Frank Lloyd Wright's Last Dream
By Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin
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. According to author Vincent J. Cannato, some of the rebuffed ideas included a world trade center, a “college of the future,” housing for the elderly, a prison, and a resort.
The highest bid was $2.1 million, from the New York–based Damon Doudt Corporation, which in 1962 put down a deposit of $100,000. Headed by NBC radio and television announcer Jerry Damon and television director Elwood Doudt, the company offered a “completely self-contained city of the future,” designed by none other than recently deceased architectural master Frank Lloyd Wright.
This is the fifth in a series of posts drawn from the authors'recent work
Never Built New York, published courtesy of Metropolis Books.
Wright’s Key Project, estimated to cost $93 million, was named as a tribute to Ellis Island’s role as a “key to a land of freedom and opportunity.” He had been working on the idea since early 1959, dying in April of that year. According to a poster advertising the project, it was the last commission Wright accepted. It would “promote casual, inspired living, minus the usual big-city clamour.”
Its Jules Verne-esque design, based on Wright’s sketches, was resolutely futuristic, a fixture of the architect’s late work. A circular podium would be superimposed on the island’s existing rectangular shape. Sitting on that base would be 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, candlestickshaped towers containing more apartments and a 500-room hotel. Suspended in the center of the undulating mass was a huge globe, seemingly pockmarked by eons of meteor collisions, and held aloft by plastic canopies protecting the plazas below.
Glassy, air-conditioned domes housing theaters, hospitals, churches, schools, a library, and a sports arena––they all looked like giant marbles––were to be set into a terraced park along the site’s perimeter. An “agora” embedded into this landscape would contain a planetarium, a cinema, shops, banks, restaurants, and nightclubs. Below this, a yacht basin would accommodate 450 boats. Most of these structures would be supported by gold-hued steel cables, similar to those lifting the decks of a suspension bridge. Automobiles would be replaced by moving sidewalks in this car-free complex, whose fountains and landscaping were meant to “look like a jewel, suspended over the water and surrounded by it, free of congestion and noise.”
Like all other proposals for Ellis Island, this one was rejected by the GSA. Later, in 1965, the island was declared a national monument, and the museum on the site opened in 1990.
Sam Lubell is a Staff Writer at Wired and a Contributing Editor at the Architect’s Newspaper. He has written seven books about architecture, published widely, and curated Never Built Los Angeles and Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum. Greg Goldin was the architecture critic at Los Angeles Magazine from 1999 to 2011, and co-curator, and co-author, of Never Built Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper, and Zocalo, among many others.