October 29, 2003
New in the Showroom: Wright
By MICHAEL LUO
The Mercedes-Benz showroom on Park Avenue at 56th Street in Manhattan features a spiral ramp and a slowly spinning turntable to display the autos.
Audio Slide Show: Form Over Function
In the corner of yet another glass building on Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, there is a tiny car showroom with a twisting ramp in the middle.
Window shoppers might think it looks vaguely familiar. But architecture buffs would know that it is a close relative to the six-story spiral that sprouts so brazenly some 30 blocks north, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and that both were designed late in life by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Mercedes-Benz dealership at East 56th Street, built in 1954 as a Jaguar showroom, was Wright's first work in New York City, and one of just three projects he did here. (Besides the showroom and museum, he also designed a house on Staten Island.)
It comes as a surprise to many that Wright, arguably the greatest American architect, did so small a project, so late in his career, in a city he so famously despised. But almost every day, Wright devotees stopped in the showroom, looking sheepish as they stepped through the door and explained that they did not want to buy anything.
In February, however, the showroom closed for renovation. Wright fans fretted over what would happen.
Last week, it quietly reopened, largely intact, but with some un-Wrightian modifications that might upset some purists.
"We had to evaluate our options," said Ralph S. Fisher, the general manager of Mercedes-Benz Manhattan, who explained that the company had seriously considered moving as it approached the end of its lease. But that would probably have meant gutting the Wright-designed showroom.
Some might have argued that the space wasn't worth the effort. Wright is famous for his impracticality — leaking roofs on his homes, heated floors that do not work.
Even the Guggenheim, one of his signature works, has been criticized by some as a poor place to show art.
Yet when space on the southern side of the building became available, allowing the dealership to expand, the company decided to stay and restore the old showroom, though those who work there say it has always been a "challenging" place to do business.
The distinctive ramp that dominates the room blocks sales representatives at their desks from seeing customers. The office space in the back is still cramped. And the Wright showroom itself can display only six cars, a problem when there are more than 40 different models of Mercedes-Benz cars.
The space was considered avant-garde when it was first built, but in many ways had become outdated, said Randolph H. Gerner, the architect who handled the restoration and renovation project for Mercedes-Benz.
"Cars weren't lit properly because lighting fixtures were old and not performing well," Mr. Gerner said. "They didn't have air-conditioning systems that functioned well."
Like people who own homes designed by Wright, the dealership's staff has long had to deal with tourists. "You know they're Frank Lloyd Wright people when they look up," said Jeffrey A. Roberts, a salesman. "You know they're not looking for cars."
Members of the sales staff hand those browsers fact sheets about the showroom and show them around.
The goal of the recent renovation was to make the space function again as a place of business, while preserving history, Mr. Gerner said.
The cracked terrazzo floor was repaired and repainted. Workers also repainted the walls, which had gone gray, and fixed the mechanism for the giant turntable beside the ramp.
After noticing that Wright's plan included a conference table near the entrance, Mr. Gerner shifted a reception table.
Mr. Gerner also added a space off to the side, with a more contemporary design, so the company could show off its newest jewel, the Maybach sedan. Base price: $305,500.
The newly built showroom on the southern side, also designed by Mr. Gerner, matches the Maybach space and its modern flourishes. The company plans to use its new showroom to sell its mass-market cars, while saving the Wright space for its high-end designs.
The old showroom's other distinctive piece, the large circular mirror overhead with a Mercedes-Benz emblem, was installed in 1981. The mirror was not part of the original showroom but had been part of Wright's original plan. He had initially wanted both the ceiling and the floor to be mirrored, Mr. Gerner said, but got neither.
"We all know there are practicalities about having a mirrored floor," he said.
Since the showroom's completion, many critics have panned it, saying the tight confines cramped Wright's creativity.
But architectural historians say the showroom is significant because it is one of several works in which Wright tested out the spiral geometry that was so famously rendered later in the Guggenheim. The ramp, used to display cars, introduces a vertical sweep to the room, and the mirrors that wrap around the building columns make the space appear larger.
Fans of Wright can also admire other touches in the restored showroom, like the leather-cushioned hassocks and coffee tables, designed by the master himself, and the curved desks, which were installed during a renovation in the early 1980's by Taliesin Associated Architects, a division of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
Recently, Kyle Johnson, an architect and a member of the board of the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy, a group dedicated to preserving the architect's work, nervously stepped inside the redone showroom for a look.
He spotted new light fixtures in the office area and furrowed his brow. "Those light fixtures are supposed to be Wrightian," he said. "It's sympathetic, but it's not a restoration."
(Mr. Gerner later conceded that Mr. Johnson was right about the lights. He chose fixtures that were designed by Wright, although ones in an earlier period.)
Technically, officials at Mercedes-Benz note, because the showroom is not designated a historic landmark, anything could have been done to the space.
But the association with Wright had always lent a bit of cachet to the dealership.
"I mean, Frank Lloyd Wright design," said Mr. Fisher, the general manager. "That adds some mystique to the space and the design of our product."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company