The Hidden History of the Guggenheim Museum

guggenheim museum

June 8th marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Frank Lloyd Wright, one of America’s most iconic and celebrated architects. Here in New York City, Wright’s famed Guggenheim Museum stands along Museum Mile as one of his most well-known buildings. A masterpiece of modern architecture, the Guggenheim Museum is both an official New York City Landmark and a National Historic Landmark, signifying it’s architectural, cultural and historical importance. Few people, however, really know the history and development of Wright’s iconic landmark. Here’s a quick look at the hidden history of the Guggenheim Museum.

The museum itself was the brainchild of Solomon R. Guggenheim, a wealthy mining scion who enjoyed collecting artwork starting in the late 19th century. He displayed his art collection in the Plaza Hotel for the public to see and later established the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1937 to promote modern art. Guggenheim later opened the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in 1939 in Midtown Manhattan to display the works of artists like Wassily Kadinsky, Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso among others. However, by the early 1940s, the popularity of the museum necessitated the need for a larger and more permanent space. Guggenheim contacted architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1943 to see if he had any interest in helping to design a new museum. Wright, eager to experiment with organic architecture in an urban setting, accepted the commission.

Wright took 15 years to complete the Guggenheim Museum’s final design, producing some 700 sketches and six sets of working drawings. Eventually, he settled on a design that incorporated an inverted ziggurat-type structure that spiraled downward internally. He intended for patrons to take an elevator to the top of the museum and work their way down the spiral rotunda to view the artwork. After considering several locations in the city, including the Bronx riverfront, it was eventually decided that the museum’s location would be along Fifth Avenue in the Upper East Side, creating a sharp contrast between the stately Metropolitan Museum of Art nearby and the neighborhood’s collection of Gilded Age mansions and ornate townhouses. Although Wright originally intended for the museum’s exterior to be red-colored stone, it was eventually built of concrete.

Construction on the Guggenheim Museum began in 1953 and the new museum was opened on October 21, 1959. Its unorthodox design polarized critics and the public initially, with some believing it to be a modern masterpiece while others viewed it as out of context and ungainly. Some critics commented that the museum’s unusual shape and low ceilings kept its collection of paintings from being properly displayed, prompting Wright to famously declare that the paintings should be cut in half! Eventually, both architectural critics and the public became endeared to the building’s unique architecture and rich collection of masterpieces by artists such as Van Gogh, Manet, Picasso and countless others.

Sadly, Wright never lived to see the museum’s completion, passing away just a few months before it opened on April 9, 1959 at age 91. However, his last and arguably most famous creation was named a National Historic Landmark in 2008 and continues to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, attesting its popularity and importance in American culture and the history of artwork and architecture.