June 21, 2006 News & Opinion » Featured story

Saving Frank Lloyd Wright 

Buffalo rescues two masterpieces

After decades of neglect and deterioration, two of Buffalo's architectural gems --- Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House and Graycliff --- are about midway through multi-million-dollar restorations.

The Martin House was the home of a prominent early 20th-century business executive, Darwin Martin. Located in Buffalo's Parkside neighborhood, it's considered one of Wright's most important works. Graycliff, the Martin family's summer home, is located on Lake Erie in the town of Derby, about 15 miles south of Buffalo (and about a 45-minute drive from the Martin House).

Built on the success of the Industrial Revolution and lost in the years that followed the Great Depression, the Martin House and Graycliff are more than outstanding examples of American architecture. They represent the highs and lows of a creative master, a prominent family --- and Western New York. Both sites went through years of successive ownership, often in the hands of people who had no appreciation of Wright's artistry.

They also reveal the distinction between classes in American society from the perspective of a family that enjoyed wealth and status only to have to let go of it. And the short-sighted thinking of a community that, for years, stood by and watched senseless alterations and demolitions showed how little value it placed on some of its greatest assets --- its history and its architecture.

Changing course for the Martin House and Graycliff has been a remarkable undertaking, partly because it has proceeded despite Buffalo's declining economy. Convincing the public to invest millions to match one-inch floor tiles and recreate lost buildings has been a startling public-relations achievement.

Work on the Martin House began in 1992; about $20 million has been invested so far, with the final tab expected to be about $35 million. Graycliff's restoration began in 1997 and is expected to cost about $3.2 million.

No completion dates have been set, but even in their present state of mid-construction, thousands of architectural buffs and devotees of Wright's work are drawn to the sites from all over the world. Last year alone, the Martin House received more than 10,000 visitors.

Wright's legacy was built on a holistic approach to design that was courageous in its time. His work, sometimes described as spiritual, has been credited with greatly influencing the Modernist Movement in American architecture. And Darwin Martin, an ambitious young man who climbed the ranks of the Larkin Soap Company from door-to-door salesman to one of the highest-paid executives in the country, played a pivotal role in Wright's success.

By 1901, Martin's wife Isabelle felt that her self-made millionaire husband should have a home befitting his status. Darwin Martin, looking for a way to unite his family in one location, bought a 1.7-acre corner lot in Buffalo's historic Parkside East neighborhood and commissioned Wright to start with a plan for the living quarters for his sister and her husband. It proved to be a golden opportunity for Wright.

The Martin House, built between 1903 and 1905, is among Wright's most important works, says architectural historian Jean France, because it is a prime example of his Prairie style.

"It is an architectural masterwork," says France. "Anyone who is studying Wright's work must see the Martin House. It was early in his career, and he wasn't really well known outside of Chicago. It was the work that really opened doors for him."

"The architect's job," she says "is to enclose volume for use. And in the Martin House, you have an immediate sense of how he controlled visuals, how he directed your movement through the space. No one had approached the use of interior space quite this way before Wright."

The Martin House was actually a complex of interrelated buildings in the Parkside area. The neighborhood was first planned by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, adding to the site's significance. One of the few residential designs Wright conceived as a complex, it originally included the 14,978-square-foot main house, a 1,540-square-foot pergola, a 2,655-square-foot conservatory, a 5,507-square-foot carriage house, and the 4,400-square-foot Barton House --- the house Wright designed for Martin's sister and her husband. A gardener's cottage was added later.

Most of the Parkside neighborhood is a mix of Colonial and Victorian houses. The Martin House was a radical departure. Wright often used a design based on a cruciform floor plan. He also preferred rectangular buildings with clear fields of vision. Noticeably free of vent pipes, gutters, and other hardware, the roof with its low overhangs plays a key role in the home's modernist exterior.

The double-cut, Roman yellow brick Wright used on the exterior and his preference for Chicago-style windows --- broad panes instead of the more popular double-hung windows Wright liked to called guillotines --- add to the building's symmetry.

Inside the Martin House, you're treated to an almost endless series of architectural tricks and illusions. Wright created vestibules with lowered ceilings when passing through several downstairs rooms, which clearly defined the space. Wisteria was the inspiration for his some of hisiridescent art-glass windows, a fireplace with a mosaic façade, and a pergola leading to a conservatory, where the walls were once draped in the flowering vines.

A fireplace in the reception room uses the same brick as that on the exterior of the house; only this time the brick forms a semi-circle, or sunburst, as Wright called it. Bronze paint was applied to the mortar between the brick to reflect the fire's glow. And because of the roof's low overhangs, light enters the house quietly, absent of glare.

"One of Wright's most consistent concepts was the hearth as the center of the home," says Margaret Stehlik, a spokesperson for the Martin House. "He wanted to create that safe and secure sense of sanctuary. And he wanted his clients to be able to sit and look out the windows but still have a sense of privacy inside. You don't really notice it from the outside, but the house is raised up quite a bit, and we think the iridescent glass may have been used just so the Martins could see out but others couldn't see in."

Wright didn't like the idea of making the stairwell the focal point of the home, so he abandoned the European-style open staircase in favor of a partially enclosed set of stairs.

"When you study his work, you see that he really valued function, but he didn't like seeing all the mechanics," says Stehlik. "The stairs are slightly hidden. The window mechanics are inside the walls. The gutters are encased so you don't see a bunch of metal strung around the outside. Even the window boxes, which were fully plumbed, are built in rather than loose hanging boxes on the outside. When you add this up, you realize there's no eye clutter in a Wright house. You're seeing exactly what he wants you to see."

There are seven bedrooms and four baths in the main house, but it is the master suite that still captures the imagination of visitors with its Tree of Life window.

"There were more 394 art-glass windows in the entire Martin House complex," says Stehlik. "Some of the windows are made of hundreds of pieces of glass held together using brass strips, a technique called caming. The most famous window is the Tree of Life. It was a work of art. Wright designed the master bedroom with windows on all three sides. He placed the bed in the room so you could watch the sunrise on one side and sunset on the other. And yes, it's true; he not only designed the furniture, but placed it exactly where he wanted it to go in most of the rooms throughout the house."

Isabelle Martin was not fond of the Martin House. She didn't like some of Wright's design choices. And she had begun to suffer from poor eyesight and complained that the house was too dark. So Darwin agreed that she would have complete approval over the plans for their summer home, Graycliff. Built between1926 and 1929, the house was named after the wall of grayish-blue cliffs overlooking Lake Erie on which it is perched.

While it is unmistakably a Wright design, it is completely different from the Martin House. Wright had become well known by this time, and Graycliff --- or as Wright called it, the Natural House --- helped to solidify his theory of "organic" design: using indigenous materials and building into the natural landscape.

Lake Erie plays a prominent role in Graycliff's design. As you first approach the house, Wright directs your eye out to the water: the driveway veers to a view of the horizon instead of leading directly to the front door. A series of large windows along the front and back of the first floor give you another full view of the water as you look straight through the house.

Wright's original concept was to have a reflecting pool and fountain in the front of the house complimented by a larger sunken pool in the rear. The effect would have given the illusion of continuous water with all of its changing reflections, from the front of the house to Lake Erie. But the water garden in the rear of the house was never completed. Darwin Martin became concerned over the rising cost of the project as it topped $16,000.

"By this time in his career, Wright had moved past the Prairie-style house that made him famous," says Jean France. "Some people think that Graycliff is important because it represents the transition project to Fallingwater," Wright's celebrated house in western Pennsylvania. "There are important similarities between the two."

Wright also designed a small structure called a heat hut, which housed the hot-water system, and the servants' quarters, known as the Foster House. A garden wall spanned the distance between the main house and the Foster House, which Wright used to blur the line between the gardens in the front of the property and the horizon.

Inside Graycliff, the lake's presence is further magnified. In contrast to the Martins' city house, Graycliff is filled with light. Most of the windows on the west side offer big, unobstructed views of water and sky. A limestone fireplace graces the living room, and Wright's organic themes of earth, fire, and water come together.

Upstairs, a hallway with a continuous view of the front garden spans the length of the house. The bedrooms off the hallway face the lake, with one offering a glimpse of the mist above Niagara Falls in the distance on a clear day.

"A lot of people thought that Graycliff wasn't as good as the Martin House, and maybe it wasn't worth renovating," says John Conlin, architectural historian and editor of Western New York Heritage Press. "It didn't have all the Arts and Crafts elements, and it was never as lavish. But I think most people will find it much more comfortable and more in tune with modern living. People leave the Martin House and are awed, but they come to Graycliff and don't want to leave. Everyone says the same thing: I could live here."

Although there was some initial concern that Graycliff and the Martin House would compete for funding and attendance, "it has turned out to be just the opposite," says Conlin. "They really enhance each other, and I recommend that people see both during the same day."

Once completed, Graycliff was a monument to the Martins' place in society. Unlike the city residence, this house was for seasonal play and relaxation. It sat among other lakeshore homes of Buffalo's wealthy industrialists, confirming the Martins' millionaire status. But all of that was about to change.

Wright's relationship with Darwin Martin, say historian France, was a mix of collaboration and opportunism. "Wright benefited greatly from his relationship with Martin," she says. "It was Martin who bankrolled him on several projects. But more than that, he served as a conduit to some of Wright's best work. The LarkinAdministrationBuilding, for example [another Wright masterpiece in downtown Buffalo that was demolished in 1950], was the commercial design that caught the attention of clients here and in Europe."

"Wright was essentially an architect of residential homes," says France, "but this was a wonderful building that showed his range, and it put him on the world architectural stage. Wright would never have received that project without Martin."

But, adds France, "it's hard to say what Martin got out of all of this."

Wright was no stranger to scandal, and that didn't please his wife, who worried about her husband's close association with the architect. In 1909, Wright left his wife and children to travel through Europe with a former client, Margaret (Mamah) Cheney. In a time when divorce was not well accepted, Wright and Cheney's relationship hurt his reputation in the US. He was also a poor manager of his business affairs, infuriating clients with delays and budget overruns.

"In many ways, Darwin was always there sort of as a manager," says Stehlik, "and he bailed him out of some of his messes. He seemed to empathize with his problems, and more than anything, he really truly believed in Wright's genius."

But Wright "borrowed a lot of money from Darwin that he never repaid," says Stehlik, "and of course we know now that there came a time when he really needed that money returned to him."

Martin lost most of his fortune in the stock-market crash of 1929. After his death in 1935, his widow couldn't afford the taxes on the Martin House and simply walked away from it. She lived at Graycliff until she no longer had the resources to keep it, and in 1943 abandoned that property as well.

The Martin House fell into almost immediate obscurity. Parcels of the original lot, including the Barton House, were sold. The main house remained vacant and boarded up for years. Then in the 1960's, the StateUniversity at Buffalo bought the house and used it as the president's home. By that time, the pergola, conservatory, and carriage house had been demolished. Evidence of roof leaks can still be seen in the main house, and years of water collecting in the basement caused substantial damage. Patches of tile flooring and large portions of the fireplace's glass mosaic lost their adherence. The original kitchen was given a 60's style makeover, complete with florescent lighting and lemon-yellow Formica counters. Sadly, some of the furniture Wright designed for the Martins and once stored in the house was mysteriously removed, presumably stolen by a collector recognizing its value.

Graycliff fared slightly better. It was purchased for $50,000 in the early 50's by the Order of the Piarist Fathers, a Catholic brotherhood that made significant changes to the site. The most critical was the addition of a make-shift room that extended from the front of the house, which the priests used as a chapel. To accommodate that room, the priests moved the entrance to the house. Wright, who liked to return to his sites with his students, showed up at the property unannounced. Seeing the changes the priests had made, the 90-year-old Wright flew into a fury.

Some of Graycliff's structures escaped the priest's handiwork. But even though they were not modified, the heat hut, the Foster House, and the garden wall deteriorated severely.

By the time Wright died in 1959, his work was falling out of favor. Other architects were in greater demand, and critics began to downplay his influence. Wright's famous school of architecture became less important to students and was financially unstable. And Buffalo largely ignored Wright's legacy, even demolishing the LarkinAdministrationBuilding.

It wasn't until the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared the Martin House a national treasure that the idea of restoring Wright's work took hold. Title to the Martin House was finally transferred from the university to the Martin House Restoration Corporation in 2002. And the Barton House was purchased by M&T Bank, the Buffalo News, and Rich Products and was given to the corporation.

"It took more than a decade, but eventually Buffalo's business and political leaders came together to rescue this important site," says Stehlik. "We have been fortunate to have the support of this city's power elite, because everyone recognizes that we have something special here that belongs to this community. The Martin House board of directors is like a who's who for this city, and they've made this happen."

While the Martin House was nearly lost to deterioration, Graycliff was almost lost to developers. And its rescue came about in an entirely different way: the priests decided to put Graycliff up for sale. A group of tenacious neighbors and fans of Wright's work went to the priests and pleaded with them to accept a $20,000 down payment while they raised the balance of the $450,000 sale price. The grassroots group leading the rescue had reason to believe that a local developer was interested in demolishing the building and replacing it with luxury waterfront units. So the group formed a non-profit conservancy and immediately set about getting Graycliff designated as a state landmark. And in 1998 the Baird Foundation guaranteed the nearly half-million-dollar mortgage.

Just getting the rights to the property was "unbelievably hard," says Reine Hauser, executive director for Graycliff. "Our situation was different than the Martin House. The buildings here were so obscured by overgrowth that few people even knew it was here. My point is, we didn't have the initial attention that the Martin House did. We had to summon that attention on our own."

Some visitors might approach the Martin House and Graycliff and wonder what's so great about a pair of properties that look like handyman specials. Chain-link fences, bright yellow barricade tape blocking entrance ways, water stains, broken windows: these are hardly the images of important landmarks. But substantial progress has been made at both sites, with the bulk of time and money going to repairing foundations, roofs, and other structural elements that are not as visible as floors and windows but are vital to preserving the properties.

At the Martin House, visitors will see the recreation of the pergola leading from the main house to the conservatory nearing completion. And Graycliff finished removing the chapel addition in 2000. The porte-cochere was restored to its original plan in 2001, earlier than the rest of the exterior to offer easier entry to visitors. The heat hut, the garden wall, and the Foster House were also among the first phase of Graycliff's renovations.

At both sites, there is a strong commitment to craftsmanship. For example, it took nine years for the folks at the Martin House to find the Ohio company that is matching the golden yellow, double-cut brick Wright originally used. But the search paid off. It is almost impossible to distinguish the original brick from the reproduction. A Chicago company that specializes in historic-paint analysis is working on the interior color palate, and the chocolate-colored 3/4-inch tile flooring in the great room is being recreated by a company in Little Rock, Arkansas. The same meticulous search is underway for restoring the art glass windows and the mosaic glass tiles for the fireplace.

A visitor's information center and gift shop has been created at Graycliff by retooling a small gymnasium built by the priests. At the Martin House complex, the Barton House serves as an information center and gift store.

"We are so lucky, because most of the original plans, drawings, and even some of the correspondence between Wright and Darwin Martin have been preserved by the university," says Hauser. "It would be so much more difficult if we didn't have these original records to work from."

The construction hasn't deterred visitors, some of whom come regularly for tours and special events just to see the changes as they are being made. Both sites depend heavily on volunteer support and are in a constant fund-raising mode.

Conlin says the investment in restoring Wright's work adds to the region's character.

"If you have been following the aftermath of Katrina and the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans, one thing comes up again and again: preserving that local color. That's what attracts people to a destination. It's that unique quality that isn't duplicated everywhere you look."

Both sites are open for guided tours only, and it's easy to see both sites on the same day. At the Martin House, summer tours (June through September) are offered at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $12, $8 for students. Information: www.darwinmartinhouse.org; (716) 856-3858.

At Graycliff, summer tours are available at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 11 a.m., noon, and 1, 2, and 3 p.m. on Saturday; and noon, 1, 2, 3, and 4 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $10. Information: www.graycliff.bfn.org; (716) 947-9217.

Luring the tourists

The Martin House and Graycliff are among a number of homes and offices built in Buffalo from the late 19th to the early 20th century by important architects, making this small city something of an architectural showcase. And Buffalo is the first city in the country to completely rebuild demolished Wright structures according to his original plans.

Wright's work is seen as an integral part of the city's future economy, says Douglas Swift, a developer who is on the board of directors for both sites. Restoring Wright's work will help to change Buffalo's old factory image to one that is more culturally vibrant, he says.

"Tourism is the number two industry in New York," says Swift. "As one of the country's first boomtowns, we are uniquely positioned to become a living historical museum, and we want to get some of those tourist dollars."

It was hard at first to convince the community that preserving Wright's work was not frivolous, says Swift. Now, he says, architecture is seen as part of Buffalo's cultural heritage.

"When some people hear that you are spending millions on a set of old buildings, sure they have questions, because we have so many needs. How do you prioritize?" says Swift. "But I think people really get it now. Tourists, especially those interested in architecture, tend to be older, with a lot of disposable income. They can easily spend $200 to $300 here taking in all of our sites, museums, shopping, and going out to dinner. Do you know how many people come through here every year on their way to the Falls? Millions. And before, they went straight to the Falls and over to Canada."

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