Burton and Emily Hall Tremaine had part ownership of Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona, a vast impact crater that in a visceral way underscored the obvious—the Earth, for all its beauty, is a planet vulnerable to powerful blows from space. Adjacent to the Bar T Bar Ranch, the crater is a mile wide and 550 feet deep. It is composed of barren sand and fractured bedrock. Burton Tremaine had negotiated a 199-year lease for the crater from the descendents of Daniel Barringer, an engineer who had run a mining operation at the site and who first proposed that the crater was made by the impact of a meteorite.
Aware that the crater was an environmental treasure, the Tremaines sought ways to link it to art and architecture to make a cosmic statement. Their first endeavor in the late 1940s was to hire Frank Lloyd Wright to design a museum and observatory to be built on the crater’s edge. Emily considered Wright to be “the only architect who could make man-made things really fit with that kind of nature,” by which she meant cataclysmic. Entranced by the desert, which he considered a “titanic, ancient battlefield,” Wright had built Taliesin West, his winter home, in Scottsdale, Arizona. He used local rock and wood to unite the buildings with the landscape, over the years constantly making changes.
Wright’s radical design for the museum and observatory was sharply angled as if a stone projectile had struck the rim of the crater. Unfortunately, it presented an enormous engineering challenge because when the meteorite had hit the Earth, approximately 50,000 years ago, it had pulverized all the surrounding rock. This meant it was virtually impossible to build a foundation strong enough to support a building leaning precariously over the abyss. When the Tremaines consulted with engineers on the technical feasibility of Wright’s design, they were astonished at the sky-high cost estimates. But Wright (who was dismissive of the entire engineering profession) was staunchly opposed to modifying the design, writing truculently to the Tremaines, “I said your contractors probably knew nothing about my plans. The reason for the statement being that for 56 years I’ve been busy eliminating what they know about building from my plans.”
Faced with Wright’s intransigence, the Tremaines reluctantly ended the relationship, turning instead to their friend Philip Johnson. At that time architecture was a new venture for Johnson. He was better known for his influence at the Museum of Modern Art as well as art collecting. Johnson’s solution was much simpler than Wright’s. He designed a building that provided what he called “an oasis” in the desert to give visitors a sense of shelter in the harsh environment. Following its construction, it was damaged by a windstorm, which led to design modifications. Over the years additions have been made, including a cinema, to enhance the experience of visitors.
However, the construction of the museum did not quell Emily’s desire to link art and the crater. In the late 1970s, she invited the artist Charles Ross to visit. Intrigued with cosmology, Ross was already at work on The Star Tunnel, which he aligned with the axis of the Earth in such a way that the orbit over time of the north star could be viewed. According to Ross, “They had possession of one of the great environmental wonders of the world and they were thinking of doing a museum that dealt with ecology of forces. I looked at the crater and proposed a piece that had to do with the spectrum and the sound of the solar system.”
Ross’s plan combined large prisms and radio transmitters so that the sounds (an undulating crackle and a soft hiss) and spectrum of sunlight could be perceived simultaneously by viewers at the crater’s edge. Unfortunately the project did not go forward, the reasons having to do with the complex corporate structure of the crater’s ownership, and not with dissatisfaction with Ross’s ideas. “The whole project sort of faded away,” said Ross. “We never got as far as a model.”
Emily also approached Peter Erskine whose art involved light. “She was interested not necessarily in an earthwork but in art that she felt related to these larger forces of nature, the sun, the planets, the solar system,” Erskine recalled. But just as with Ross, nothing came of the overture to Erskine. The upshot was that the Tremaines left the crater almost as they had found it—a cosmic earthwork that needed no improvement.