Using 50-year-old paint chips, swatches hung high above Fifth Avenue and complex chemical analyses, the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission settled an Upper East Side decorating dilemma like no other Tuesday, endorsing an off-white color for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
"This debate has been watched by the entire world," said commission member Margery Permutter, before the panel approved the museum's petition to paint the exterior of the iconic circular structure a cool, grayish white. "People in Paris were asking me 'What color is the Guggenheim going to be?'"
The question vexed the museum, neighborhood groups, historians and preservationists for months, with sentiment split between two colors: the off-white shade that has been the public face of the museum for years and a buff yellow color that represents the building's original hue when it opened in 1959.
The museum and neighborhood groups argued for the off-white, saying the building had been that color, with slight variations, for most of its existence. But historical groups pointed out that the museum's famed and famously finicky architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, hated white and had clearly preferred a warmer hue for what is arguably his most well-known work.
The new paint job is the last step of a $27 million refurbishment that began in 2005 and should be completed by next spring, museum officials said.
Before recommending the off-white, the museum stripped 11 coats of paint from the building and performed scientific analyses on each, and dusted off archived paint chips initialed by Wright. It also hung oversized paint swatches on the northeast side of the museum so commission members could compare the two colors at different times of the day.
Museum Director Thomas Krens told the commission that the buff yellow would create a "jarring" contrast with the rest of the neighborhood and could generate "enough controversy about the building that it might not necessarily be an appropriate choice."
Yet even as he recommended the off-white, Krens admitted that it was "a very close call. I have to say that if I were to dial up Frank Lloyd Wright right now and ask him what his preference might be, he might well choose the original color."
But in the end, the commission approved the museum's recommendation by a 7-2 vote, citing conflicting evidence about Wright's intentions, the fact that the architect did not live to see the museum completed and that the building was the original buff color for only its first four years.
"It's really quite ambiguous in terms of what Frank Lloyd Wright originally wanted," said commission member Roberta Brandes Gratz, who voted for off-white. "He was just the kind of character who might have made them change it on sight if he didn't like it once it was finished."
Stephen Byrns, who cast one of the dissenting votes, argued that Wright's preference was clear enough to guide the panel's decision.
"He was the greatest architect in our country and his museum is a masterpiece," Byrns said. "The chemical analysis clearly shows that the original colors were darker. It did get lighter over time. People's tastes change, but I don't think this is a question about people's taste."