Guggenheim Museum


In above photo taken in August 1945, architect Frank Lloyd Wright shows the plan of Guggenheim Museum to Solomon Guggenheim and Hilla von Rebay. Baroness Rebay, an avid art collector and a long-time friend and confidante of Guggenheim, was the tour de force behind the creation of the museum–she chose Frank Lloyd Wright herself to design the museum, and chosen the current site for the museum’s residence.

The project occupied Wright for 16 years (1943–1959). Of the idea to build the Guggenheim in New York, Wright objected in 1949, “I can think of several more desirable places in the world to build this great museum, but we will have to try New York.” As an architect, Wright frequently criticized New York’s skyscrapers and decided instead that the museum be a “little temple in a park.” When the design was unveiled (above), the divide it caused was astounding; it was hailed by some, but denounced as a “washing machine,” a “hot cross bun,” a “marshmallow,” by others. Even Wright’s stanchest supporters “shuddered” to envision the cylindrical museum beside staid, decades-old apartment buildings.

In 1953, he submitted the plans to the Department of Housing and Building, which refused to grant a license, citing it violated building codes. With a pliancy that was uncharacteristic of his reactions to criticism, Wright complied with the request to make a few alterations. He stood firm on others, such as a plexiglass dome for the building and glass doors. The plans to start building were delayed several times but, finally, the museum was in construction in 1956. In total, it took 700 sketches, and six sets of working drawings.

By this time Guggenheim had been dead for ten years and difficult and bossy Rebay (her nickname was ‘the B’ not for the Baroness) had been expelled from the board of directors by the millionaire’s heirs. When the museum was finally opened, she was not even invited. She never set foot in the museum she essentially helped create. Embittered, she retreated from public life and retreated to her estate in Connecticut, where she continued to meet many artists.

For Frank Lloyd Wright, the museum was his swan-song too. On April 9th 1959 (six months before the museum opened), the egomaniac wunderkind of architecture died in Phoenix, Arizona. To this day, the museum is still controversial. Wright’s devoted followers complain that when the museum was completed, a number of important details of Wright’s design were ignored, including his desire for the interior to be painted off-white. The artists contend that Wright’s spiral rump continuous gallery causes the pictures to be awry. (In his day, Wright noted that the grade of the ramp was no steeper than the grade of a sidewalk from building line to curb). The museum staff was also bitter about the ramp, and found serious fault with Mr. Wright’s lack of adequate provision for art storage and restorations.

The Museum opened on October 21st 1959, so today marks the 50th year anniversary of the opening of the Guggenheim Museum. Happy Birthday!

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