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“New York’s Strangest Building”: A 1945 Introduction to the Guggenheim

In this two-page spread in its October 8, 1945 issue, LIFE showed Wright presiding over a model of his proposed museum building. All photos of magazine: Caitlin Dover

In this two-page spread in its October 8, 1945 issue, LIFE showed Wright presiding over a model of his proposed museum building. All photos of magazine: Caitlin Dover

The final section of the piece shares space with an eye-catching, cat-centric ad for Colgate.

The final section of the piece shares space with an eye-catching, cat-centric ad for Colgate.

In 1945, a year with no dearth of news, LIFE magazine devoted two and a half pages of its October 8 issue to some dramatic photographs and a brief story about Frank Lloyd Wright’s latest project: a new museum building in New York. The photos have just as much impact today as they did then. One full-page image shows the architect standing over a large model of the building, lifting its circular glass roof. With his face half in shadow, he strikes an imposing figure—tempered by his quizzical expression.

The uncredited photos were most likely taken at a September press luncheon at the Plaza Hotel, during which the model was unveiled. As described in Keeping Faith with an Idea: A Time Line of the Guggenheim Museum, 1943–59, Wright explained to the assembled journalists that the building was inspired by ancient ziggurats, but with the traditional stepped form inverted: his building spiraled up rather than down. LIFE shared the encouraging news that, “Visitors will be able to take an elevator to the top, then walk down the ramp looking at the paintings on the way, thus reducing the fatigue and sore feet which beset museum-goers.” The article dutifully conveys facts about location, dimensions, and cost of construction; one intriguing caption states, “On entering the building, visitors will cross [a] floor grill where suction will pull dirt from clothes, help keep museum clean.” At the same time, the writer made a point of the building’s oddity, calling it Wright’s “strangest architectural creation” and “New York’s strangest building.”

Seeing Wright tower over the Guggenheim seems appropriate, given that his legacy and personality loom so large in the museum’s history. Look more closely at the model, though, and you’ll see that the museum beneath his hands has some significant differences from the one now standing on Fifth Avenue. The glass dome he holds is just that—a dome—rather than the oculus in place today; even more notably, the spiral rotunda is on the left, rather than the right. Why the change of placement? Over the course of the following six years, Solomon R. Guggenheim purchased additional lots between 88th and 89th Streets, allowing for the reconfiguration. The architect had, in fact, already requested “additional Fifth Avenue frontage” some months before the unveiling of the model. In a July 1945 letter to Guggenheim he asked that the land be purchased, writing, “That frontage was always tight.” Later, with the entire block at his disposal, Wright created a different museum than that first seen by the press, but one that continued to challenge preconceptions and remained defiantly “strange.”

To learn more about the history of Wright’s Guggenheim building, take a look at The Guggenheim: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Making of a Modern Museum, and visit our interactive timeline.