40th Anniversary Celebration

40th Anniversary Celebration


Free Admission, Guided Architectural Tours, and Film Screenings to be Offered; Mayor Giuliani Declares October 21 "Guggenheim Museum Day"

In honor of the fortieth anniversary of the opening of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the construction of Frank Lloyd Wright's landmark building, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has declared October 21 "Guggenheim Museum Day." The day will be celebrated with free admission, guided architectural tours, and film screenings, among other activities.

"When the Guggenheim Museum was completed forty years ago, it represented a milestone in world architecture," said Thomas Krens, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. "It remains one of the great buildings of the twentieth century. We are thrilled to honor the magnitude of Wright's achievement and to recognize the historical and spiritual links between this building and the Guggenheim Museum."

In June 1943, Frank Lloyd Wright received a letter from Hilla Rebay, the art advisor to Solomon R. Guggenheim, asking the architect to design a new building to house Guggenheim's four-year-old Museum of Non-Objective Painting. The project evolved into a complex struggle pitting the architect against city officials, members of the art world and general public, and even, at times, his client. Both Guggenheim and Wright would die before the building was completed in 1959. The resulting structure, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, testifies not only to Wright's architectural genius, but to the adventurous spirit that characterized its founders.

The museum began as a collaboration between Solomon R. Guggenheim, the fourth of seven brothers of a wealthy mining family from Switzerland, and Baroness Hilla Rebay von Ehrenwiesen, a young German artist and enthusiast of the avant-garde art movement. The two began exhibiting Guggenheim's growing art collection in his apartment in the early 1930s. In 1937, they formed the collection into a foundation and rented quarters at 24 East 54th Street. It was at this location that the Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection of Non-Objective Paintings was opened on June 1, 1939, with Hilla Rebay as Director. Within a few short years the museum had outgrown the space and was in need of a new home.

In 1943, Solomon R. Guggenheim and Frank Lloyd Wright began plans to build a "reposeful place in which paintings could be seen to better advantage than they have ever been seen." The museum, said Wright, ought to be "an organic building where all is one great space on a single continuous floor." The Fifth Avenue setting between Eighty-eighth and Eighty-ninth Streets, chosen in 1944, was ideal for Wright and Guggenheim's "little temple in the park." Fifteen years were consumed in realizing Wright's vision. Following Solomon Guggenheim's death in 1949, Harry F. Guggenheim, Solomon's nephew, acted as President of the Board of Trustees. James Johnson Sweeney succeeded Hilla Rebay as director of the museum and oversaw the new museum's first installation.

On October 21, 1959, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened amid fiery debate. Critics feared that the art would be poorly displayed in the unusual structure. Supporters hailed the building as an artwork in its own right. But on dedication day, wrote one reporter, "the audience, which included many hostile to the circular building, was apparently caught up in the spirit and applauded wholeheartedly, differences forgotten." In a letter from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, which was read aloud at the opening, the building was described as "a symbol of our free society, which welcomes new expressions of the creative spirit of man." The Wright structure, which had at various times been compared to an inverted cupcake, a giant Jell-O mold and a washing machine, has since become a mecca for art enthusiasts and a treasured New York landmark.

The Building
The building is constructed of cast-in-place concrete. Its spiral shape is formed by a grand cantilevered ramp, over one-quarter of a mile long, which curves unbroken from the ground to the heights of the dome, almost one hundred feet above. This circular form is repeated in the elevator shaft, the skylight, and the auditorium below. The abundant light provided by the skylight is essential to Wright's plan, in which "art will be seen as if through an open window." The ground floor provides a multipurpose space useful for the display of large paintings and sculptures. The High Gallery supplies additional space for sculpture and monumental pictures and is in marked contrast to the seventy-four niche-like bays that compose the primary display areas. Works in the bays along the ramps are hung in such a manner that they appear to float free of the outwardly angled wall behind them.

The vitality of Wright's museum is demonstrated by the fact that it has been extended and modified and yet has preserved its personality; it has continued to absorb more and more activity without its essential character being diluted. Renovations include the construction of an annex in 1963 to house a portion of Justin K. Thannhauser's renowned personal collection, on permanent loan to the museum; the addition of a restaurant and a bookstore on the ground floor of the museum in 1974; and the construction of a ten-story tower and 10,000-square-foot underground vault to provide new galleries and administrative offices, a project which was completed in 1992.

Public Programs
The museum will be open on Thursday, October 21, from 9 am to 3 pm (it is normally closed on Thursdays) and admission will be free of charge. Docent-guided tours will be conducted throughout the day, highlighting the architecture and history of the Frank Lloyd Wright building. Also available beginning October 21 will be a new 25-minute Acoustigude tour detailing the building's architectural history. In addition, "1071 Fifth Avenue: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Secret Life of a Museum," a film by Ultan Guilfoyle, will be shown throughout the day in the Peter B. Lewis Theater.

Celebrations of the fortieth anniversary continue on Monday, October 25, with a lecture entitled "Celebrating Forty Years of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building." Jack Quinan, professor at the School of Architecture and Art History at SUNY Buffalo, will discuss Wright and the planning of his masterpiece. The lecture takes place at 7 pm in the Peter B. Lewis Theater. Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for members, students and seniors.

September 21, 1999


Public Affairs Associate

Telephone: (212) 423-3841

Telefax: (212) 423-3787

E-mail: mchevraux@guggenheim.org

On View

This presentation, comprised of selected materials from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Archives, pays homage to the first Frank Lloyd Wright–designed structures in New York City.

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