Stefanie Waldek, Architectural Digest
When the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened in 1959, critics panned the design, likening it to a washing machine, an inverted oatmeal bowl, and “an oversized and indigestible hot cross bun,” among other things. Today, however, it’s become one of New York City’s most beloved architectural icons. Designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the Guggenheim is a concrete masterpiece, featuring a top-heavy spiraling form that certainly makes for a unique space for displaying art—the ultimate goal of Solomon R. Guggenheim himself, and of his art adviser Hilla Rebay. It was Wright’s first commission in New York City, though the architect was rather displeased about the chosen location. "I think of several more desirable places in the world to build this great museum, but we will have to try New York,' he wrote in a 1949 letter. The compromise? Wright picked a site next to Central Park, connecting the museum with nature—a crucial component in the architect’s design ethos. To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Guggenheim, we’ve uncovered seven little-known facts about the building.
1. Frank Lloyd Wright wanted the museum’s exterior to be red.
You’ll find prominent use of Wright’s signature colour, Cherokee Red, in many of his most famous works. The monochromatic Guggenheim is not one such building, but it nearly was. Wright intended to clad the exterior in red marble, claiming that “red is the color of creation,” but Hilla Rebay shot the idea down. “Red is a color which displeases [Solomon R. Guggenheim] as much as it does me," she wrote in a 1945 letter to the architect.
2. The original exterior ended up being painted a brownish yellow.
That’s right, the Guggenheim was not originally the super pale grey it is today. During the $29 million restoration, conservators removed 11 layers of paint, unearthing the original brownish-yellow hue. There was a debate about what colour to paint the restored exterior—yellow proponents argued the colour was more akin to what Wright would have wanted, since he didn’t particularly love white, while grey proponents argued that the building was better known for its nearly white hue, having been painted various shades of grey since the 1960s. At the end of the day, the proponents of grey won.
3. The ramp is more than a quarter-mile long.
Anyone who’s walked up the spiral ramp inside the Guggenheim knows it’s a bit of a workout. The entire ramp is 1,416 feet long and it’s set at an 18-degree angle. Afraid of heights? Don’t lean over the 36-inch-tall parapet—an extraordinarily low barrier that is certainly not up to contemporary building codes—and peer down into the 96-foot atrium beneath the rotunda.
4. The building is one of the youngest to be designated a National Historic Landmark, which happened in 2008, when it was 49 years old.
Most buildings don’t receive the designation until they’ve been standing for at least 50 years, but the National Park Service, which administers the National Historic Landmark program, invoked a special exception to its standard criteria for nomination given the building’s significance. Even more impressively, the Guggenheim was named a New York City landmark at just 31 years old—it’s one of the youngest buildings to receive that title.
5. The museum’s interior is painted nearly every day.
The white paint on the interior of the Guggenheim is constantly being refreshed, given that it’s prone to getting a bit scuffed up. “You’d have to really close the whole building and have it closed for, you know, I don’t know, a full week or something if you were to truly repaint the interior,” said assistant curator of architecture Ashley Mendelsohn in an audio guide to the museum. “And so instead, we touch up here and there.” So each day after the museum closes to guests, the paintbrushes come out. This patchwork painting style lends a unique textural quality to interior surfaces, which you can feel if you run your hands over the parapet, for instance.
6. The interior walls of the rotunda are tilted outward at 97 degrees.
Wright wanted the walls to emulate the tilt of an easel in order to best display works of art. He envisioned leaning paintings against the wall rather than mounting them fully. In order to protect the works, he added steep slopes between the gallery floor and the gallery walls to separate the audience from the art. He also installed skylights in the galleries to light the art naturally. Neither of these notions ended up being used for long—works are now typically mounted on the walls directly, and the skylights were replaced with artificial lighting after the inaugural exhibition in 1959.
7. Frank Lloyd Wright’s initials can be found on the exterior of the museum, like a signature on a work of art.
On the exterior of the Guggenheim, there’s a small red tile bearing Wright’s initials. The architect commissioned a ceramicist to craft about 25 of these tiles, inspired by seals on Japanese prints, which were placed on his projects that received his personal approval—essentially, signifying that they had been completed exactly to his specifications. The Guggenheim is unique in that it also bears the name of the contractor who built it, George Cohen, whom Wright greatly respected. “This was the only time Wright ever put the general contractor’s name on a building,” says 99% Invisible podcast host Roman Mars in the museum’s audio guide.