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When did the Guggenheim open?

In the vein of notable architecture built following WWII, today we will be learning about the ever-so-recognizable Guggenheim Museum, a building which took longer to be realized than the Sydney Opera House, but not nearly as long under construction! The building was finished the year Sydney Opera House started.

In 1943, Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to design a building to house the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which had been established by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1939. In a letter dated June 1, 1943, Hilla Rebay, the curator of the foundation and director of the museum, instructed Wright, “I want a temple of spirit, a monument!”

Wright’s inverted-ziggurat design was not built until 1959. Numerous factors contributed to this 16-year delay: modifications to the design (it is said the architect produced 6 separate sets of plans and 749 drawings), the acquisition of additional property, and the rising costs of building materials following World War II. The museum’s benefactor, Solomon R. Guggenheim, died in 1949, further delaying the project. It was not until 1956 that construction of the museum, renamed in Guggenheim’s memory, finally began.

Wright’s masterpiece opened to the public on October 21, 1959, six months after his death, and was immediately recognized as an architectural icon. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is arguably the most important building of Wright’s late career. A monument to modernism, the unique architecture of the space, with its spiral ramp riding to a domed skylight, continues to thrill visitors and provide a unique forum for the presentation of contemporary art. In the words of critic Paul Goldberger, “Wright’s building made it socially and culturally acceptable for an architect to design a highly expressive, intensely personal museum. In this sense almost every museum of our time is a child of the Guggenheim.”

Wright’s original plans for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum called for a ten-story tower behind the smaller rotunda, to house galleries, offices, workrooms, storage, and private studio apartments. Largely for financial reasons, Wright’s proposed tower went unrealized. In 1990, Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects revived the plan with its eight-story tower, which incorporates the foundation and framing of a smaller 1968 annex designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son-in-law, William Wesley Peters.

In 1992, after a major interior renovation, the museum reopened with the entire original Wright building now devoted to exhibition space and completely open to the public for the first time. The tower contains 4,750 square meters of new and renovated gallery space, 130 square meters of new office space, a restored restaurant, and retrofitted support and storage spaces. The tower’s simple facade and grid pattern highlight Wright’s unique spiral design and serves as a backdrop to the rising urban landscape behind the museum.

In 2008, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was designated a National Historic Landmark; in 2015, along with nine other buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the building was nominated by the United States to be included in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List. In 2019, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as part of The 20th-Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, which includes eight major works spanning fifty years of Wright’s career.

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