140 Maiden Lane

On Saturday afternoon, Scott and I wandered into 140 Maiden LaneFrank Lloyd Wright‘s sole contribution to San Francisco architecture.  We were unaware of the building’s cultural significance when we entered it.  We were merely curious if the building’s interior matched its plain yet elegant exterior.  We were surprised to find an architectural marvel inside.

Visiting 140 Maiden Lane was a serendipitous detour.  I had been leading the way to Britex, my favourite fabric store, when beautiful voices beckoned.  We walked along Grant Avenue and turned left onto Maiden Lane, where a tenor and a soprano were performing for passersby.  They stood in the middle of the street.  As they sang, their operatic voices reverberated off the surrounding buildings.  We listened to several arias, and then Scott tipped the buskers as we walked past them towards Britex’s back door.  A century ago, if voices beckoned visitors onto Maiden Lane (which used to be called Morton Street), the voices likely would have belonged to prostitutes, and the visitors likely would have been johns.  The 1906 earthquake destroyed the Morton Street red-light district.  But I digress.

Across the street from Britex, a large “goop MRKT” banner fluttered in the wind above 140 Maiden Lane.  “goop MRKT” is a pop-up curation of Gwyneth Paltrow‘s lifestyle brand.  Scott told me that he had noticed 140 Maiden Lane before but it had always been closed or vacant.  The building’s tall exterior wall of tan brick is relieved by a metal gate hung below a brick arch.

As the gate was open, we walked through the arch into a lovely atrium merchandised with tasteful art, books, and clothing.  The space itself seemed to be the main attraction for many of the visitors I observed.  A large white circular ramp spirals up from the atrium to a mezzanine like a giant nautilus shell.  A drop ceiling features 120 white acrylic domes which conceal the building’s pitched glass roof.  A hanging planter floats over the atrium like a verdant flying saucer.  A small plaque near the door reads “This structure [is] designated by the American Institute of Architects as one of 17 American buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to be retained as an example of his architectural contribution to American Culture – 1960.”  Scott and I peeked behind wooden doors to find hidden offices and a decommissioned dumbwaiter.  We opened drawers full of fancy soaps for sale.  Eventually, we left and went to Britex.

The next day, I returned to 140 Maiden Lane with a prospective client.  We had hit it off while exploring the newly-renovated San Francisco Museum of Modern Art so I was happy to share this discovery with him.  He seemed taken with the black walnut built-in furniture and fixtures, so we sat in silent appreciation of our surroundings.  Before we left, I asked a clerk to tell us about the building’s history.  She told us that gift shop owner V.C. Morris commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to renovate 140 Maiden Lane in the late 1940’s, and that the circular ramp in the atrium served as a physical proof of concept for the architect’s interior design of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.  She advised us that “goop MRKT” is open at 140 Maiden Lane only until May 22, so there are a few days left to enjoy the space before it closes.

 

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