By Thomas F. Schwartz
One of the great architectural icons of the twentieth century is Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Unlike most art museums with a series of square rooms displaying paintings, sculpture and other media, the Guggenheim is a spiral walkway with the art displayed on the walls along the exterior of the walkway. The interior portion simply has a short wall that allows visitors to see an open courtyard allowing for ample natural light from the glass skylight to illumine the building. Herbert Hoover was not known for his interest or knowledge of modern art. It seems odd that Harry F. Guggenheim would send Hoover a telegram requesting him to sit on the platform at the museum’s opening day ceremonies at noon on October 21, 1959.
The Guggenheims made their fortune in mining, the same profession that created Hoover’s wealth. But Hoover’s relationship with Harry F. Guggenheim did not begin with mining. Rather, it was Harry’s Guggenheim’s interest in aviation that created the beginnings of a professional relationship with Hoover as Secretary of Commerce and continued to develop when Hoover appointed Guggenheim as Ambassador to Cuba during Hoover’s presidency. In the years following Hoover’s presidency, they continued to correspond and their relationship reached the point of familiarity where Guggenheim referred to Hoover as “chief,” something reserved for only the closest of Hoover’s friends and associates, and Hoover was on a first name basis with Guggenheim.
Solomon Guggenheim began collecting art in the mid-1890s. His interests switched from traditional American landscapes and Old Masters in the late 1920s to modern paintings and sculpture. In 1937, he set up The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation “for the promotion and encouragement of art and education in art and the enlightenment of the public, especially in the field of art.” A temporary gallery was rented to display the collection, but a permanent building was the solution. In 1943, Solomon hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design a modern museum to showcase an unparalleled collection of modern art. Frank Lloyd Wright did not live to see the finished design but long enough to oversee most of the construction. Hoover was unable to attend the opening ceremonies indicating a scheduling conflict. He added that “I shall hope to make a visit to this magnificent addition to the cultural wealth of New York City at some later date.” When Harry Guggenheim hired a writer, Milton Lomask, in 1962 to write a history of the Guggenheim Foundation, again he wrote to Hoover asking if he would be interested in writing an introduction. At age eighty-eight, with but two years left to live, Hoover graciously declined, indicating his current writing obligations prevented him from taking on additional commitments.