• Keith Seume

The Wright Stuff

Words: Keith Seume

Photos: FLW archive

In November 1952, automobile entrepreneur Max Hoffman wrote to the world-renowned architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. His letter was to enquire about a commission to design a private house for Hoffman and his family. The design process was beset with delays but along the way Hoffman also invited Wright to help on another project: a car showroom.

Before we proceed further with this tale, let’s take a look in a little detail at the two parties involved – first, the architect. Frank Lloyd Wright was born in 1867, in Wisconsin, having been baptised Frank Lincoln Wright.

The name change came about when Wright was 18 following the divorce of his parents – he chose to adopt ‘Lloyd’ as his middle name out of respect for his mother’s family, the Lloyd Joneses. At the age of 20, Wright arrived in Chicago in search of work. A terrible fire had devastated the city in 1871, so there were plenty of opportunities in the architectural and building trades. Wright soon found work as a draughtsman, eventually working in the offices of the influential architect, Louis Sullivan, later to become known as the ‘father of skyscrapers’.

The relationship ended after five years when Sullivan discovered that Wright had been ‘moonlighting’ by taking on a number of private commissions without Sullivan’s knowledge. It would be a dozen years before the two would speak again. Wright set up his own office in Chicago (ironically on the top floor of an office building designed by Sullivan) and by 1901 had completed no fewer than 50 commissions for wealthy clientele. His trademark ‘Prairie house’ style, with its sweeping roof structures, was intended to give the impression that his buildings had grown out of the landscape.

Wright had a pretty turbulent private life but his work continued to attract the attention of some influential clients. In purely architectural terms, perhaps his greatest triumph was the house designed for Edgar J Kaufmann Sr – better known as ‘Falling Water’. This dramatic building, cantilevered out over a waterfall is, in the author’s mind, the most beautiful house ever built. He also established architectural schools, most notably Taliesin West, at Scottsdale in Arizona.

But what of Max Hoffman? Maximillian Edwin Hoffmann (he later dropped the second ‘n’) was born in 1904 in Vienna and spent his early life as a racing motorcyclist, prior to opening a car showroom in his home city. In the late 1930s, under the threat of anti-Semitism, he fled first to Holland and then, in 1942, to the United States.

There, he started a jewellery business before founding the Hoffman (one ‘n’) Motor Company in 1947, initially importing such marques as Delahaye, along with several other European makes on a smaller scale. He first hit the big time in 1948, though, when he negotiated the rights to import Jaguars into the eastern states of North America: the cars were an instant hit.

In 1949, he was instrumental in seeing the Volkswagen enter the United States – so successful was he in his endeavours that Volkswagen eventually decided to take over the North American market of its own accord. Hoffman was happy to let things go at the time, but later rued the day he gave in to VW’s advances.

By this time a wealthy man, in November 1952 he wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright on the recommendation of Philip Johnson, the well-known architect behind many of the greatest buildings of the era. Hoffman had originally considered commissioning Johnson to design the house, but decided his designs were too austere. Instead, the latter felt that Wright would be a better choice for the project. Hoffman’s initial letter to Wright suggests that he was unfamiliar with the architect’s work as he asked for photographs of previous commissions.

Two years later, Hoffman bought a 2.2-acre plot of land on Long Island Sound, near New York. Wright paid several visits to the site with Hoffman, driven there, so the story goes, at speed in one of Hoffman’s Porsches. A few months later, Wright submitted the first of his designs, which included a huge swimming pool and vast roof structure. Hoffman protested that it was too big for him and his family, so Wright literally went back to the drawing board and came up with a marginally less ostentatious concept, which was also rejected.

Finally, Hoffman approved Wright’s third design, a much smaller house based on a simple grid-like form. Although the architect specified brick as the principal material, the client had other ideas, choosing instead materials of the finest quality, such as imported mahogany and granite. The final bill for the Hoffman house was in the region of $500,000 – some five times the original estimate…

Midway through the discussions about his future home, Hoffman asked Wright if he would like to design a showroom for his new Jaguar dealership at 430 Park Avenue, New York. The commission was solely to redesign the interior of the property, to create a dramatic selling environment for Hoffman’s flagship marque. Hoffman was a shrewd businessman who fully appreciated the importance of a good shop-window (literally and figuratively) to sell his cars.

One might have thought that such a project would be small fry to someone like Frank Lloyd Wright, but it had two benefits. First, he saw it as an opportunity to further cement his relationship with his new, and clearly wealthy, client. Second, although the building was a typically modern 18-storey glazed office block designed by rival architects, the commission offered him a unique opportunity to make an architectural statement right in the heart of New York, a city where he had thus far failed to make his mark.

If all went to plan, Hoffman would sell more cars to influential customers, and Wright would gain valuable exposure for his architectural skills. For him, New York was, to quote, ‘the most important marketplace in the world’.

Hoffman’s showroom was not the first retail space designed by Wright, but it was certainly the most significant – and one of very few that still survive. Hoffman’s brief was simply for an eye-catching showroom in which to display stylish cars. Wright’s design was for a showroom with two glazed sides (the building was located on the corner of Park Avenue and 56th Street), the windows reaching from floor to ceiling. Today, that sounds an obvious decision but in the early 1950s, the effect was dramatic. Inside, the ceiling level was relatively low, giving a feeling of intimacy that drew attention to the cars on display. Mirrored walls and columns increased the sense of space in what was a fairly compact environment.

The most important feature, though, was the spiral ramp in the centre of the showroom, at the foot of which was a huge 31ft-diameter turntable, driven by a motor hidden beneath a central floral display. It was possible to display up to six vehicles on the ramp and turntable together. The layout inspired would-be customers to walk up the ramp and examine cars from above – it was a novel way to show off an automobile, and one that had not been seen before. Students of architecture will not fail to see the similarity of the design to the world-famous Guggenheim Museum – indeed, many regard the Park Avenue showroom as a stylistic forerunner of this architectural masterpiece…

News of the commission was announced in the press in April 1954, with Hoffman anxious to get the project underway as soon as possible. But Wright was not one to be rushed and it took a lot of client persuasion (read: constant phone calls) on Hoffman’s part to bully Wright into action. The showroom was meant to open in January 1955 but the grand unveiling was delayed until May that year. This delay would ultimately have a significant effect on Porsche sales in the USA…

In 1952, Hoffman had persuaded Mercedes-Benz to sell a road-going version of its SLR sports racer – the result was the legendary 300SL ‘Gullwing’ – but his close ties to the German manufacturer did not impress British-based Jaguar who, fed up with the delays in opening the new flagship showroom in Park Avenue, terminated his contract to import their products.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s relentless pursuit of perfection ultimately helped bring about the end of Hoffman’s fruitful relationship with the British carmaker. Ever the astute businessman, though, Hoffman persuaded Jaguar to pay him a royalty on every car sold in his former sales territory.

This all played into the hands of Porsche, as Hoffman now turned his New York showroom over to Porsche, BMW and Mercedes products, with the turntable proving ideal for the display of smaller cars, like the 356. The company’s relationship with Hoffman had begun in 1950 when he brought the first Porsche 356s to the USA. Hoffman knew that American servicemen who served overseas in WWII had developed a love affair with European sports cars, and while Ferry Porsche hoped that Hoffman might be able to sell five Porsches a year, Hoffman retorted by saying that ‘If I cannot sell five per week, then I’m not interested in the business.’

Of the first three Porsches to arrive on American soil, two were delivered to racecar builder and driver, Briggs Cunningham, while Hoffman kept the third for himself. In his hands, it went on to win the ‘Most Interesting Car’ award at the 1950 Watkins Glen Concours d'élegance in September 1950.

In 1951, fellow ex-pat Austrian, Johnny von Neumann, who owned Competition Motors in Los Angeles, visited Hoffman in New York City and took a keen interest in the Porsches on sale – the rest, as they say, is history, with von Neumann counting many celebrities as clients (notably, of course, James Dean…) and helping to turn California into the single largest market for Porsche.

With his links to Jaguar over, Hoffman was free to go full steam ahead with the promotion of other marques, and by 1954, having exhibited at the New York Auto Show, thereby marking Porsche’s entry into the mainstream of American car culture, Max Hoffman was selling no fewer than 11 Porsches per week. Or to put it another way, a staggering 30 per cent of all of Porsche’s sales worldwide.

At the centre of Hoffman’s Porsche universe was his Frank Lloyd Wright-designed flagship showroom. The sale of Porsche, BMW and Mercedes-Benz products had never been handled in such a stylish way – and it probably never will be again.

Frank Lloyd Wright died in 1959, leaving behind an architectural legacy that will never be equalled. Max Hoffman passed away in 1981, his memory living on with the sale of every Jaguar, Porsche, BMW, VW and Mercedes-Benz in North America. 430 Park Avenue became a flagship Mercedes-Benz showroom and we can’t help wondering how many customers entering the glass-clad showroom had any idea of the history behind this prestigious address. Sadly, the building was gutted a few years ago and all traces of FLW's signature work erased. It was a sad loss to the architectural – and Porsche – world.

You can read the story of its demise HERE

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