Buffalo and Frank Lloyd Wright

Breakfast was included in our stay at the Hilton Garden Inn in a nice space on the second floor overlooking the LRT and Lafayette Square.  I wrote about our first day in Buffalo, here.

After breakfast we packed up and asked for the car to be retrieved.  While waiting I had a look down Main Street where we walked the previous evening.

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In the light of day, the area didn’t feel quite as welcoming, possibly due to the fact that it was almost completely deserted.

I took a few other pictures as we waited. It was a beautiful sunny, but cool, November morning.

There is a civil war monument in Lafayette Square and when you stand with your back to the monument you look straight down Court Street to City Hall.

The car arrived and I entered Rotary into the GPS, the address where the Fontana Boathouse  is situated.  As we headed off, I said to Alun that it felt like we were going in the wrong direction, but as I had never been to Buffalo before, and did not have a paper map on which I could get an overview of the route, we followed the directions.

We saw the Electric Tower, once the tallest building in Buffalo, as we drove in the previous evening, and walked by the M&T Bank building with the gold dome which faces the LRT.

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We ended up at the University of Buffalo on Rotary Road, not on Rotary Row (which wasn’t in the GPS, but was the correct street name) which was, as I had felt, in the opposite direction of where we wanted to be.  I had to stop at a McDonalds to use the wifi to find Rotary Row.  I don’t mind getting lost as it affords an opportunity to see things I might not have otherwise seen like these beautiful windows and reflections on the campus.

Once we left the area of the hotel, we did see the more rundown, abandoned side of Buffalo.  We saw very few chain stores and restaurants (although there was a Timmies kitty-corner to the hotel) and later discovered Buffalo doesn’t even have a Walmart, which must be a fairly uncommon situation for a city of a quarter million people.

Eventually we found the Fontana Boathouse.  It was originally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1905 for the University of Wisconsin, but was never built until its construction in 2007, in Buffalo, along the shore of the Black Rock Channel.  Unfortunately, it was locked up on a November Sunday morning so we were only able to view it from the outside where it was already showing some signs of neglect.

Next we headed to the Darwin Martin Complex and the reason for our visit.  I booked a two hour tour starting at noon.  The house is considered by leading Frank Lloyd Wright scholars as one of Wright’s finest achievements of the Prairie period and, indeed, of his entire career. The complex consists of the Barton House, built for Martin’s sister, The Main House, pergola, conservatory, stables and carriage house and gardener’s cottage.

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Darwin Martin had a difficult childhood, with the death of his mother when he was six, and left home at age twelve and managed to obtain a job selling soap in New York City.  He moved to Buffalo a year later and was hired by the Larkin Company as an office clerk and eventually rose to become Corporate Secretary. In 1902 he needed to find an architect to build a new administrative building for Larkin.  His brother, living in Chicago at the time, recommended Frank Lloyd Wright, an architect he used on his own home, the William E. Martin house in Oak Park.

Martin had become quite wealthy by this time so in addition to hiring Wright to build the Larkin building (which no longer stands) he also asked Wright to design and build a home for him.  Wright found an acre lot in a Victorian neighbourhood.  Martin commissioned him to build a home for his sister, Delta Barton, on one corner of the property to audition the architect.  It is clearly a Frank Lloyd Wright home, but the details pale in comparison to the main, 15000 square foot home that Martin commissioned.  The Barton House was completed in 1903 on schedule and Martin was impressed enough to hire Wright despite the fact that it came in three times over budget.

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Unfortunately pictures are not allowed inside.  We started in the Eleanor and Wilson Greatbatch Pavilion (Visitor’s Centre) designed by Toshiko Mori (former Chair of Architecture, Harvard),  and built in 2009.  It is a glass pavillion designed to be unobtrusive on the property and offer great views of the house and grounds.  It in inspired from design elements from Wright’s work. We were shown a slideshow about Darwin Martin.

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Next we moved on to the gardener’s cottage, built in 1909, which had even fewer details than the Barton House, and is a stucco finish on a wood frame, but is a home I could happily retire to. It has an addition on the back which had beautiful Wright-inspired doors.

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Finally, we came to Martin’s home.  The size and the details were overwhelming.  It was amazing to see in person the genius which I had only seen in books or on the internet in the past.  Martin designed every aspect, from floor plan, to window design to furniture design and layout. In order to have perfectly level eaves-troughs, Wright designed an eaves-trough in an eaves-trough with the inner one sloped to drain properly.  The mortar between the bricks was indented an inch parallel to the long side of the brick, but flush on the short side to accentuate the long low feel of the house and its connection to the earth.  The house used curtain wall construction, with the structural support coming from huge brick piers which were used to disguise duct work, separated large rooms into functional areas and contained built in shelving.  This allowed for “ribbons” of windows which were unusual at the time.  This is one of the best documented of Wright’s homes as the architect and client communicated by letter on all the details, often daily.  Wright also had a professional photographer capture the home when it was finished.  Wright’s famous “Tree of Life” window design is used extensively throughout the house.  Each window has 300-400 pieces of glass and was handmade.

The family moved into the house in 1907.  In 1926, Martin hired Wright to build a summer home, Graycliff, south of Buffalo.  We didn’t have enough time to visit Graycliff this weekend, but we will definitely return.

Martin was financially devastated by the depression and died of a brain hemorrhage in 1935.  His wife, Isabelle, was unable to sell the house and abandoned it in 1937.   Then began the “Period of Abandonment” which lasted 17 years.

Architect Sebastian J. Tauriello purchased the Martin House in 1954 (it had reverted to the city for back taxes in 1946).  The pergola, conservatory and carriage house were demolished and an apartment building was built.  The money this earned was used to rescue the main house.  In 1967, it was purchased by the State University of New York at Buffalo, for use as its president’s residence.

In 1992, the Martin House Restoration Corporation (MHRC) was established.  $42M US has been spent restoring the house to its 1907 “Year of Significance”, rebuilding the pergola, conservatory and carriage house, acquiring the Barton house and gardener’s cottage and building the visitors’ centre.  Only about half of the complex’s almost 400 windows survived the “Period of Abandonment”.  Each restored window costs $27K US.

Restoration is about 85% complete.  Next spring the MHRC will embark on a project to restore the grounds to Wright’s design which included one million plants.

We will definitely be returning to see the house completed, to see the gardens and to visit Graycliff.





About Lisa Stokes

I am a stay-at-home mother of four whose hobbies include photography, quilting and cycling. I have recently started to advocate for better cycling infrastructure in my community. I am the photographer at the Brampton Quilters' Guild.
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