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.
The space, with a spiral ramp and turntable interior, was
designed in 1954 for the pioneering auto importer Max
Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum
of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts
Library, Columbia University, New York)
Frank Lloyd Wright's sketch of the Hoffman
automobile showroom at 430 Park Ave.
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
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,
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.”