May 9, 201302:25 PMPoint of View

Remembering Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bijou

Remembering Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bijou

Courtesy of Ezra Stoller © Esto / Yossi Milo Gallery

The sleek showroom captured by the astute eye of Ezra Stoller, 1955.

It wasn’t a masterwork, but it was the master’s work. Every day, hundreds of people walked by the gleaming space, but few may have realized its significance. A hidden gem in plain sight, the Hoffman Auto Showroom at 430 Park Avenue, opened in 1955. It was one of just three Frank Lloyd Wright projects in New York City. And now, it’s gone.

Wright’s bijou, as he described it,1  was the architect’s first permanent work in the city, his first constructed automotive design, and one of his few interior-only projects. Realized during New York’s post-World War II commercial construction boom, it was the architect’s single gesture along the corporate corridor of International Style buildings designed by his rivals, the “glass box boys.”2  The showroom’s signature ramp was also one of Wright’s several design experiments with the spiral, culminating in the Guggenheim Museum.

The showroom was a bijou to me, too. It’s a character in my book, Frank Lloyd Wright in New York: The Plaza Years, 1954-1959. I spent considerable time studying, visiting, and writing about it. Imagine my shock on a warm day last month when I walked by showroom and witnessed it being gutted. A woman in construction gear, standing in front of the open doorway waved pedestrians past clouds of dust and dumpsters filled with the showroom’s remains en route to a nearby dump truck.

When long-time tenant Mercedes vacated the space last December, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy among others had been actively advocating to save it. But the fate of historic interiors in New York, where the power of real estate looms large, is always precarious. I later learned that once the possibility of a landmark hearing for the showroom was mentioned, the owner obtained a demolition permit and took immediate action.

That morning, as history evaporated before my eyes, I texted the news to a Wright community contact, and the word quickly spread. 

Courtesy of Mercedes-Benz of North America

Foreign automobile mogul Max Hoffman

Emblematic of its time in both design and function, Wright’s jewel of a showroom had a wonderful human story, too. It was the product of a commission set between two fast friends—Austrian automobile importer Max Hoffman and America’s greatest architect— both of whom shared a love of fine automobiles and showing them off. Hoffman was the kind of fine feathered client Wright particularly enjoyed and was also one of the few for whom he completed multiple commissions. He was already in conversation with Hoffman about designing his home in Rye, New York, when their talks about the showroom began. The auto mogul’s offer to provide imported vehicles as compensation for services rendered made the partnership all the sweeter for Wright. Accepting immediately, he wrote to Hoffman that his ownership of Porsches would be “good for the appreciation of this fine foreign car” as there were none “within hundreds of miles of Madison, Wisconsin.”3

Courtesy of The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, the Museum of Modern Art, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York

Wright’s vision for the Hoffman Auto Showroom

Though, as I write, the bulk of Frank Lloyd Wright’s archives are en route to Columbia University’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library and the Museum of Modern Art, there is little of his work left in New York now aside from the renowned Guggenheim Museum—the Usonian Cass House on Staten Island, and, if you count it, the Little House II living room installed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing.

Host to an array of the latest and greatest imported cars for nearly sixty years, the Hoffman Auto Showroom was a small yet vibrant slice of our built history, underappreciated in a locale where the value of square footage frequently supersedes its contents.

I don’t know why I walked past the showroom on that sunny day last month. Maybe fate drew me to witness its demise after so much studied reflection on its life. I’ve heard rumor that the gutted space may become a bank—a commodity we already have on almost every corner here. Regardless, it will be a long time before I walk by the intersection of 56th Street and Park Avenue again.

Debra Pickrel, principal of Pickrel Communications in New York, is co-author of Frank Lloyd Wright in New York: The Plaza Years, 1954-1959 (2007, Gibbs Smith) and served on the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy board of directors for six years. In 2011, she wrote “Remembering Edgar” in memory of her friend and Wright apprentice Edgar Tafel for this website.

Endnotes:
1. Frank Lloyd Wright, letter to Max Hoffman, October 13, 1955, Frank Lloyd Wright Archives.
2. Brendan Gill, Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987), 483.
3.  Frank Lloyd Wright, letter to Max Hoffman, July 14, 1952, Frank Lloyd Wright Archives.

Old to new | New to old
May 22, 2013 01:02 pm
 Posted by  Dean

A sad direction for New York - respect for art, particularly historically significant architecture in urbania, supports interest in life, facilitating places people want to be; banks and other self important commerce - not so much.

Jun 23, 2013 08:26 am
 Posted by  lhh2114@columbia.edu

Whatever happened to sense of place, that history provides for our future of direction? Shame on the New York real estate culture that forgets what made it, that destroys our history for a bottom line that would be just as profitable if structures were retro-fitted for their beauty, meaning and greater real worth as celebrated visitor sought landmarks.

The short-sightedness of real estate remains a menace addiction of little children existing in adult bodies. The 'monopoly' games played are as abusive as repulsive to a sophisticated society. The culture may have passed through some of the best schools, but, their modern integrity does not exist. All of us suffer, our kids.

Aug 17, 2013 10:25 am
 Posted by  David J Gill

Why do developers so love to destroy things. It's always an act of contempt for anyone that stands in their way. It's just business they will reply, if the media would bother dig into the story and interview them, it's not personal. When a developer bought the site of the David Wright house in Phoenix they certainly knew what they had and were going to move ahead and build something else on the site...something that could have been anywhere else in that wasteland that is Phoenix. A wasteland in large part because developers build what they please where they please.

It was 1970 when the developer that owned the site of the Dodge House (by Irving Gill)in Los Angeles demolished that house in the face of both a local and international star architect studded campaign to save it. We have made very little progress on preservation of the built environment in all the decades since.

Sep 3, 2013 08:39 am
 Posted by  AlisonsArt

It literally makes me sick to my stomach to read about the destruction of the gems of architectural creative genius that have been destroyed and discarded like yesterday's news.

Dec 28, 2013 08:40 pm
 Posted by  Leoncefalo

When the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo was marked for demolition, every effort was made by Olgivanna Wright, and many others to save it. This was a major work by Wright, and there were still many Japanese architects devoted to his work. When the earthquake of 1922 did not damage this 'floating' building, it almost insured that the hotel was going to be there a long time.

It is part of the sad irony of demolished works that the Imperial Hotel site became a parking garage.

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