Wed Jun 26 2013 01:31:26 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)
A small landmark of New York City architectural and automotive history disappeared recently, almost without notice. The theatrical auto showroom designed by Frank Lloyd Wright at 430 Park Avenue, at 56th Street, had displayed a number of European brands over the years, notably Mercedes-Benz from 1957 to 2012.
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In early April, the Wright interior was demolished by the owners of the building, Midwood Investment and Management and Oestreicher Properties. Debra Pickrel, a preservationist and co-author of “Frank Lloyd Wright in New York: The Plaza Years, 1954-1959” (Gibbs Smith, 2007) wrote about the showroom’s destruction in Metropolis magazine.
Born in Austria, Maximilian Hoffman immigrated to New York with the outbreak of World War II. In 1947, he established a firm to import little-known European brands to New York and the West Coast.
Hoffman first intended the showroom for Jaguars. Drawings from the Wright archives show a leaping Jaguar sculpture and planters. But by the time the showroom was completed, Jaguar had set up its own sales space. Instead, the Hoffman space was filled with a mix of cars, including Porsches, for which he was the official importer to the United States.
The first drawings for the showroom have pedestrians on Park Avenue looking into the space. A rotating turntable held three or four cars; a ramp behind it accommodated one or two more. That spiral anticipated the design of the Guggenheim Museum, which opened in 1959.
The showroom was never considered a major work. In 1966, the architecture critic of The New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable, who died in January, referred to it as “cramped.”
But it was one of a handful of Wright buildings in the New York area, and its form has a definite place in key themes of Wright’s work, according to historians like David G. DeLong, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.
Part of Wright’s fee for the design work was two Mercedes-Benzes, according to Douglas Steiner, who has written extensively about the architect. Wright also designed a house for Hoffman in Rye, N.Y.
Almost alone, it seems, Mr. Hoffman saw a market for European luxury models in New York and Beverly Hills. Beginning in the late 1940s, he imported a wide range of brands, including Delahaye and Austin.
He was willing to take a chance on the former Third Reich’s people’s car, the Volkswagen, which eventually became a huge hit. He also offered the Jowett Jupiter, which was not.
Hoffman met Ferry Porsche, son of the company’s founder, in 1950 and began importing Porsches to New York. He often raced cars himself to publicize the brands. Hoffman was known for coming up with ideas for new models that would sell well in the United States, suggesting the series production of the Mercedes 300SL Gullwing and the Porsche Speedster to their respective manufacturers.
In 1958, Mercedes-Benz bought out Hoffman and remained in the Park Avenue space, through two renovations, until decamping last year for a larger showroom in a new dealership on Eleventh Avenue.
To students of Wright’s work, the showroom ramps recall larger designs. One was the never-built Gordon Strong Automobile Objective, a mountaintop tower imagined in 1924 for a wealthy client. It was to be a structure where cars would park at the culmination of a scenic drive in Maryland. The other is the Guggenheim Museum, which resembles the Automobile Objective tower flipped on its head.
Janet Halstead, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, a Chicago-based group dedicated to preserving Wright’s work, said that after learning of the planned demolition last June from one of its members, her organization tried to have the city designate the showroom as a landmark.
“We have a network of members and professionals who informally monitor Wright buildings in their regions and in the media, and we often learn about situations through these ‘Wright watch’ participants,” she said. “They constitute a kind of early-warning system for risks to Wright buildings. We sent a formal request for evaluation to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in August 2012.”
According to Matt Chaban of Crain’s New York Business, who reported on the events, on March 22 the commission called, and on March 25 sent a letter, informing the building owner that landmarking was under discussion.
On March 28, the owner applied to the city Buildings Department, a separate agency, for a demolition permit, which was granted. Demolition took place the next week.
“The Landmarks Commission was unaware that the space had been demolished until we had an eyewitness report that the space had been gutted,” Ms. Halstead said.
Calls and e-mails to the owners, Midwood Investment and Management and Oestreicher Properties, and to the building’s managers, were not returned.
The conservancy’s president, Larry Woodin, issued a statement reading in part, “It is very disappointing that the City of New York was not able to move quickly enough to prevent the demolition of this Wright space.”
Donna Boland, a spokeswoman for Mercedes-Benz, said the hope when Mercedes left was that the showroom would be leased to another car company. “We were shocked at the removal,” she said, “but had no say in it since we leased the space.”
IMAGE: The space, with a spiral ramp and turntable interior, was designed in 1954 for the pioneering auto importer Max Hoffman.