The Gordon Strong Automobile Objective, Sugarloaf Mountain, Maryland, 1924-1925

Issues of mobility and landscape became paramount in Wright's concept for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. It was his first project to explore circular geometries as a means of fully shaping architectural space, and he acknowledged difficulties in depicting its complex forms. The result was a design without exact parallel.

Gordon Strong (1869-1954) was a Chicago businessman of considerable wealth. During travels in 1902 he became captivated by Sugarloaf Mountain, a solitary outcrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains with the feel of wilderness in the midst of a cultivated landscape, and he began to acquire land that comprised both the mountain itself and its undeveloped setting.

During the summer of 1924 he met with Wright to discuss possible schemes for its development, and by September of that year had fixed upon an ambitious program. As he explained to Wright, he wanted to erect "a structure on the summit of Sugar Loaf Mountain" that would "serve as an objective for short motor trips," primarily from Washington and Baltimore, both nearby.

Strong said he wanted a building that would enhance the enjoyment of views from the mountain top, and he specified that "the element of thrill, as well as the element of beauty" were both to be part of the experience. He further stipulated that its appearance be "striking, impressive, . . . enduring, so that the structure will constitute a permanent and credible monument."

Roadmap showing the proposed location of the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective on Sugarloaf Mountain, Maryland

 

Roadmap showing the proposed location of the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective on Sugarloaf Mountain, Maryland. USGS Highway Map, 1922. Color photolithograph. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (107)

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Hypothetical study model of the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

Strong had provided a detailed topographic survey of his site, which facilitated Wright's efforts and greatly helped in constructing the present model.

The site itself remains largely unchanged, and the model suggests how Wright's design was expertly scaled to engage its specific features. Lower portions of the structure would have retained the site's steeper edges, and some shaping of the land would have been necessary to provide parking for automobiles; otherwise little manipulation of the terrain was required.

No scheme survives, however, to suggest how a roadway might have led up the steepest slopes of the mountain top to the project itself. Wright apparently left this difficult task for future consideration. Basswood and birch,1995-96 Scale: 1 inch = 50 feet (area represented: approximately 1/2 mile by 1/2 mile).

Hypothetical study model of the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Second view of model. Created for the exhibition by George Ranalli, architect, with Aaron McDonald and Nathaniel Worden, model makers (106).

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View of Sugarloaf Mountain, Maryland

 

View of Sugarloaf Mountain, Maryland. Gelatin silver print. After 1911 (negative exposed), modern print from copy negative. Stronghold Incorporated, Dickerson, Maryland (151)

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Sketch perspective with cover sheet for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

This is the only sketch yet discovered to show the design in relation to the entire mountain. It was affixed to a portfolio of colored prints that Wright sent to Gordon Strong in 1929. Wright perhaps offered the sketch, which appears to reflect an early stage of the design, as compensation for other original drawings that Strong believed should be his.

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Sketch perspective with cover sheet for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on Japanese paper, ca. 1924. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Deposit, Stronghold Incorporated, Dickerson, Maryland (82)

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Preliminary Sketches

Wright conceived the building as a grand spiral that would be the terminus of the roadway itself, placed so it appeared to complete the shape of the mountain which he saw as a seated lion. He later described it as "the natural snail-crown of the great couchant lion ... grown up from his mountain head, the very quality of its movement, rising and adapting itself to the uninterrupted movement of people sitting comfortably in their own cars in a novel circumstance with the whole landscape revolving about them, as exposed to view as though they were in an aeroplane." At first, a dance hall proposed by Strong was planned for the centre of the spiral structure, and cars were to park along a system of descending ramps. Wright's hand is apparent in these sketches.

That early kindergarten experience with the straight line; the flat plane; the square; the triangle; the circle! If I wanted more, the square modified by the triangle gave the hexagon; the circle modified by the straight line would give the octagon. Adding thickness, getting "sculpture" thereby, the square became the cube, the triangle the tetrahedron, the circle the sphere. These primary forms and figures were the secret of . . . whatever got into the architecture of the world. 1932

Sketch perspective for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

The spire has been removed and the ascending ramp is cantilevered over the descending ramp below, as Wright would develop the design in its later phases.

Sketch perspective for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, ca. 1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (83)

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Sketch perspective with spire and plan for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

Preliminary sketches show the spiral roadway supported on columns and a tall spire rising from the central well.

Sketch perspective with spire and plan for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, ca. 1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (84)

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Lower-level plan for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

The dance hall indicated at the base of the well is in accord with Strong's initial suggestion. A bridge across the dance hall leads to a water garden and overlook at the upper left.

Lower-level plan for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, ca. 1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (86)

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Section, elevation, and plan studies for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

The spire is shown rising from deep within the structure. Although its exact function is unknown, it was possibly intended as a radio transmission tower. Parking was proposed along the descending ramps.

Section, elevation, and plan studies for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, ca. 1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (85)

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Upper-level plan for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

A gallery and stage are located at the upper left, and the diagonal struts shown bracing the spire in section are depicted as dotted lines. Located immediately above, these struts could have framed a glazed roof. Drawing techniques in both plans seem to reflect the hand of Richard Neutra (1892-1970), who worked with Wright at Taliesin from August 1924 to February 1925.

Upper-level plan for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, ca.1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (145)

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Theatre Scheme

As he developed his proposal, Wright substituted a theatre for the dance hall of his preliminary studies. Sections indicate provisions for internal parking, but relationships between the theatre roof and the ramps rising above are uncertain. In one variation, he experimented with polygonal rather than circular shapes; in another, he suggested an elaborately profiled dome centered over the theatre.

Perspective showing section through ramps for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

 

Perspective showing section through ramps for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1925. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (87)

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Perspective for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

 

Perspective for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, ca. 1925. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (104)

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Section for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

 

Section for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, ca. 1925. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (88)

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Comparative sections showing planetarium and theater schemes for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

The title block differs from the set of thirteen drawings Wright prepared. It may have been presented to aid Wright's argument in substituting a planetarium for a theater at the center of the structure. Erasures suggest that an earlier drawing of the theater scheme had been reworked to produce this drawing.

Comparative sections showing planetarium and theater schemes for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, ca. 1925. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (90)

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Plan for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

A portion of the area beneath the automobile ramps is shown opened with piers, corresponding to perspectives recording this phase of the design.

Plan for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, ca. 1925. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (89)

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Planetarium Scheme

In Wright's final scheme, developed during the summer of 1925, ambiguities of form were resolved, partly by eliminating internal parking. The spiraling roadways, cantilevered to allow full views, were no longer supported on continuous rows of columns but instead by a vast dome 150 feet in diameter. Under the dome Wright proposed a planetarium, to be surrounded by a circular gallery containing aquaria and natural-history exhibits.

Cars would circle to the top, where passengers could step out to enjoy an expansive view. In addition to a stairway contained within a strongly accented tower, two other routes of descent were provided: one, for automobiles, along a lower spiral; another, for pedestrians, along a raised walkway bordering the upper spiral.

A dazzling array of lounges and restaurants provided options for leisure activities, as did promenades linking the walkways to adjoining features of the terrain. One led to an overlook at the edge of the mountain; the other bridged a narrow chasm to a second summit. This last prospect was to be further dramatized by a constructed pool and waterfall.

As part of an unusually complete and carefully orchestrated presentation to Strong, Wright prepared a detailed set of drawings showing each level of his scheme together with elevations, sections, and perspectives.

Plans of level 0 for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

 

Plans of level 0 for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1925. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona. Gordon Strong, plan, level 1 (92). Level 2 (93). Level 3 (94). Level 4 (95). Level 5 (96). Level 6 (97). Level 7 (98)

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Northeast elevation and section for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

 

Northeast elevation and section for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, 1925. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (99)

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Southeast and northwest elevations for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

 

Southeast and northwest elevations for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, 1925. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (100)

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Plan of the top level for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

 

Plan of the top level for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1925. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (169)

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Aerial perspective for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

 

Aerial perspective for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1925. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (101)

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Perspective from below for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

 

Perspective from below for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1925. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (102)

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Perspectives

There resides always a certain `spell power' in any geometric form, which ... is, as we say, the soul of the thing ... as for instance: the circle, infinity; the triangle, structural unity; the spire, aspiration; the spiral, organic process; the square, integrity. 1932

Although the basic concept and siting remained unchanged, several perspectives show variations of certain details; in some, for example, the stair tower is raised above the top level of the ramps; in others, the waterfall to be constructed under the bridge is eliminated. In all Wright worked with patterned openings, a critical element in all his concrete constructions of this period. In most, he indicated people ranging over the terrain, their access to be facilitated by the building he conceived.

This perspective suggests the monumentality of the scheme. The stair tower and promenades effectively moderated its circular form, serving to join it both visually and physically with the precipitous terrain. Characteristically, Wright had not shied from a difficult site, but instead structured his design to complete its natural form.

The Strong project celebrated mobility in a way no other design had, for while there was ample precedent for spiral structures, none had been conceived in just this way, nor been so fully integrated with its setting. Neither had roadways been so dramatically recognized. Strong rejected the design, feeling it inappropriate, and built a more conventional park instead. Wright, apparently captivated by the spiral, continued to develop its potential in several later projects, of which the Guggenheim Museum (1942-59) is the most well known.

Perspective for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective Perspective

When Wright returned a set of colored prints to Gordon Strong in 1929, he had altered the perspectives to restore the vertical element of the stair tower as shown in this drawing.

There resides always a certain "spell power" in any geometric form, which . . . is, as we say, the soul of the thing . . . as for instance: the circle, infinity; the triangle, structural unity; the spire, aspiration; the spiral, organic process; the square, integrity. 1932

Perspective for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on Japanese paper, ca. 1925-1929. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. Gift, Donald D. Walker, 1986 (105)

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Perspective for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

In this version the area to the left in the base of the project provided a sheltered area for visitors to rest or picnic.

Perspective for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on Japanese paper, ca. 1925-1929. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. Deposit, Stronghold Incorporated, Dickerson, Maryland (146)

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Site plan showing building location

This plan for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective included a theater and provided an outside sheltered area for visitors.

Site plan showing building location. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Ink on paper, 1925. Stronghold Incorporated, Dickerson, Maryland (152)

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Perspective for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

Erasures of a pattern indicating piers in the lower section of the building suggest that this perspective was originally prepared to illustrate a version of the theater scheme.

Perspective for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1925. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (103)

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