf Mountain, and then follow a spiraling pathway down. It may not sound like much of a tourist draw, but Wright ended up cribbing the design and flipping it upside down for the Guggenheim.

Some say the Guggenheim is shaped like a nautilus shell; others say it’s a concrete ribbon or an inverted ziggurat. But no matter what you call it, the final design—which came about after several conceptual changes and more than 200 sketches—is an oddity in Manhattan. That may explain why, as Wright scholar William Allin Storrer says in his book The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, “overcoming the restrictions of the New York City building code took more time than either design or construction.” Here’s how the Landmarks Preservation Commission put it, in its 1990 report on the museum:

Due to the extraordinary character of the scheme, when the plans first reached municipal authorities in 1952, they received objections to thirty-two building regulations. When the number of objections had been reduced to approximately fifteen, the plans were forwarded to the Board of Standards and Appeals (hereafter referred to as BSA) for the needed variances. After a protracted period of design revisions, the BSA approved the plans and in 1956 the Department of Housing and Buildings issued a permit.

Four years from the initial submission of plans to approval—sounds like a lot, right? And that was on top of financial issues the project had already faced, and the fact that after Solomon R. Guggenheim’s death, the new museum leadership wasn’t too keen on Wright’s inventive design. Eventually, though, everything fell into place, and construction began in 1956.

© Provided by Vox Media, Inc.
a large white building in a city © William H. Short © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Archives, New York
The Guggenheim under construction from 1956-1959.

But even though the city gave the Guggenheim its approval, the people who would arguably be most affected by the building—artists—rallied against it. In 1956, 21 artists, including Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, sent a letter to the Guggenheim Foundation outlining their issues with Wright’s design, noting that the spiral shape was “not suitable for a sympathetic display of painting and sculpture.” (They were also mad about the building itself, which they worried would overshadow the art within. They weren’t wrong!)

Wright responded in typically Wright-ian form, according to a New York Times article from 1959:

I am sufficiently familiar with the incubus of habit that besets your minds to understand that you all know too little of the nature of the mother art—architecture.

Burn.

Construction continued over the next few years, with Wright living in a suite at the Plaza Hotel for five years as it was being built. But alas, he never saw the project completed; in 1959, he died at the age of 89 after undergoing surgery in Phoenix, Arizona.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd with Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in the background © Harry Harris/Associated Press
The Guggenheim in October 1959, the day before it opened to the public.

The Guggenheim would open six months later, to both acclaim—no less than then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower called it “a symbol of our free society which welcomes new expressions of the creative spirit of man”—and rancor. Critic Lewis Mumford, a friend of Wright’s, referred to it as “Wright's monumental and ultimately mischievous failure” in a 1959 review of the building in the New Yorker.

Still, despite those challenges—and the initial controversy surrounding the structure—it’s gone on to become one of the most popular museums in New York City, attracting more than a million visitors every year. And it’s a good bet that many of them are there for the building more than the art—which is, no doubt, exactly as Wright would have wanted it.

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