Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Added by Alan Gettner, last update: August 17, 2012, 1:05 pm

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Interior Ramps of the Rotunda, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, source: courtesy of Jorge Otero-Pailos, date: 2007
1071 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10128-0173
United States
40° 46' 58.7244" N, 73° 57' 31.9212" W
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Identity of Building / Site
Primary classification: Education (EDC)
Secondary classification:
Federal, State, or Local Designation(s) and Date(s):
History of Building/Site
Original Brief:

Hilla Rebay, Solomon R. Guggenheim's artistic adviser, helped Guggenheim assemble his collection of modern art and convinced him to begin planning for a museum to house his collection. In 1943, she chose Frank Lloyd Wright and provided him with $21,000 to begin planning, even though a site had not yet been chosen. In August 1945, a design was unveiled to Mr. and Mrs. Guggenheim. Rebay's objective, seconded by Wright, involved construction of a museum to house Guggenheim's collection that rejected conventional museum architecture.

Dates: Commission / Completion:Commission: 1943 / Completion: October 1959.
Architectural and other Designer(s): Frank Lloyd Wright, architect. Holden, McLaughlin & Associates, New York architects. William Wesley Peters, architect (assisted Wright). Charles Middelear, landscape designer.
Others associated with Building/Site: Solomon R. Guggenheim, collector and primary funder. Harry F. Guggenheim, Solomon's nephew who headed Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation after Solomon's death in 1949. Hilla Rebay, Solomon Guggenheim's curator and first director of Museum, who chose Wright as architect. George N. Cohen, Euclid Contracting Corporation, builder.
Significant Alteration(s) with Date(s): James Johnson Sweeney, Director after Rebay, made numerous changes in Wight's plan prior to October 1959 opening. Conversion of second floor of administrative wing (the "Monitor") to house Thannhauser Collection, 1963, William Wesley Peters, Taliesin Associated Architects, architect. Construction of annex to house storage, offices and technical facilities (since demolished), 1968, William Wesley Peters, Taliesin Associated Architects, architect. Enclosure of driveway to create bookstore and restaurant, conversion of driveway outlet on 89th Street to service entrance and outdoor dining terrace. Alterations to entrance and Thannhauser wing, 1973-4, Donald E. Freed, architect. Creation of Reading Room and connection to rotunda, 1978, Richard Meier, architect. Construction of annex (replacing 1968 building) containing new galleries, storage, technical and administrative space. Various openings of new exhibition spaces to rotunda. Old administrative spaces in "monitor" converted to exhibition space. Renovation of main spaces. Cafe restored to original location. Other changes. 1994, Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, architects.
Current Use: Art museum with usual support facilities.
Current Condition: Excellent. Extensive restoration of concrete structure nearing completion.
General Description:

The building, notwithstanding the alterations and additions that have taken place, is a prime example of the later work of Frank Lloyd Wright, manifesting his theory of "organic architecture" in the unity of building method, appearance and use. It is Wright's only complete building in New York City and is completely different from any other modern building in New York City, breaking the norm of a facade parallel to the street and planar surfaces. Of reinforced concrete construction, its most striking feature is the one-quarter-mile long ramp which spirals up in ever-widening loops around an interior courtyard.

Construction Period:

Reinforced concrete with early elastronic wall coating

Original Physical Context:

On New York's upper Fifth Avenue, which largely consists of apartment houses constrcted of brick, sometimes with limestone over lower floors, together with a number of surviving town houses, largely though not entirely now serving institutional uses. Nearly all these buildings have flat facades facing the park and built to the building line. This is a stable neighborhood.

Technical Evaluation:

Wright was known to push the limits of technology and this building is no exception. George N. Cohen, the contractor, is credited with having made construction of a unique building possible at a reasonable cost. Wright created an irregular shape in the spiral that expands as it rises. This created uneven expansion and contraction as temperatures change. In order to preserve a monolithic appearance, there are no expansion joints. Wright used a thick elastic wall coating that had just been developed to prevent external cracking. Despite what would appear to be problems inherent to the building, a recent two-year assessment in connection with the restoration currently taking place found the structure in "remarkably good condition." "Guggenheim Restoration Has Wright Stuff," Architectural Record, vol. 195, no. 11, November 2007, p. 42.


Client and architect wanted and built a museum like no other. Despite its iconic status, the building appears to have had little influence on New York City architecture.

Cultural & Aesthetic:
Wright intended to build an museum that broke with conventional museum architecture, a symbol of a new era in the display of art. There were to be, he said, "clean beautiful spaces throughout the building, all beautifully proportioned to human scale." Put another way, Wright constructed a museum suitable for the founder's collection of non-objective art. Despite much controversy whether that aim was accomplished (many eminent artists derided the building initialy), Wright designed a building as innovative as the art it contains. The fact that is still startles us after nearly fifty years testifies to his success.

Considered by many the most significant building of Wright's late period.

General Assessment:
There is little doubt that this is building of great significance, an icon to a great architect's unique vision of modern architecture. That it also houses an important cultural institution contributes to its value.
Text references:

The building has been extensively published. There follows a very brief list of some of the more useful publications:
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum - Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1960.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum - Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1975.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection, 1994.
LANDMARK PRESERVATION COMMISSION, Report, New York: Landmark Preservation Commission, 1990

Recorder/Date: Alan Gettner, March 6, 2008
P.O. Box 230977
New York, NY 10023
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