9 Things You Didn’t Know About New York City’s Guggenheim Museum

There are still many facts the public doesn’t know about Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic building
exterior of a white museum
Outside of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, an art museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.Photo: Getty Images/Massimo Borchi/Atlantide Phototr

When the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened in 1959, critics panned the design, comparing it to a washing machine, an inverted oatmeal bowl, and “an oversized and indigestible hot cross bun,” among other things. Today, however, it’s become one of New York City’s most beloved architectural icons. Designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the Guggenheim Museum is a concrete masterpiece, featuring a top-heavy spiraling form that certainly makes for a unique space to display modern art in—the ultimate goal of Solomon R. Guggenheim and his art adviser Hilla Rebay. It was Wright’s first commission in New York City, but the architect was actually rather displeased about the chosen location. “I can think of several more desirable places in the world to build this great museum, but we will have to try New York,” he wrote in a 1949 letter. The compromise? Wright picked a spot next to Central Park on Fifth Avenue and 89th Street on the Upper East Side. The location connected the Guggenheim Museum with nature—a crucial component in the architect’s design ethos. Below, discover eight little-known facts about the iconic 20th-century building.

Frank Lloyd Wright picked a site next to Central Park, connecting the museum with nature.

Photo: Getty Images/James Leynse 

1. Frank Lloyd Wright wanted the museum’s exterior to be red.

You’ll find prominent use of Wright’s signature color, Cherokee Red, in many of his most famous works. The monochromatic Guggenheim is not one of these—but it nearly was. Wright intended to clad the exterior in red marble, claiming that “red is the color of creation,” but Hilla Rebay shot the idea down. “Red is a color which displeases [Solomon R. Guggenheim] as much as it does me,” she wrote in a 1945 letter to the architect.

2. The original exterior ended up being painted a brownish yellow.

That’s right—the Guggenheim was not originally the super pale gray it is today. During the $29 million restoration, conservators removed 11 layers of paint, unearthing the original brownish-yellow hue. There was a debate about what color to paint the restored exterior. Yellow proponents argued the color was more akin to what Wright would have wanted, since he didn’t particularly love white; while gray proponents argued that the building was better known by NYC residents and visitors for its nearly white hue, having been painted various shades of gray since the 1960s. At the end of the day, the proponents of gray won.

A view looking up the spiral staircase of the Guggenheim.

Photo: Getty Images/Bertrand Gardel

3. The ramp is more than a quarter-mile long.

Anyone who’s walked up the spiral ramp inside the Guggenheim knows it’s a bit of a workout. The entire ramp is 1,416 feet long and it’s set at an 18-degree angle. Afraid of heights? Don’t lean over the 36-inch-tall parapet—an extraordinarily low barrier that is certainly not up to contemporary building codes—and peer down into the 96-foot atrium beneath the rotunda. However, the stroll does make for one of the most unique places to view the museum’s collection, including works by Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Édouard Manet.


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4. Wright’s original design included a glass elevator and spherical observation deck

When designing the space for contemporary art, Wright envisioned an equally modern glass elevator and spherical observation deck for the new museum. In early models of the building, a glass shaft can be seen embedded within the smooth curves of the ramp leading upwards of the central rotunda. According to NPR, Wright had wanted patrons to ride to the top of the building first, then leisurely wander down the ramp viewing the museum’s collection, ultimately arriving at the bottom and experiencing the structure as the final work of art. Ultimately, budget cuts squashed the glass elevator and now most visitors wander the Manhattan institution from the bottom floor upwards.

5. The building is one of the youngest to be designated a National Historic Landmark, which happened in 2008, when it was 49 years old.

Most buildings don’t receive the designation until they’ve been standing for at least 50 years, but the National Park Service, which administers the National Historic Landmark program, invoked a special exception to its standard criteria for nomination given the building’s significance. Even more impressive: The Guggenheim was named a New York City landmark at just 31 years old, making it one of the youngest buildings to receive that title.

Frank Lloyd Wright posing with a model of the Guggenheim Museum in 1945.

Photo: Getty Images/Ben Schnall

6. The museum’s interior is painted nearly every day.

The white paint on the interior of the Guggenheim is constantly being refreshed, given that it’s prone to getting a bit scuffed up. “You’d have to really close the whole building and have it closed for, you know, I don’t know, a full week or something if you were to truly repaint the interior,” said assistant curator of architecture Ashley Mendelsohn in an audio guide for the museum. “And so instead, we touch up here and there.” So each day after the museum closes to guests, the paintbrushes come out. This patchwork painting style lends a unique textural quality to the interior surfaces, which you can feel if you run your hands over the parapet, for instance.

7. The interior walls of the rotunda are tilted outward at 97 degrees.

Wright wanted the walls to emulate the tilt of an easel in order to best display works of art. He envisioned leaning paintings against the wall rather than mounting them fully. In order to protect the works, he added steep slopes between the gallery floor and the gallery walls to separate the audience from the art. He also installed skylights in the galleries to illuminate the art naturally. Neither of these notions ended up being used for long—works are now typically mounted on the walls directly, and the skylights were replaced with artificial lighting after the inaugural exhibition in 1959.

8. The museum’s design was not only originally misunderstood, but it was also highly controversial

When plans were first unveiled for the building that would eventually house an expansive permanent collection and curate many notable exhibitions, they were highly controversial among artists. Many felt that the curved walls of the building weren’t appropriate for displaying art, and this prompted 21 artists to send a letter to the director of the museum asking them to reconsider their plans. “The basic concept of curvilinear slope for presentation of painting and sculpture indicated a callous disregard for the fundamental rectilinear frame of reference necessary for the adequate visual contemplation of works of art.”

9. Frank Lloyd Wright’s initials can be found on the exterior of the museum, like a signature on a work of art.

Even though the Guggenheim got off to a contentious start, it ultimately became one of the most notable and respected builds of all time. (Case in point: its unusually early landmark-designation status). On the exterior of the Guggenheim Museum, there’s a small red tile bearing Wright’s initials. The architect commissioned a ceramist to craft about 25 of these tiles, which were inspired by the seals on Japanese prints placed on projects that received his personal approval—essentially signifying that they had been completed exactly to his specifications. The Guggenheim is unique in that it also bears the name of the contractor who built it, George Cohen, whom Wright greatly respected. “This was the only time Wright ever put the general contractor’s name on a building,” says 99% Invisible podcast host Roman Mars in the museum’s audio guide.