Wright in New York: Looking Back on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Final Years
As he was overseeing the construction of the Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright became a New Yorker—a condition the architect was somewhat ambivalent about.
In the late 1950s, while residing in his luxurious Plaza Hotel suite, or “Taliesin East” as it came to be known, Wright supervised construction of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, sparred with the New York press, received many famous visitors, and made some iconic television appearances. In Frank Lloyd Wright in New York – The Plaza Years, 1954-1959, recipient of the 2008 Independent Publisher Awards Gold Medal for Architecture, authors Jane King Hession and Debra Pickrel examine this momentous five-year period, when one of the world’s greatest architects dynamically coexisted with one of its greatest cities. The book is now being released in a 10th anniversary printing to coincide with the Museum of Modern Art’s Frank Lloyd Wright: Unpacking the Archives exhibit (June 12-October 1, 2017), and a new postscript relays the losses, gains, and alterations to Wright’s New York works that have occurred during the last decade. The following excerpt from the book’s introduction explicates the architect’s mercurial relationship with America’s largest metropolis and the cultural and commercial context in which he became a resident.
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) professed to hate all cities, but none more than New York. For decades, he lambasted the East Coast metropolis as “the greatest and greediest mouth in the world,” and spurned its buildings as “cruel rat traps.” His relentless damnations were so widely disseminated in print and on radio and television that, by 1954, Wright’s antipathy to New York was crystal clear. Yet, that same year, the world-famous architect became a citizen of the city he claimed to despise most when he established a home and office in one of its grandest Gilded Age landmarks—the Plaza Hotel (1907) at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South.
From August 1954 through January 1959, when Wright left New York for the last time, his cosmopolitan suite was “command central,” the headquarters from which he negotiated–with varying measures of creativity, cooperation and combat—an astonishing array of exchanges with the city’s architects, artists, journalists, editors, publishers, designers, retailers, celebrities, power brokers, and bureaucrats. Most significantly, he shepherded the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1943-1959), his New York masterwork, to near completion from his sumptuous quarters.
Although Wright’s decision to become a New Yorker might be perceived as contradicting a core belief, it was actually a well-considered choice, triggered in part by professional demands. The Guggenheim was moving closer to construction and the myriad complexities of the commission—already eleven years in the making—required his presence in the city. It was becoming increasingly difficult for the eighty-seven-year-old architect to supervise the project from either of his remote architectural offices: Taliesin (begun in 1911) in Spring Green, Wisconsin and Taliesin West (begun in 1937) in Scottsdale, Arizona. Wright and his son-in-law, William Wesley “Wes” Peters, the Taliesin apprentice assigned to the Guggenheim project, needed a New York base from which to oversee the museum’s planning and construction on a daily basis. And, while in the city, Wright would require a comfortable home for himself and his third wife, Olgivanna, who often accompanied him on his trips.
Architecturally speaking, New York remained unconquered territory for Wright in 1954. By the time he moved into his Plaza suite, he had designed more than nine hundred projects, approximately three hundred and fifty of which had been constructed. Yet he had never built a single, permanent structure in the city. Although he proposed a significant project for Manhattan in the late 1920s, it did not stand in the skyline. This became particularly vexing to the architect during a post-World War II building boom that benefited a host of his professional colleagues—and rivals. As their International Style buildings rose with increasing frequency along New York’s most prestigious avenues, Wright remained entrenched in the battle to build the Guggenheim.
As America assumed superpower status after the war, New York became the most powerful metropolis in the world. In 1946, the selection of Manhattan as the site of the new headquarters for the fledgling United Nations Organization further enhanced its international preeminence. As postwar prosperity initiated an era of tremendous growth and change in the country, demand for construction in the city reached unprecedented levels. By the middle of the twentieth century, New York had become the nation’s undisputed architectural capital. About 50 percent of the country’s licensed architects were practicing in the city at the time, and the leading architectural journals were published there as well. Taking note of the pervasive trend, the New York Times increased its coverage of architecture and predicted 1958 would generate more office buildings than any year in the city’s history. These circumstances would provide Wright with the perfect platform for promoting his own architectural principles, which stood in direct contrast to what he saw being constructed around him.
Americans looking optimistically to the future bought cars, built and furnished new homes, and launched the baby boom. At mid-century, New York was the epicenter of a consumer explosion: 25 percent of the nation’s five hundred largest companies had headquarters in Manhattan, and, of those that did not, most had sales offices there. Not surprisingly, Madison Avenue became the creative hub of a thriving advertising trade. A marketer’s nirvana, New York was described by a Lever Brothers executive as “the platform from which to sell goods in America”—the company’s planned center of operations would become one of Manhattan’s modern landmarks. Wright’s professional associations would make him an active participant in this commercial wave, creating both a Manhattan showroom for elegant automobiles and lines of consumer goods targeting a nation of eager purchasers.
In addition to its commercial dominance, New York was the country’s media nexus. Long the center of the publishing and radio industries in America, in the late 1940s and 1950s, the metropolis became the nation’s television capital, as well—the majority of shows in the new medium originated in Manhattan’s broadcast studios. The city’s literary circles and Broadway theaters virtually assured a steady supply of writers, actors, designers, and directors for the asking. This potent combination of exceptional talent, superior screenwriting, live original dramatic productions, and penetrating news programming gave rise to what would later become known as the “Golden Age” of television.” Capitalizing on his celebrity during his Plaza years, Wright became a persuasive television performer, effectively using its wide reach to promote his beliefs to a curious public.
In the 1950s, New York was “a world city of art,” and a “center for artistic experimentation,” according to art critic Jed Perl. As the heart of the Abstract Expressionist movement, painters including Jackson Pollock, Willem deKooning, and Hans Hoffman, to name a few, all called the city home. Galleries, studios, and museums thrived in what Perl described as “the rush-hour-in-the-arts drama.” In its energy, intensity, size, and scale, “only New York was big enough to embrace the challenges of modern art,” he said. In Wright’s efforts to realize his “modern gallery,” as he called the Guggenheim, the architect would publicly clash with some of the field’s recognized masters.
Yet, for as much as New York was changing at mid-century, one truth was immutable: the city remained a magnet for aspirants of all kinds. Luring those with dreams and ambition with a pull social reformer Jacob Riis once likened to “a lighted candle to the moth,” the city remained the ultimate proving ground. Writer E.B. White described three New Yorks: the first of the native-born, the second of the commuter, and the third of “the person who was born somewhere else and came…in quest of something.” The last was the greatest of the three, and the one responsible for its “incomparable achievements.” Of those who come to the city “seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail,” White said, “each absorbs New York with the fresh eye of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company.” As the end of his life approached, Wright was such a New Yorker—irresistibly drawn to the city and resolved to leave a lasting architectural mark on the glittering metropolis.
Jane King Hession, a partner in Modern House Productions (Edina, MN), is an architectural writer and historian. A former president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, she is the author of several books on Wright and other architects, and co-producer of the documentary Wright on the Park: Saving the City National Bank and Hotel.
Debra Pickrel is founder and principal of Pickrel Communications, Inc. (New York, NY). A former VP of education on the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy board of directors, she also edited its quarterly BULLETIN. Co-author and editor of several architectural history books, she has written for a number of leading design publications including Metropolis. Pickrel’s previous Wright posts on this site include Remembering Edgar T. and Remembering Frank Lloyd Wright’s Demolished Car Showroom. She will contribute additional posts this summer during the magazine’s celebration of the architect’s 150th birthday.