How a Frank Lloyd Wright Quietly Disappeared in Manhattan

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Courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy

With little notice and zero fanfare, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed space disappeared from Midtown Manhattan late last month, and architecture fans are only just now taking notice, thanks to an article in Crain’s New York Business. It was the Hoffman Showroom, a car dealership at 430 Park Ave., completed in 1955, which sold Mercedes until it closed in late 2012.

There are only three Wright-designed spaces in New York, most notably the Guggenheim Museum, so this place should have been ripe for the preservation. As Crain’s explains, a lack of coordination among city departments let this one fall through the cracks:

The end came suddenly and unexpectedly. On March 22, the Landmarks Preservation Commission called the owners of 430 Park Ave. to tell them the city was considering designating the Wright showroom—until January, the longtime home to Mercedes of Manhattan—as the city's 115th interior landmark. Three days later, the commission followed up with a letter. Both went unanswered.
Instead, on March 28, the building's owners, Midwood Investment & Management and Oestreicher Properties, reached out to another city agency, the Department of Buildings, requesting a demolition permit for the Wright showroom. The permit was approved the same day, sealing the showroom's fate.
By the following week, workers had arrived and removed every last trace of a space that some architectural historians say inspired Wright's most celebrated New York work, the Guggenheim Museum.</blockquote>

In its post-mortem of the showroom’s destruction, the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy quoted executive director Janet Halstead on the difficulties of preserving inside spaces:

An interior leased space presents some special challenges in terms of preservation. It is not common but it is possible to landmark such spaces. There are 115 interior landmarks in New York such as the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Plaza, which was designated in 2012, and the lobby of the Chrysler Building. We wanted the Hoffman Auto Showroom, even in its altered state, to join that great New York list.

It’s a scenario we know here in the Bay Area, stemming from the fight over the Tonga Room, which had been under threat from a Fairmont Hotel remodel plan.

The lesson learned from New York: Preservation requires vigilance, and not just by civic authorities. The normal safeguards that are supposed to ensure potentially historic spaces get the appropriate review failed in this case, and as a result, one was lost. Let’s hope a similar fate doesn’t befall Eichlers here in California, only some of which have been identified as historic places.