Buffalo has the Wright Stuff
As our tour guide led us into the massive home, we felt a sense of awe as we peered down the long pergola and saw a huge statue of the Greek goddess Nike looming over the reconstructed conservatory. This is just one of the unique architectural features found in the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Darwin Marin House. Located in Buffalo’s Parkside East Historic District, the complex, which is currently undergoing a multi-million dollar restoration, stands out from the neighboring Victorian homes.
Built between 1903 and 1905 in Wright’s distinctive Prairie style, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986. It ranks among Wright’s finest residential works. Even Wright himself referred to the complex as his “opus.”
How did a home of this caliber happen to be built in Buffalo? Actually, Buffalo is a virtual treasure trove of early 20th Century architecture. In the early 1900’s, Buffalo was one of the country’s more prosperous cities and many well-known architects of the time designed buildings in the city.
Darwin Martin, an executive with Buffalo’s Larkin Soap Company, was introduced to Wright’s work when he visited his brother in Oak Park, Illinois. Since the Larkin company was looking to build a new company headquarters, Martin suggest they commission Wright. Martin and Wright began a life-long friendship that would continue until Martin’s death in 1935.
The Larkin building, which was completed in 1904 was Wright’s first major commercial building and considered one of his greatest works. Unfortunately, after the Larkin company went out of business, the building fell into disrepair and it was demolished in 1950.
Martin bought a large parcel of land on Jewett Parkwayand commissioned Wright to design the complex for his family. The first structure built, the Barton House, was a home for Martin’s sister and her husband. Five structures in all were constructed on the property, the Barton House, the Darwin Martin House, carriage house, conservatory and a pergola. Wright also designed the adjacent cottage for Martin’s gardener in 1908. Unfortunately, after Martin’s death, the family was unable to upkeep the property and abandoned it. It sat vacant for many years and the original conservatory, pergola and carriage house were demolished by subsequent owners.
Fortunately, concerned citizens were able to step in and form the Martin House Restoration Corporation, so this treasure could be preserved for future generations. The house is being restored to its former grandeur and the demolished structures have been rebuilt, using Wright’s original plans. The target date for completion of the restoration is 2011. The restoration corporation recently acquired the Gardener’s Cottage, which had previously been privately owned. Two other homes nearby, the Walter Davidson House and the William Heath House, which Wright designed for two other Larkin executives, are currently privately owned.
Our tour began at the new visitor’s center which was designed by architect Toshiko Mori. This glass-walled garden pavilion seems to blend in with the scenery, keeping with Wright’s philosophy of connecting human beings with the natural environment. As we toured the complex our guide pointed out that nature was the inspiration of all Wright’s architectural motifs. Wright often referred to this as “organic architecture,” as he used native materials that were available and worked it into his design.
For example, in the Martin’s House reception room, the “Tree of Life” art glass allows you to look out at the landscape, yet the leaves on the glass seem to come into the house as they are reflected on the ceiling. The fireplace in the reception room has an arch with a sunburst-like effect, including gold coloring mixed in the mortar. I found this attention to detail very impressive. The living room, dining room, and library are three rooms, yet they can be seen as one room, as there are no walls between them, only architectural elements separate them.
About 14 miles south of Buffalo, Graycliff, the Martin’s summer home, was also designed by Wright. Set on 8 acres overlooking Lake Erie, this landmark is also undergoing restoration. One of the most distinctive features of this home is its transparency. If you stand on the front lawn of Graycliff and look towards the house, you can see the lake straight through the windows and glass doors. Both Graycliff and the Darwin Martin House are open year-round for docent-led tours.
Buffalo also has two other Wright-designed structures that were actually built many years after Wright’s death in 1959. The Blue Sky Mausoleum in Forest Lawn Cemetery, which was completed in 2004, was originally designed for the Martin family by Wright. However, after Martin lost his fortune in the 1929 stock market crash, the plans were shelved until the 1990’s, when the president of Forest Lawn learned about the design, and an effort was made to raise funds to compete it.
The Fontana Boathouse along the Black Rock Channel, was originally designed for the University of Wisconsin Boat Club, but never built there. The Frank Lloyd Wright Rowing Boathouse Corporation acquired the rights and it was built in Buffalo in 2007. Attracting visitors from all over the world, it is a tourist destination as well as the boathouse for Buffalo’s West Side Rowing Club. Docent and cell phone tours are available.
Darwin Martin House 716-856-3858; www.darwinmartinhouse.org, 125 Jewett Pkwy., Buffalo, NY
Graycliff 716-94709217; http://graycliff.bfn.org , 6472 Old Lake Shore Road, Derby, NY
Blue Sky Mausoleum (Forest Lawn Cemetery) 716-885-1600; www.blueskymausoleum.com 1411 Delaware Avenue, Buffalo
Fontana Boathouse (716-362-3140 www.wrightsboathouse.org ) One Rotary Row, Buffalo, NY