Frank Lloyd Wright. Project for Meteor Crater & Painting toward architecture (2017)

Click below to see a black-and-white reproduction of the color drawing showing FLW’s Meteor Crater design, on view in the 2017 MoMA exhibition. See Arthur Drexler’s 1962 book: The drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright, pdf p. 229.

In the MoMA exhibition, Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the archive (2017), a drawing entitled Meteor Crater Inn for Burton Tremaine, Meteor Crater, near Flagstaff, Arizona (1948) was included. The drawing, using colored pencil, pencil, and ink on tracing paper, shows a view of the proposed structure from inside the crater. Centered in the drawing, a design element extends over the crater’s edge and below, inside the crater, and this form thrusts vertically upwards to emphasize a viewing platform a few stories into the sky. With the focus of the exhibition on Frank Lloyd Wright and over 450 of his works, it’s no wonder that the history of the unbuilt commission, and its wider Painting toward Architecture-era commissioning context, are not presented beyond the explanatory basics. [1]

However, here’s the back story. On 17 June 1947, six months before the inaugural Painting toward architecture exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Wright wrote in a letter to Burton Tremaine at the Miller Company; in it, he says that he’d be happy to discuss the Meteor Crater project which Henry-Russell Hitchcock mentioned. And so the discussion began. [2]

A majestic location and design

The project was to be built on the edge of Meteor Crater (click to pp. 96-97 to see the geography). [3] Wright’s Taliesin West was based further south in Arizona in Scottsdale, near Phoenix. As described by Kathleen Housley in her biography of Emily Hall Tremaine, “Burton, his brother Warren, half-sister Bertine, half-brother Carl, and the heirs of his deceased brother Alan owned [the Bar T Bar Ranch near Flagstaff] in partnership with the Chilsons, a local ranch family… Burton’s father… had purchased the 100,000 acre Pitchfork Ranch, which surrounded Meteor Crater… in 1939. Bar T Bar Ranch later signed a 199-year lease to the crater itself. It was owned by the descendants of Daniel Barringer…”. [4] In Burton’s later letter on 11 March 1949 to Frank Lloyd Wright, he states that the ownership concerning the proposed commission is "a commercial venture to be undertaken by [a company called] the Tremaine Company". [5]

After initial contact, Wright later met Mr & Mrs Tremaine at the Plaza Hotel in New York and showed them the proposed plans in c. May 1948. [6]

At the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives at the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University, 17 drawings show the impressive design integrated into the landscape. On the drawings, we see: "Crater Resort at Meteor Arizona for Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect". Floor plans show various rooms for a visitors center, including a lounge, restaurant, kitchen, another dining area, three shop areas, some sort of pool, two sets of public mens and womens restrooms, a museum and sales area, a sitting room, two bedrooms, guest accommodations / four rooms, more bathrooms, a filling station, and the elevated platform appearing 4-6 stories up. Aesthetically, it looks perfect, but. [7]

Burton Tremaine versus Frank Lloyd Wright

In a three-page letter ten months later, dated 11 March 1949, Burton Tremaine writes to Frank Lloyd Wright, "Both Mrs. Tremaine and I have postponed writing you hoping we would be able to discuss the matter in person… we stopped there [Arizona] on our way to the coast. Unfortunately we missed you. In Los Angeles we endeavored to reach you through your son, but we missed you again there…"

Burton Tremaine continues, "I think both Mrs Tremaine and I assured you we were overwhelmed and delighted with your ideas from an aesthetic point of view, at the time you showed them to us at the Hotel Plaza in New York. I expressed at that time some doubt as to our ability to carry into effect a building of this size." [8]

The letter continues with Tremaine expressing concern that the initial proposal of a cost of USD$35,000 for the building ending up with a design that he estimated at costing at least USD$200,000, almost six times over budget. Burton Tremaine concludes the letter by proposing the structure be built in phases, from an estimated 11,000 sq. ft to 2700 sq. ft., and the cost somehow brought down to USD$35,000. This proposal would include a lounge, reception room, office, rest rooms, caretaker’s suite, utility room, and small dark room. The observation platform doesn’t appear to be mentioned.

On 14 March 1949, Frank Lloyd Wright quickly fired back. "My dear Tremaines: Our stories don’t match. I understood you to say you had about twenty thousand dollars, could get fifty, did not know just what you wanted or how much to put into the project eventually— wanted me to submit sketches suggesting possibilities that would leave you go as far as you could at one time but in the general direction of a fine thing, not fantastic in outlay. I said I would do just that and I did…" [9]

While Wright seems to by then have built a reputation for being a difficult negotiator with clients, and then over 80 years old, the situation is a reminder today of the best practice of nailing down a project brief in writing at every stage, including the initial stage, to avoid later conflicting verbal recollections. The falling out continued the following month and the settling of a design fee. The design commission was cancelled. [10]

Meanwhile, the drawing and floor plan were published in the Painting toward architecture book about five months earlier in c. November 1948; the book was announced via national and Canadian wire services in "new books" articles; and had earlier been reviewed by Architectural Forum. [11]

The overall Painting toward architecture-era context in 1948-49

Painting toward architecture Miller Company
Painting toward architecture exhibition as installed at the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston (January-February 1950). Courtesy the Karl Kamrath Collection, University of Texas at Austin architectural archives.

In this installation shot, a photo mural of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hickox House (1900) can be seen to the left.


At the time of the Tremaine’s meeting with Wright at the Plaza Hotel in New York, the travelling Painting toward architecture exhibition was now at its fifth venue, the Milwaukee Art Institute (May-June 1948), and already had secured positive national-level media coverage. In a telegram dated 7 June 1948, Emily Hall Tremaine requested permission from Wright for inclusion of a floor plan and a black-and-white image of the drawing for the Meteor Crater design— that was in the 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright show at MoMA— to be in the forthcoming Painting toward architecture book with essay by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and foreword by Alfred Barr. Wright later agreed. This ended up being a second illustration of Wright’s work in the book. The first was a photo of Wright’s Hickox House (1900; click to see a photo) with an associated Japanese work by Kunisada, which represented the influence of certain Japanese art on Wright. This kind of art influence on historical architects was the main theme of the book and the 28(+) exhibition venues of Painting toward architecture. [12]

After Milwaukee, the exhibition travelled to the West Coast for viewings at the California Palace Legion of Honor in San Francisco (sixth venue, July-August 1948), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (August-September 1948, seventh venue), and the Portland Art Museum (September-October 1948, eighth venue). In October and then November, the show travelled to the Cincinnati Art Museum and then Knoedler Art Galleries in New York (the ninth and tenth venues). (The Painting toward architecture book, including the Meteor Crater illustrations, was released c. November 1948.) [13]

Interestingly, the Meteor Crater illustrations’ caption, nor the text, specifies Tremaine or Miller Company involvement: "Project for Resort, Meteor Crater, Arizona, 1948, Frank Lloyd Wright". Also, there isn’t any detail or explanation about the drawings in the text, when one might think at least aesthetically, without the back story, that it would be more celebrated. Having said this, by the time Wright was asked for copyright permission, the book was going into press. [14]

While the uncertainty of the Meteor Project was happening, at the same time, another design commission with Oscar Niemeyer and Roberto Burle Marx, concerning the beachfront Tremaine House in California is also taking place and facing challenges. (See a timeline merging the two design commissioning processes on the following page of this article, and also further mentions about the Meteor Crater project in relation to the two projects).

Regarding the work shown in the exhibition, the Kunisada work positioned to point to Wright’s Hickox House first appears in the initial Wadsworth show in December 1947. The Japanese work is, in fact, consistently listed on surviving exhibition checklists and other recovered documentation. This extends to at least June 1950 across the first 24 venues of PtA through to the Madison, WI, viewing. While it is unclear if the Kunisada was also in venues 25-28 in 1951-52, Frank Lloyd Wright is mentioned in a university newspaper article previewing the forthcoming exhibition at Mt. Holyoke College (29 October – 17 November 1951). So, perhaps it was. [15]

Regarding photo murals in the travelling exhibition, the surviving and known evidence shows that Hickox House was also in the show. As mentioned in the introduction, photo murals of architecture seem to enter the exhibition starting at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, PtA’s 11th venue, in December 1948. In this photo mural context, evidence suggests that Hickox House was exhibited by 26 April - 24 May 1949, PtA venue 15, at the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art, and possibly earlier. Found photos, the first and only found showing an integrated art-and-architecture presentation for PtA, show a photo mural of Hickox House installed at the Houston venue in January 1950 (see photo above). Unfortunately, in contrast, there is no mention of a photo mural— or inclusion of any drawings— of Meteor Crater in the entire compilation of recovered material to date. [16]

The first mystery concerning Frank Lloyd Wright and the Painting toward architecture initiatives

Assuming the design for Meteor Crater was indeed not in the highly variable Painting toward architecture travelling show, one question is— why not? The drawings themselves would definitely have seemed a timely, current addition showing the Painting toward architecture concept. Although with the designs produced in 1948, it is unclear which artwork(s) Wright would have considered to have influenced the design. But perhaps in the exhibition’s form of, at times, loose art-to-architecture connections, it could have been included within a more general orientation. Alternatively, the designs could conceivably stretch back historically to Hickox House almost 50 years earlier and the representative Kunisada print. Also, no evidence presented itself to show how much Wright knew about the exhibition, or the introduction of photo murals presumably starting in December 1948, which included Hickox House. [17]

Also, the delay in negotiations from May 1948 to March 1949 can perhaps be attributed to very busy schedules. In Burton Tremaine’s letter, he expressed a wish to discuss the situation and possible next steps in person when their travel paths crossed. Given the context, it perhaps was assumed with the June 1948 request for inclusion of Meteor Crater illustrations in the book, to rely on best intentions and that something could be sorted out. Perhaps it was decided by the Tremaines to delay any request for inclusion of a photo mural of the drawings, or the drawings themselves, until after the March 1949 negotiations. Alternatively, perhaps there was hope that a new, more cost-effective design might result. Further speculation could also include that perhaps by then the Tremaines had a better sense of Wright’s working practices, were avoiding conflict, but needed to move forward with a Meteor Crater project of some kind, and were trying to figuring out how to gracefully exit the negotiation process.

Why wasn’t the Ceilings Unlimited concept pursued in the design?

Another question arises given the time period and Painting toward architecture exhibition concept steering discussions with architects toward rethinking interior lighting with the new technological capabilities concerning Miller Company lighting: was there any discussion about somehow, somewhere incorporating Ceilings Unlimited lighting into the Meteor Crater project’s commercial interior design? This would have achieved the stated Miller Company objective of the Painting toward architecture exhibition. Perhaps this might have been raised afterwards, further into the design commissioning process. Or was this possibility not raised, perhaps perceived as overstepping on the Wright? [18]

The result

In the end, with the distance of time and personal knowledge, it’s unclear how the Tremaines felt about the cancelled commission at the time, and its inclusion in the Painting toward architecture book. (Given their later acquisitions of textiles by Frank Lloyd Wright and a sample book in the mid-1950s, donated to the Cooper Hewitt, it seems, at the least, quickly there may have not been hard feelings.) [19] Further found documentation, perhaps in third-party archives, may answer these questions and more. In spite of the messy context, what we’re left with are some beautiful drawings illustrating a magical place, deeply in tune with the landscape, sparked by the risk-taking contact of Burton and Emily Hall Tremaine. One of these drawings was on view this past summer, in the exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the archive at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


5 - A: Painting toward architecture: Three works, three histories, three Modern mysteries | B: Frank Lloyd Wright project for Meteor Crater | C: Niemeyer and Burle Marx - Tremaine House | D: Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie


Footnotes:

[FN1] (c. 2017). Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the archive (12 June - 1 October 2017), public announcement page. Museum of Modern Art website: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1660. (Viewed 29 December 2017.)

[FN2] (a): (17 June 1947). Letter from Frank Lloyd Wright to Burton Tremaine, Miller Company. Meteor Crater project, Arizona. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

(b): Also see: (5 April 1948). Telegram from Burton Tremaine to Frank Lloyd Wright; (c): (6 April 1948). Telegram from Frank Lloyd Wright to Burton Tremaine; and (d): (10 April 1948). Telegram from Burton Tremaine to Frank Lloyd Wright. All: Meteor Crater project, Arizona. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

In the telegrams above, they are making arrangements to meet at Taliesen West to discuss the Meteor Crater project.

(c): It should be noted that after reviewing the finding aid for the Emily Hall Tremaine papers, it is presumed that there are no letters or other material concerning the Meteor Crater project in this archive at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. It appears that no file specifies the project or Frank Lloyd Wright, but of course, items can inadvertently be located in other file folders, for example, correspondence to/from third parties mentioning the project.

[FN3] (26 April 1948). Two-page photo of Meteor Crater (presumed). In “Birth of solar system”. LIFE magazine, pp. 96-97.

[FN4] Housley, Kathleen L. (2001). Emily Hall Tremaine: Collector on the Cusp. Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation: Meriden, CT. (See Chapter Six: "Painting toward architecture" and specifically pp. 105-6, 110-13.) Direct to pdf: https://www.tremainefoundation.org/uploads/6/4/6/7/64670527/housley_emily_2.pdf.

[FN5] (11 March 1949). Three-page letter from Burton Tremaine to Frank Lloyd Wright. Meteor Crater project, Arizona. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

[FN6] (15 May 1948). Letter from Frank Lloyd Wright to Emily Hall Tremaine. Meteor Crater project, Arizona. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). The letter only shows that Wright requests to meet while in New York to show the plans, 17-21 May. The Burton’s letter dated 11 March 1949 confirms a meeting at the Plaza Hotel but doesn’t specify a date. It can be assumed they did meet at that general time as, on 7 June 1948, Mrs. Tremaine telegrams Wright asking for copyright permission to reproduce the two images in the forthcoming Painting toward architecture book.

[FN7] Drawings for Meteor Crater project, Arizona. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

[FN8] (11 March 1949). Letter BT to FLW, see FN5.

[FN9] (14 March 1949). Two-page letter from Frank Lloyd Wright to Burton Tremaine. Meteor Crater project, Arizona. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

[FN10] See (a): [6 April 1949 (two pages); 22 April 1949]. Letters from Letters from Burton Tremaine to Frank Lloyd Wright. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

(b): (24 August 1948; 1 April 1949; 12 April 1949; 27 April 1949). Two invoices and two letters from Frank Lloyd Wright to Burton Tremaine. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

[FN11] (a): See found announcements concerning the book release in: (16 June 2016- ). The Painting toward architecture exhibition (1947-52) by the Miller Company Collection of Abstract Art: Documentation and historical information. artdesigncafe.com.

(b): Specifically, I suggest seeing: D. D. (1 October 1948). "Painting toward architecture" [book review]. Architectural Forum, 89(4), pp. 158-59. (Given a 1 October 1948 publication date, this suggests that the book had been actually published earlier and available to at least press contacts, but officially launched later.)

[FN12] (a): Ibid. See "Documentation and historical information". artdesigncafe.com.

(b): (7 June 1948). Telegram from Emily Hall Tremaine to Frank Lloyd Wright; (c): (9 June 1948). Telegram from Frank Lloyd Wright to Emily Hall Tremaine. Both: The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

(d): Miller Company. (1948). Painting toward architecture, p. 18 (Kunisada) and p. 20 (Hickox House). [Essay by Henry-Russell Hitchcock; foreword by Alfred H. Barr, Jr.; introduction by Burton Tremaine; acknowledgements by Emily Hall Tremaine; book design by Bradbury Thompson.] New York; Duell, Sloan and Pearce.

[FN13] See FN11 concerning PtA venues and dates: "Documentation and historical information". artdesigncafe.com.

[FN14] Miller Company. (1948). Painting toward architecture, p. 43. New York; Duell, Sloan and Pearce.

[FN15] (a): See: (16 June 2016- ). The Painting toward architecture exhibition (1947-52) by the Miller Company Collection of Abstract Art: Documentation and historical information. artdesigncafe.com.

(b): (c. 1947). Installation photo showing Kunisada work installed at Wadsworth Atheneum during exhibition preview. Wadsworth Atheneum archive, Hartford, CT.

(c): (1950). Program sheet with object list. Painting toward architecture exhibition (at Memorial Union, University of Wisconsin-Madison; 23 May - 14 June 1950). University of Wisconsin-Madison library archives.

(d): (26 October 1951). M H C exhibit shows abstract art forms among architecture. The Mount Holyoke News [student newspaper], pp. 1, 5. Mt. Holyoke special collections archive, South Hadley, MA.

[FN16] (3 June 1949). "Received by the Smith College Museum of Art". Sent to Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. 6 pp. Painting toward architecture exhibition file, Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art archive, Providence, RI.

[FN17] In this regard, it should be noted that in Burton Tremaine’s letter to Frank Lloyd Wright on 6 April 1949 (see FN10), he states that they are sending back Wright’s drawings by registered mail.

[FN18] See (a): Introduction page of this article and footnote related to Painting toward architecture-era product design and interior concepts.

(b:) Preece, Robert. (July-August 2017). Rethinking "Painting toward architecture" (1947-52). Sculpture magazine, 36(6), pp. 18-21. (Linked above is an online reprint of this article, which mentions Ceilings Unlimited.)

(c:) See a sample interior concept embedded in a 1948 advertisement in Architectural Forum.

[FN19] Search "Tremaine" in the collection section of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York website.


READ MORE about Painting toward architecture:
1: Painting toward architecture - Miller Co. press release | 2: Painting toward architecture: Documentation and historical information | 3: Painting toward architecture - artworks and designs | 4: Article - "Rethinking ’Painting toward architecture’ (2017)" | 5: Article - "Painting toward architecture: Three works, three histories, three Modern mysteries" (2017) | 6: Miller Co / Tremaine art & design in exhibitions (1945-present)