Home culture When Frank Lloyd Wright Designed a Plan to Turn Ellis Island Into a Futuristic Jules Verne-Esque City (1959)

When Frank Lloyd Wright Designed a Plan to Turn Ellis Island Into a Futuristic Jules Verne-Esque City (1959)

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When Frank Lloyd Wright Designed a Plan to Turn Ellis Island Into a Futuristic Jules Verne-Esque City (1959)

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The very words “Ellis Island” bring to mind a host of sepia-toned images, shaped by both Amer­i­can his­tor­i­cal fact and nation­al myth. Offi­cers employed there real­ly did inspect the eye­lids of new arrivals with but­ton­hooks, for exam­ple, but they did­n’t actu­al­ly make a pol­i­cy of chang­ing their names, how­ev­er for­eign they sound­ed. You can learn this and much else besides by pay­ing a vis­it to the Nation­al Immi­gra­tion Muse­um on Ellis Island, which opened in 1990, 36 years after the clo­sure of the immi­grant inspec­tion and pro­cess­ing sta­tion itself. But if Frank Lloyd Wright had had his way, you could live on Ellis Island — and what’s more, you’d nev­er need to leave it.

“After Ellis Island was decom­mis­sioned in 1954 as the nation’s gate­way to the world’s hud­dled mass­es, the U.S. Gen­er­al Ser­vices Admin­is­tra­tion (GSA) chose an all-Amer­i­can path: open­ing the site to devel­op­ers,” write Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin at the Gotham Cen­ter for New York City His­to­ry. When NBC radio and tele­vi­sion announc­er Jer­ry Damon and direc­tor Elwood Doudt pitched to Wright the ambi­tious idea of rede­vel­op­ing the dis­used island into a “com­plete­ly self-con­tained city of the future,” the archi­tect replied that the project was “vir­tu­al­ly made to order for me.” Alas, Wright died just before they could all meet and ham­mer out the details, but not before he’d drawn up a pre­lim­i­nary but vivid plan.

Damon and Doudt car­ried on with what the late Wright has named the “Key Project.” “Its Jules Verne-esque design, based on Wright’s sketch­es, was res­olute­ly futur­is­tic,” write Lubell and Goldin. A “cir­cu­lar podi­um” on the island would sup­port “apart­ments for 7,500 res­i­dents, ris­ing like a stack of off­set, alter­nat­ing dish­es. Above these dwelling floors, and sep­a­rat­ed by sun­decks, would be a cres­cent of sev­en cor­ru­gat­ed, can­dle­stick-shaped tow­ers con­tain­ing more apart­ments and a 500-room hotel.” At the cen­ter of it all, Wright placed “a huge globe, seem­ing­ly pock­marked by eons of mete­or col­li­sions, and held aloft by plas­tic canopies pro­tect­ing the plazas below.”

It’s easy to imag­ine the exe­cu­tion of this Space Age urban utopia not quite liv­ing up to Wright’s vision — and, indeed, to imag­ine it hav­ing fall­en by now into just as thor­ough a state of dilap­i­da­tion as did Ellis Island’s orig­i­nal build­ings. But it’s also fas­ci­nat­ing to con­sid­er what could have been Wright’s final com­mis­sion as the acme of the evo­lu­tion of his think­ing about the urban space itself. A quar­ter-cen­tu­ry ear­li­er, he’d been obsessed with the qua­si-rur­al devel­op­ment he called Broad­acre City; just a few years before his death, he came up with the Illi­nois Mile-High Tow­er, a megas­truc­ture that would prac­ti­cal­ly have con­sti­tut­ed a metrop­o­lis in and of itself. The Key Project, as Damon and Doudt pro­mot­ed it, would have offered “casu­al, inspired liv­ing, minus the usu­al big-city clam­or”: the kind of mar­ket­ing lan­guage we hear from devel­op­ers still today, though not backed by the genius of the most renowned archi­tect in Amer­i­can his­to­ry.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed con­tent:

Frank Lloyd Wright Designs an Urban Utopia: See His Hand-Drawn Sketch­es of Broad­acre City (1932)

The Unre­al­ized Projects of Frank Lloyd Wright Get Brought to Life with 3D Dig­i­tal Recon­struc­tions

Take a 360° Vir­tu­al Tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Archi­tec­tur­al Mas­ter­pieces, Tal­iesin & Tal­iesin West

Why Frank Lloyd Wright Designed a Gas Sta­tion in Min­neso­ta (1958)

Por­traits of Ellis Island Immi­grants Arriv­ing on America’s Wel­com­ing Shores Cir­ca 1907

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.



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