Guggenheim Museum Color Choice Attracts Attention to Restoration Question

It might seem like a trivial issue, but at its heart – the notion of how to appropriately regulate a landmark is very serious business. How many buildings in historic districts have had replacement windows or bad siding for decades only to be restored to an appropriate condition later?

From the New York Sun

Guggenheim Hue Is Subject of Colorful Debate
BY BENJAMIN SARLIN – Special to the Sun
November 20, 2007

A debate that could affect the city’s skyline comes to a head today, as the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission is expected to vote on what color to paint the renovated Guggenheim Museum.

The museum is seeking to repaint its exterior “light buff,” the off-white color applied in 1992. Paint analysis indicates that when the museum was erected in 1959, its original color was briefly a “yellowish buff” chosen by the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Some preservationists are now arguing that the museum’s exterior should feature the famed architect’s intended light-golden tone.

The 11-member commission, headed by Robert Tierney, will hear the Guggenheim’s presentation on its repainting plan today and likely render a decision immediately afterward.

The director of the Historic Districts Council, Simeon Bankoff, is one proponent of re-creating Mr. Wright’s facade.

“It is one of the most iconic buildings in New York City, if not America, widely regarded as a masterpiece of Mr. Wright’s late career,” Mr. Bankoff said yesterday, “and we have a chance to see the full expression of what was the greatest American architect’s vision for his masterpiece.”

He added: “We’re not advocating you have to paint every building to its 1906 color,” saying the museum’s history and distinct shape makes it “a specific and very unique case.”

The executive director of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, Seri Worden, also said she believes the original color should be restored. “We think there’s overwhelming evidence that points to that particular color choice being that of Frank Lloyd Wright and we think it’s an opportunity for New Yorkers to see the Guggenheim as the architect intended it,” Ms. Worden said yesterday.

The technical director for the New York Landmarks Conservancy, architect Alex Herrera, said he thinks the museum’s history must be taken into consideration. “I think it’s great they did the color analysis to determine what the original color is,” Mr. Herrera said yesterday. “However, I think it’s been the other, whiter color for so much longer that it almost means it’s earned its historical legitimacy. If you find the original color, you do it more for the intellectual and academic value — you don’t have to actually paint it that color.”

The president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Peg Breen, sided with Mr. Herrera. “It’s more what people are used to now,” Ms. Breen said. “I think it would be very startling to change the color of the Guggenheim right now.”

Ms. Worden acknowledged that the yellow “could be a little provocative at first.”

At least one other major city landmark restored itself to its original colors after many decades of another color. Radio City Music Hall renovated its interior in 1999 and matched its carpeting and curtains to the bright tones in place at its opening in 1933, according to Time magazine.

The Guggenheim has been under scaffolding since September 2005 as part of a restoration project to repair cracks in the building’s structure. The museum expects to complete their work by spring 2008.

Posted Under: Enforcement, HDC, LPC, Modern Architecture, Upper East Side

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