How Frank Lloyd Wright Would Have Transformed Ellis Island

Before he died, Frank Lloyd Wright sketched out a concept to convert Ellis Island into a "city of the future."

Key Project for Ellis Island, Taliesin Associated Architects drawing, 1962. Courtesy The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). Copyright © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ.

 

One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s final design concepts was for a “dream city” on Ellis Island. A processing center for millions of American immigrants until 1954, the island, located south of Manhattan, was controversially proffered for sale by the federal government in September 1956, purportedly because neither New York nor New Jersey had come forward with actionable plans for its reuse.*

Young NBC radio and television executives Elwood M. Doudt and Jerry Damon of the Damon, Doudt Corporation (17 East 48th Street), which was negotiating to purchase the island, had grand plans for the twenty-seven-and-a-half-acre site. On March 19, 1959, Doudt wrote to Wright at Taliesin West describing their vision for “an entirely new, complete, and independent prototype city of the future…that would be incorporated into a separate municipality,” and inquired about his interest in designing it. “Your Ellis Island project is virtually made to order for me,” he replied. “Will be in New York at our apartment 223 in the Plaza April 15th and ready to meet you.” But their proposed meeting was not to be…Wright died on April 9th.

The following week, Taliesin Associated Architects (TAA) architect Tom Casey informed Damon that “Mr. Wright had formulated the conceptual or basic plans for (the) island.” William Wesley Peters, Wright’s son-in-law and TAA principal, described the project that “Frank Lloyd Wright had spoken of” as “a cable-supported structure extending radially from central towers.” Aside from an abstract form Wright dashed off on a Plaza cocktail napkin, no drawings had been produced by the architect.

A series of meetings between Peters and the two promoters resulted in a complete set of drawings for the “Key Project,” so called because the island represented the key to freedom and opportunity for so many. No doubt eager to capitalize on Wright’s name, despite the circumstances, Damon and Doudt announced their firm would “construct on the now defunct immigration center a completely self-contained city of the future, designed expressly for it by the late Frank Lloyd Wright.” Construction, to be privately financed, was estimated at $100,000,000. (approximately $810,374,172.19 today). The Museum of Modern Art featured one of the TAA’s Key Project images and a description in its 1962 exhibit, The Drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright: “A semi-circular terrace is superimposed on the existing rectangular island; apartment and hotel towers rise at the back, and domed theatres and shops are set into the terrace park.”

Damon, Doudt’s 1962 bid of $2.1 million dollars topped all previous offers for Ellis Island, but it, like all other bids and their accompanying development schemes, was rejected by the government. In 1963, New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner stepped in to propose that the island be preserved as a museum park and memorial. Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall appointed Philip Johnson to create a National Immigration Museum and Park plan for the island, but the architect’s divisive concept, which included a spiraling ziggurat monument—an inverted Guggenheim Museum form turned inside-out—went unexecuted. On May 11, 1965, Ellis Island was incorporated as part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument—preservation prevailed.

*Ellis Island was purchased by the State of New York from a private owner in 1808 and ceded to the United States Government. It remains federal property under the shared territorial jurisdiction of New York and New Jersey.

This post is an unpublished section from Debra Pickrel’s co-authored book, Frank Lloyd Wright in New York – The Plaza Years, 1954-1959 (Gibbs-Smith, 2007), recently released in a 10th anniversary printing. Founder and principal of Pickrel Communications, Inc. (New York, NY), Pickrel served as VP of education on the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy board and was editor of its quarterly BULLETIN. You can find her previous Wright posts here.

SOURCES REFERENCED

Books and Articles

  • Benjamin, Philip. “Ghost of History Fills Ellis Island,” New York Times, July 16, 1964.
  • Bracker, Milton. “$2,100,000 Bid for Ellis Island As Site of Wright ‘Dream City,’” New York
  • Times, May 11, 1962
  • Jackson, Kenneth, ed. The Encyclopedia of New York. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,
  • 1995.
  • Stern, Robert A.M., Thomas Mellins, David Fishman, New York 1960: Architecture and
  • Urbanism Between the Second World War and the Bicentennial. 2 nd ed. New York: The
  • Monacelli Press, 1997.

Letters: The Frank Lloyd Wright Archives, Scottsdale, AZ

  • Elwood M. Doudt to Frank Lloyd Wright, March 19, 1959.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright to Elwood M. Doudt, March 23, 1959.
  • Jerry Damon to Eugene Masselink, April 15, 1959.
  • William Wesley Peters to William S. Steinhardt, April 25, 1979.

Other

  • National Park Service Website, http://www.nps.gov/elis/, “Ellis Island,” June 1, 2006.
  • US Inflation Calculator
Categories: Architecture, Cities, Frank Lloyd Wright

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