The Guggenheim Museum Turns 50

The Larkin Company of Buffalo, N.Y., made soap. but more than suds, the company helped invent modern marketing. In the late 19th century, Larkin began to sell mail-order products for the laundry and bath with elaborate premiums: lamps, music stands, rocking chairs. The business exploded and by the turn of the new century the company needed a new building to handle all the orders. John Larkin, the founder, wanted the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, who'd built the innovative steel-framed Guaranty Building in downtown Buffalo, to design it. But a Larkin lieutenant, Darwin Martin, had another idea. He wanted to hire a 35-year-old hotshot Sullivan protégé named Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright was gaining fame in the Midwest for his radical "Prairie" houses, but he'd never built anything as ambitious as the Larkin Building—and may have indulged in a little résumé inflation about his experience in commercial architecture. But he got the job in 1902 and began work on the design. (Story continued below...)

Wright's most celebrated building today, and justly so, is the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, which opened in 1959, just months after the architect's death at age 91. Now, as the museum is about to commemorate its 50th birthday with an exhibition devoted to Wright's work (opening May 15), it's worth a look back at Wright's first great large-scale project, which, with the Guggenheim, arguably bookends his career. The Larkin's interior plan was revolutionary in the world of business, and within its mighty brick walls, it expressed the optimism of its era and the excitement of a booming city. There's just one problem: you can't visit the Larkin. The building is a ghost now. All that's left of it is a fragment of one massive brick pier left in the corner of a parking lot where it once stood.

Behind the Larkin commission, as in most of Wright's great projects, was an adventurous client, one who would remain a stalwart friend in the architect's turbulent life. Martin, then vice president, had started at the company as a bookkeeping apprentice at the age of 13. Quick-minded and a born workaholic, he rose rapidly, eventually inventing an elaborate card system to track the ballooning orders and invoices. What made Wright's plan for the Larkin Building unique was the way it organized that Niagara of paper and the staff who handled it. Outside, the imposing building was a fortress against its grimy industrial neighborhood. But inside it was airy, planned around a skylit, sun-filled, five-story atrium. The executives sat there together at long desks, not in private offices, so the 1,800 clerical workers could overlook them from the upper-floor balconies along the sides—an arrangement that symbolized the openness of the Larkin corporate culture. On the building's exterior was inscribed the motto: HONEST LABOR NEEDS NO MASTER.

The Larkin Building opened in 1906 and worked like a machine. Huge sacks of mail—thousands of pieces each day—were delivered to the basement and then taken up in elevators; the orders made their way down to clerks on the lower floors (some worker bees zipped around on roller skates to make deliveries)—not unlike the way Wright would later imagine the Guggenheim's visitors spiraling down to the bottom of the museum, notes historian Jack Quinan, author of "Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Building." ("The fascinating thing for me," he says, "is that it could all be done on a PC on a desk today.") The Larkin did take advantage of the latest technologies—letters were dictated on Edison's graphophones—and it had air conditioning, the first steel office furniture (designed by Wright) and toilets clamped to the walls for ease in mopping the floors. The entire enterprise was an expression of the new ideas about space and time that were sweeping through the culture.

Martin remained Wright's steadfast friend and patron, and he was one of the few. Three years after the Larkin Building was completed, Wright left his wife and six children and ran off with his mistress, who was murdered five years later by a deranged servant (the basis of the bestselling novel, "Loving Frank"). It was Martin to whom the architect often turned for money and sympathy as his scandalous personal life exacted a heavy price on his career. In 1906, Martin and his family had moved into a home he'd commissioned from Wright, in a leafy Buffalo neighborhood with curving streets laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted. It was an extravagant Prairie house, a low-lying structure with deep, overhanging eaves that cost an astonishing $173,000. The architect saw to every detail—he designed the poles that held the clotheslines, the art-glass windows (even in the stables) and a dramatic 100-foot pergola that extended from the front hall to a conservatory. By 1926, when Wright designed Graycliff, a lakeside summer house for Martin, he had almost no clients—and was even jailed briefly on a morals charge that same year, stemming from his liaison with Olgivanna, who would become his third and last wife (she and other Wright consorts are taken up in this year's fascinating T. C. Boyle novel "The Women").

The Larkin Company was in equally dire straits. Martin retired and business flagged; during the Depression, the company went bankrupt. Wright's great building was abandoned, with much of its steel furniture salvaged for World War II. In 1950, the city of Buffalo demolished it, despite the outcry of preservationists. Wright, of course, was very much alive and, once again, busier than ever—his reputation had been rehabilitated in part by the autobiography he wrote in the 1930s, and by such stunning projects as Fallingwater from 1937. Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, who had just joined the architect's studio at Taliesen West and is now director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives, recalls how Wright took the news of the Larkin's demise: "He was delighted it took three contractors to tear it down. And he tapped his head and said, 'I have a great little forgetter up here'." Pfeiffer describes him as "a very radiant person, so upbeat, so cool." He once customized a Lincoln Continental with no rear window because, he said, "It's not where I've been that counts, it's where I'm going."

Wright was heading to many other projects in 1950, including an ambitious plan for a cultural center in Baghdad (never built), and more Usonian houses, his ideal for the modern middle-class family. (He also sketched, though never built, a fancier house for Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Miller—that would be Marilyn Monroe—that included an orchid conservatory off the dining room.) And he was already at work on the tricky design for the Guggenheim. There, too, he had a backstage client—not Solomon R. Guggenheim, whose name adorns the museum's curving façade, but Guggenheim's curator Hilla Rebay, a German-born baroness and painter. She was full of mystical ideas and talked to Wright about the museum as a sanctuary: "I want a temple of spirit, a monument!" she wrote him. An early version of the design included an ocular chamber where one could recline, as music played, and drink in a Kandinsky painting or an experimental film. "Her ideas really gave him free rein," says Neil Levine, a professor at Harvard and author of "The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright." "She gave him the right to do something we could interpret as spiritual, at a high degree of abstraction." Guggenheim died in 1949, Rebay was pushed out before the project was finished—and Wright tussled with the new director over changes that the aging architect complained disturbed his health.

Still, the form he created was amazing—though at the time it opened, it was derided as the "cupcake," and artists such as Willem de Kooning protested the new museum would be a terrible place to see contemporary painting. The critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it "less a museum than a monument to Mr. Wright." Yet with its continuous ribbon of ramps encircling a creamy vast interior, the building revolutionized the experience of moving through space, and it launched the now ubiquitous notion of an art museum as an artwork itself. In designing it, Wright attempted to express the postwar zeitgeist, even if his words on the subject were pretty wacky. When he first began the design in the mid-1940s, he described the spiral structure to a group of reporters as a coiled spring, and added, "When the first atomic bomb lands on New York, it will not be destroyed. It may be blown a few miles up in the air, but when it comes down, it will bounce!"

Wright's museum now stands as an unequivocal masterpiece, an exhilarating cultural landmark that's not showing its age, thanks in part to a recent $29 million face-lift. With this restoration— and an earlier one in 1992— the Guggenheim is closer to Wright's original design (though it's lost some wonderful elements, such as a driveway that curved up between the two circular shapes, where the bookstore is now). Neglect has been the enemy of projects like the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo, which sat empty for years but has been undergoing a major restoration, including replicating 200 of its missing art-glass windows. (Last December one small Martin house window sold at Sotheby's for $218,500.) Buffalonians joke ruefully that their current stewardship of Martin's house—the community has raised $39 million so far—is penance for the loss of the Larkin Building. Wright built about 400 projects—an extraordinary measure for any architect—but scores have been bulldozed, particularly houses. Yet so many Wright buildings have stood up to time and still have the power to dazzle us with their ingenuity. Chief among those is the Guggenheim itself, a work that's somehow both historic yet still ahead of the curve.