Adding a Wright to the Collection: The Huntington Hartford Play Resort and Sports Club
Jeff Goodman | Apr 28, 2021
Explore another Frank Lloyd Wright design that never came to be, through its history and the incomparable “photorealistic renderings” of David Romero. Here we visit a sports center and resort commissioned by a wealthy eccentric businessman, Huntington Hartford, and learn why this incredible design, destined for the Hollywood Hills, was never built.
Frank Lloyd Wright described his friend Hunt as “the sort of man who will come up with an idea, pinch it on the fanny, and run.”
Huntington Hartford was born into money. His grandfather George Huntington Hartford, for whom he was named, founded the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, which came to be known as A&P, the most successful grocery retailer of its time. His grandfather died when “Hunt,” as he was known, was six, leaving him an annual income of $1.5 million beginning in 1917. Hartford used his fortune throughout his lifetime as a collector of sorts: he collected art, real estate, naming rights, and, most of all, people. The people in his collection included not only wives, children, countless models and actresses, but most of all this collection included VIPs and celebrities. He cherished photographs of himself with the world’s elite, including Salvador Dalí, Errol Flynn, Richard Nixon, Charlie Chaplin, Marylin Monroe, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. In 1947, when he decided to develop his Beverly Hills estate into a resort and sports center for the rich and famous, he sought to add “The World’s Greatest Architect” to his collection.
It could be said that, for Hartford, the chase was better than the kill. Throughout his life, when things became difficult, he would cut bait and move on. This was true of his four marriages, his business endeavors, and his one effort to construct a Frank Lloyd Wright design. Wright’s apprentice, Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, said Wright described his friend Hunt as “the sort of man who will come up with an idea, pinch it on the fanny, and run.” And so was the case with the Huntington Hartford Play Resort and Sports Club.
The dramatic design for the Sports Club was inspired by a somber memorial built outside of the Garden Room, the personal living room at Taliesin West in Arizona. After the Wrights’ pregnant daughter Svetlana and her son Daniel were killed in an automobile accident in 1946, Wright designed the memorial consisting of three steel disks placed atop the points of a triangular pedestal. He always saw the memorial, still on display at Taliesin West today, as an architectural work, and used it as the inspiration for the Sports Club.
Wright wrote to Hartford to describe his design:
To stand upon the apex of a high ridge of the Hollywood Hills. Construction – scientific cantilevers of concrete reinforced with pre-stressed steel. Like branches of a tree three shallow bowls project from the great sloping stone shaft at the center forming trefoil. This trefoil domed with fibre-glass, forms the main club-room high in air. Next shelf below a swimming pool brims over into a water-fall which is recirculated to the pool again. The lower projecting shelf is for championship tennis matches. Practice courts are alongside to the left. The entrance drive is along the ridge above them. The entire structure is extremely economical and is earthquake proof. Magnificent views in every direction are had up in the air uninterrupted by the devastation made by tearing the surrounding hills down instead of building to preserve them as in this instance.
Unfortunately, this otherworldly project was never to be. As he did throughout his life, when his interest met a challenge, Huntington Hartford moved on. In this case, the challenge came from his Hollywood neighbors who protested the resort, and a community board that refused to grant him a zoning variance. With this version of the design now dead, Wright gave his “grunt of approval” for a new project for the site to be devised by his son, and asked that Hartford would be accepting of the filial substitution. “I hope you will forget everything I did for you and give Lloyd a complete break,” he wrote. And, in the end, the elder architect believed Hartford was still getting what he initially desired, a Wright in his collection. “You will have whatever the name is worth – at the cost only of mentioning you believe in the son – not the father.”
In spite of all of this, the two men remained friendly for the rest of Wright’s life. And while Hartford never realized a Wright-designed building, by father or son, he did finally persuade Wright to lend him his name again. After rejecting an invitation to join the National Advisory Council of the Huntington Hartford Foundation in 1954, Wright relented 3 years later, taking pity on a friend born with every privilege who could never seem to make himself a success in life. “I have been sorry to see how near you come to doing something great and then something always happens – what is the matter,” he asked his friend. “Anyway, my affection, Huntington, and anything I can do. So, put me down.”
At long last, Huntington Hartford could add the name Frank Lloyd Wright to his collection.
Scroll through more of David Romero’s “Photorealistic Renderings” of the Huntington Hartford Play Resort and Sports Club below:
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of the Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly magazine. The Quarterly is a member-exclusive benefit. To receive current and future issues, become a member today.