What Was Charles Gwathmey’s Impact on American Architecture?

Charles Gwathmey (1938 – 2009), American Architect & Designer

Addition to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York, Scale model 1/16" = 1', by Charles Gwathmey
Addition to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York, Scale model 1/16″ = 1′, by Charles Gwathmey

Charles Gwathmey was an American architect best known for his 1992 refurbishment of New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. Charles Gwathmey was the sole architect in Time magazine’s Leadership in America issue.

Charles Gwathmey (1938 – 2009) was an American architect. In 1969, he was a principal of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects and one of the five architects known as The New York Five. Gwathmey was arguably best known for his 1992 refurbishment of New York City’s Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Early Life

He was the son of American painter Robert Gwathmey and photographer Rosalie Gwathmey and was born in Charlotte, North Carolina. Charles Gwathmey studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated from New York City’s High School of Music and Art in 1956. He obtained his Master of Architecture from Yale School of Architecture in 1962. He was awarded both the William Wirt Winchester Fellowship and a Fulbright Grant. He was a student of Paul Rudolph at Yale.

Gwathmey was president of The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies’ board of trustees and was named a fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1981.


He constructed a house and studio for his parents in Amagansett, New York, in 1965. Although still not a professional architect, he became famous and changed beach house architecture. He was astonished to discover a multiple-choice question on the professional licensure exam that questioned, “Which of these is the organic house?” when he finally took it. One of the options was the home he designed for his parents. He wanted to say that the organic house was his, but he chose Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater House to pass the exam. He knew that was the response they were looking for. He was successful.

While under 40 years old and with only ten years of experience, Gwathmey had designed 21 residences and restorations by 1977. Gwathmey taught at Pratt Institute, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, Princeton University, Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Texas, and the University of California at Los Angeles between 1965 and 1991. He was the Yale University Davenport Professor (1983 and 1999) and Bishop Professor (1991), as well as the Harvard University Eliot Noyes Visiting Professor (1985). Gwathmey was the American Academy in Rome’s William A. Bernoudy Resident in Architecture in the Spring of 2005.

Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, maybe where Gwathmey Siegel gained the most notoriety in New York. The 1992 extension is a rectangular 10-story tower hidden below Wright’s well-known spiral.

Critics and preservationists criticised the firm’s initial concept for a considerably larger, cantilevered box as intrusive. Mr Gwathmey ultimately chose a limestone slab that defers Wright’s potent structure.

Paul Goldberger, who was once The New York Times architecture critic and a critic for The New Yorker, concluded that the Guggenheim “is now a better museum and a better work of architecture” due to the renovations designed by Gwathmey Siegel and the expansion. (The Boston Globe 06 Aug 2009, Page B14 – Newspapers.com, n.d.)

Rays Plate by Charles Gwathmey and Robert Siegel
Rays Plate by Charles Gwathmey and Robert Siegel

In 1995, Gwathmey’s firm developed the North Miami Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2005, the Astor Place Tower a 21-story residential project in Manhattan’s East Village. In 2011, the Ron Brown Building, for which he was the primary architect, became the new home of the United States Mission to the United Nations. The structure was named after him. Ambassador Susan Rice congratulated Gwathmey posthumously in her remarks.

His first marriage to a writer, Emily Margolin, ended in divorce. Annie Gwathmey was his only child from that marriage. Gwathmey married Bette-Ann Damson in 1974.


In 1970, the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded Gwathmey the Brunner Prize. In 1976, he was elected to the academy. He earned the Medal of Honor from the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter in 1983 and the first Yale Alumni Arts Award from the Yale School of Architecture in 1985. Gwathmey received a Lifetime Achievement Medal in Visual Arts from the Guild Hall Academy of Arts in 1988 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York State Society of Architects in 1990.

Gwathmey was the sole architect in Time magazine’s Leadership in America issue.


The Boston Globe 06 Aug 2009, page B14 – Newspapers.com. (n.d.). The Boston Globe 06 Aug 2009, Page B14 – Newspapers.com. https://www.newspapers.com/image/443959156/?terms=Charles%20Gwathmey&match=1

Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishi

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