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Before the quarter-mile ramp of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned a smaller slope on the West Coast. San Francisco’s V. C. Morris Gift Shop, its design completed in 1948, predates the 1959 Guggenheim by a decade. It shows Wright experimenting with the multi-level design around a central atrium that would become iconic through the museum.
While Wright got the request to design the Guggenheim in 1943, the cemented plans, as they were, for the central ramp weren’t refined until after the Morris shop at 140 Maiden Lane. Today, the pedestrian-only street off of San Francisco’s Union Square, leading to Wright’s only design in the city, is still a high-end shopping thoroughfare. Unlike the neighboring glassy storefronts, all you see when approaching the Morris shop is a façade of brick, and a concentric archway gaping like the maw to a modernist cave. Wright proclaimed this about the unusual front:
We are not going to dump your beautiful merchandise on the street, but create an arch-tunnel of glass, into which the passers-by may look and be enticed. As they penetrate further into the entrance, seeing the shop inside with its spiral ramp and tables set with fine china and crystal, they will suddenly push open the door, and you’ve got them!
V.C. Morris is no longer the retail resident today. Xanadu Gallery, a specialist in Asian and Oceanic art and jewelry, was established in 1979 and, according to their site, put in a million-dollar restoration to preserving Wright’s original vision. It’s a major contrast to the fate of other more experimental retail spaces of 20th century architecture greats, such as the Louis Kahn storefront in Philadelphia torn down last year, or even the Wright-designed Hoffman Auto Showroom on Park Avenue at 56th Street in New York. That 1955 design was also defined by a sloping ramp, but was majorly altered over the decades and finally demolished in 2013.
According to Donald W. Hoppen’s The Seven Ages of Frank Lloyd Wright, 140 Maiden Lane adapted an existing structure which “included an ugly skylight” and was “close to a cube.” However, it gave Wright the “opportunity to play the circle against the square.” The exterior archway of concentric circles is partly obscured by a large rectangular embankment that juts out with the elegant Roman brickwork, and inside the plastic half-orb lighting fixtures bubble down from the ceiling in a grid. The original black walnut furnishings angle out from the white-painted concrete. Circular portholes line the walls and a tumult of green contrasts against all that white from a hanging planter right in the center.
Mark Anthony Wilson writes in Frank Lloyd Wright on the West Coast that there “is no doubt that the Morris Shop served as a working prototype for the Guggenheim Museum; a trial run done on a much smaller scale.” Considered his first interior spiral ramp, the V.C. Morris Shop is definitely one of the most significant commercial spaces in American architecture, especially in considering how Wright worked up from its two stories to the seven of the Guggenheim that seem to defy gravity. And just as significant, it’s still serving the purpose for which Wright designed it, luring in both architecture aficionados and shoppers on Maiden Lane with its broad expanse of sandy bricks revealing the white concrete curves inside, like stepping into a nautilus shell.
Xanadu Gallery in the former V. C. Morris Gift Shop is at 140 Maiden Lane, Union Square, San Francisco.