Mercedes Gets Back in Gear
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 10/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
When New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum mounted a motorcycle show, the sight of vehicles on Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic spiraling ramp attracted record crowds as well as art-world vitriol. But Wright himself never objected to the merging of the architectural and the automotive—as evidenced by the Park Avenue car showroom he completed in 1954, two years before construction of the Guggenheim began.
The car showroom was commissioned by dealer Max Hoffman, who also owned a Wright house in Westchester County, and a Mercedes dealership has occupied the space for 50 years. Its centerpiece is a display ramp that spirals down to a motorized turntable, but the ramp can accommodate only three vehicles at a time and the turntable only three more—clearly not enough, given the range of cars now offered by Mercedes.
Three years ago, when the lease was ending, Mercedes-Benz Manhattan considered moving to roomier quarters. A decision to vacate might well have resulted in the obliteration of the Wright interior, general manager Ralph Fisher says. Luckily, the landlord came up with additional space on the ground floor of the glass building. Fisher then brought in Gerner Kronick + Valcarcel Architects principal Randolph Gerner to restore the existing 3,500 square feet and outfit the new 6,500.
Gerner faced many constraints, including low ceilings. "We had 11 feet to the underside of the slab, which isn't a lot for an auto showroom," he says. And both spaces are interrupted by massive square columns supporting the office floors above.
Faced with this inelegant structural solution, Wright mirrored the columns to make them disappear; ceiling mirrors shaped like the Mercedes logo were added subsequently. Gerner left these features intact, then followed Wright's sketches as closely as possible in restoring the flowing topography of the original showroom. Around the perimeter of the room, he added Wright-inspired window seats in walnut, with leather-covered cushions hiding storage. To make the entire space accessible, Gerner removed a 6-inch curb around the turntable, which allows cars to circulate like riders on a merry-go-round. "You don't come to the car. The car comes to you," he explains.
In street-front space adjacent to the original showroom, he added two rooms for the new ultra-luxury Maybach. (Starting at $300,000, the car is so large that maneuvering it through Wright's interior was a struggle.) The Maybach showroom is defined by a halogen-lit coved ceiling framing the six glass disks of fluorescent fixtures, installed in rows of three. Behind the showroom is a high-tech conference room where buyers work with a Mercedes rep—and often their own interior designers—to customize the Maybachs.
The building's lobby separates the Maybach and Wright showrooms from a third one, where Gerner really got to shine. To create a suitably outdoorsy feeling for the SUVs, station wagons, and sports cars on display, he covered the floor in granite the pale gray of gravel; overhead, translucent stretched vinyl recalls clouds. Air-conditioning, pumped through oversize exposed diffusers, suggests an ocean breeze, while their surface of brushed stainless steel reflects the styling of a Mercedes dashboard, he says.
Playing off Wright, Gerner mirrored his columns, too, but the new mirrors rely on sandblasted glass for a more subtle glow. The room is so well lit—with a combination of 300 high-intensity-discharge and fluorescent fixtures—that Gerner says it looks like daytime at night, when pedestrians seeking Mercedes specs after-hours can stand outside and download information directly to PDAs.
Gerner is careful to credit his muse, Mercedes, for making the view behind the glass so striking. The three showrooms' interiors, he says modestly, "don't look half as good without the cars."