Wright or Wrong

Clandestinely, a minor piece of both automotive and architecture history has been destroyed. And not in Italy either. 

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Photo (c) Pinterest.com

Austrian-American car importer, Max Hoffman, is best known for his crucial role in establishing European (mostly West German) car makers in the US market after the Second World War. What is less well known is the fact that Hoffman, was a bonafide connoisseur of architecture.

As such, Hoffman was particularly fond of the seminal work of Frank Lloyd Wright. For this reason, Hoffman commissioned the architect to design a private house for him in Rye, Westchester Country, in 1955.

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Photo (c) Pinterest.com

The previous year, Hoffman had had another job for Wright: A Jaguar showroom on Park Avenue. Promised two cars as compensation, the architect, who was using two adjacent suites equipped with custom furniture at the city’s Plaza hotel as his New York office, set to work.

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Photo (c) Pinterest

Despite featuring floating automobiles and giants roaming Park Avenue, Wright’s concept for the showroom becomes abundantly clear in this illustration. Not unlike the rotunda he was devising for the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum during the same period, Wright envisaged a spiral ramp alongside part of the round display at the centre of the showroom, encircling a Jaguar leaper atop a large planter.

As it turned out the people in the sketch weren’t giants, but the cars were rather smaller than those aimed at adult drivers. For that matter (and due to the absence of a leaper in the wake of the importer’s falling out with Jaguar), Wright’s Hoffman showroom didn’t turn out to be quite as spectacular as the illustration had suggested.

By the median standards of the business, the Hoffman showroom was a rather intricate environment. Yet it was hardly exceptional – certainly not at a time when General Motors regularly held Motorama exhibits at the Waldorf Astoria hotel down the street.

Next to GM’s Tech Center home or the architectural temples devoted to other marvels of consumer product engineering, such as Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal at New York City’s Idlewild Airport, the Hoffman showroom inevitably fades into insignificance.

In that context, it hardly comes as a surprise that the showroom received rather drastic cosmetic changes over the following decades, particularly when Max Hoffman handed it over to Mercedes-Benz, by the time he’d chosen to focus his business solely on importing and selling BMWs (he would eventually sell his company to the Bavarians in 1975, before retiring to his Rye estate).

Given this turn of events, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Mercedes’ Park Avenue showroom didn’t attain the status of hallowed ground. Instead, it received a considerable makeover in 1982, which appears to have taken inspiration from nightclubs above all else. The arrival of mirrors on the ceiling (forming a three-pointed star) and carpet on the floor, not to mention the levelling of the main floor height, dispelled not just the brand emblem that used to be at the centre of the rotunda, but most of the showroom’s 1950s flair as well.

With colour palette and materials thus changed to run-of-the-mill 1980s tastes, as well as a more cramped overall spatial impression, due to the addition of office space, the showroom lost most of its subliminal lustre, just as it had gained much of the literal kind. If it hadn’t been for the idiosyncratic balustrade, the (former) Hoffman showroom could have been mistaken for just another random piece of corporate architecture.

Another renovation in 2002 brought other minor changes about, before Mercedes-Benz announced the building of an all-new Manhattan showroom as part of the brand’s new dealership premises in 2008, which would inevitably render the Park Avenue premises redundant.

This eventually happened in May 2013, after Mercedes-Benz had finally moved out and the building’s owners started demolishing the empty estate, in order to ready it for its new, non-automotive tenants.

Today, there are no more traces of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work to be found at 430 Park Avenue. Even the association with such a giant of American cultural history couldn’t prevent this piece of commercial architecture from suffering the same fate as its more mundane counterparts.

This loss isn’t particularly tragic, but deserves a moment’s hesitation. And this brief retrospect.

 

The author of this piece runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at 

www.auto-didakt.com

Author: Kris Kubrick

Driven To Write Auto-Didaktic Automotive Content

3 thoughts on “Wright or Wrong”

  1. Frank, hi, thanks for the drawings.

    Sure.

    I have a question.

    Go ahead…

    It’s about the bathrooms….

    Oh, do you need there to be another one? You did say three.

    No, it’s the spiral connecting them up.

    Is it too steep?

    Well….

    34 degrees was as shallow an angle as I could manage otherwise I’d lose space for the car park ramp.

    Yes and the carpark ramp, Frank. And the ramp in the sitting room and the spiral to the bedrooms.

    You want more spirals? I have one left over from Falling Water. It’s nice but a bit water damaged…

    No, thanks. Oh… about the flat roof, Frank…

  2. It does appear that Max Hoffman was someone who was not above what might be described as ‘sharp practice’, holding several franchises simultaneously and playing one off against the other. He is also accused of presiding over a reign of fear with his dealers, forcing all manner of concessions and sanctions against transgressors.

    Sir William Lyons was involved in a lengthy and protracted lawsuit against Hoffman, who was his sole distributor for the entire Eastern Seaboard of the US until the late ’50s. It cost him the not inconsiderable sum at the time of over $100,000 to extract himself and his US business from Hoffman’s influence.

    Mercedes, BMW, VW and Alfa Romeo – all of whom he handled, had similar tales to tell, it’s believed.

    1. Eóin, you left off Porsche and Lancia!
      On the positive note Hoffman was responsible for the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider and the Porsche 356 Speedster. Much of the credit for BMW’s popularity in the US is also given to Hoffman.
      It always gave me great joy to walk by the corner of Park Ave and 56th Street and stare into the cramped showroom, so to me its destruction was a great loss.

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