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August 17, 2017

© Biff Henrich / Martin House Restoration Corporation

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Wright in Buffalo

One of Frank Lloyd first commissions has finally been restored to its former glory

Chances are the house you are living in today was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, arguably the greatest architectural visionary of the 20th century. Born in 1869, Wright had an ego to match his genius. His mother decorated his nursery with drawings of European cathedrals – and something must have rubbed off as the precocious child became fascinated with architecture.

With no formal training, Wright found a position with Louis Sullivan, Chicago’s best known architect. After seven years, Wright left Sullivan and opened his own office. With his first commission, the Winslow House in the Chicago suburb of River Forest, completed in 1893, Wright changed the course of American domestic architecture.

The Prairie School

Unlike most houses of the time, which Wright called “vertical boxes with holes cut in them for doors and windows,” the Winslow house had horizontal lines with a low pitched roof and broad overhanging eaves. This new style came to be known as the “prairie school” because the low horizontal lines seemed to reflect the form of the prairie.

Of the 80 or so prairie houses Wright designed between 1900 and 1917, one of the finest is the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo, New York, completed in 1906. Long neglected, the house has now been superbly restored to close to its original state and is a National Historic Landmark. As guide, Richard Beatty says: “This is Wright at his audacious best.”

In 1903, Darwin Martin, a wealthy executive with the Larkin mail order company in Buffalo, invited Wright to look at a property on which he wanted to build two houses, one for himself and a smaller one for his sister. Having seen Wright’s work in Chicago, Martin gave the architect remarkably free rein. The George Barton House, for Martin’s sister, was built as a compact prairie house with a two storey living area intersected at right angles by a single storey section with an entrance porch and kitchen. The roof seems to float on a series of windows that enclose the second storey, a feature repeated on the main house.

Upon completion the complex consisted of the main house, a 30-meter pergola linking the main house to the Conservatory and Coach House, the George Barton House and a small gardener’s cottage.

From all accounts, the Martin family lived happily in the house until Darwin Martin died in 1935. Then the family suffered financial setbacks. The house was abandoned two years later and stood derelict for sixteen years. Somehow surviving the weather and vandalism, the house was purchased by a Buffalo architect in 1954. During the next phase of its life major parts of the building including the pergola, conservatory and carriage house were destroyed and eventually the house passed to the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Restoration at last

When I first visited the house in the mid 1980s, looking around the empty rooms, I had to imagine what it might have been like when it was still home to the Martin family. Fortunately, one doesn’t have to imagine any more.

In 1992 the non-profit Martin House Restoration Corporation was formed. By that time, as Mary F. Roberts, Executive Director of the Corporation, says: “Wright’s masterpiece was down on its luck: abandoned for decades, partly demolished, a neglected eyesore in a residential section of a city beset by hard times.”

Through a partnership of federal state and county governments, matched almost equally by private donors, the corporation embarked on an ambitious plan to remove non-historical buildings and recreate parts of the original structure that had been destroyed. The project, says Mary Roberts: “captured the hearts and minds of the community,” and now, following Wright’s original plans, the pergola, conservatory and carriage house have been recreated.

Work on the interior of the house proceeds slowly. The upstairs has mostly been stripped back to the bare walls awaiting funds to continue restoration. But most of the downstairs, other than some wood finishing, has been returned to its original state, Windows and details have been replicated and it is hard to tell the difference between Wright’s original “Tree of Life” art-glass from the reproductions. Amazingly, about 40 percent of the original furniture has found its way back to the house. In one case a tour visitor remarked: “Those kitchen cabinets look very much like ours,” and returned them to the house. One finishing touch yet to be completed is the stunning “Sunburst” fireplace.

For a visitor who last saw the house in the 1980s the most memorable interior view is the statue of Victory at the end of the re-created pergola. The original cast of the statue was tracked down and reformed in poly-resins. The pergola leads to the conservatory and carriage house, which now serves as a gift shop.

Wright on the lake

Twenty minutes from downtown Buffalo, on the shore of Lake Erie, is Graycliff, the Martin’s summer home, also designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Darwin Martin told a somewhat reluctant Wright: “Isabelle is the client. This house is my gift to her.” The Martin’s first summer in the house was 1928.

Isabelle was legally blind from an early age and the house is flooded with light from scores of windows. From outside you can look through glass walls of the house to the lake beyond. The hand dipped cedar shakes are Cherokee Red, Wright’s favourite colour. Spacious cantilevered balconies and broad terraces emphasise the architect’s typical horizontal lines and tie the house to the surrounding landscaping, also designed by Wright. Entrance to the house is though a small foyer with Wright’s characteristic low ceiling to give a sense of compression before entering the light-filled living room with its views over Lake Erie. At one end is an unusual fireplace that takes vertical logs.

While the Martins abandoned their city home in 1937, they returned annually to Graycliff until 1943. In 1951 the Martins sold the house to an order of Hungarian priests who established a boarding school on the grounds and stayed for 45 years. Although they left most Wright-designed buildings intact, at one point the priests moved windows under an overhang to an outside wall to make a small chapel. One day in 1958 Wright drove up to the house unannounced and immediately saw what had been done. When one of the brothers appeared he began yelling, pointing with his cane to the offending addition. The brother shrugged: “We needed a chapel,” to which Wright snapped “You needed me!” He left his card and promptly drove off. Graycliff was likely one of the last of his designs that Wright visited as he died the following year.

By 1997 the priests could no longer afford to maintain the property and put it up for sale. Threatened with demolition and redevelopment of the prime on-the-lake site, a grass-roots group managed to buy the property in order to restore it to its original condition. Most of the restoration is being done by volunteers unless professional skills are clearly called for.

Arts and Crafts stay

To visit both houses comfortably really requires a stay-over in the area and one place to keep you in the century-old mood is the Roycroft Inn in East Aurora. Once at the heart of one of the most successful Arts and Crafts communities in the United States, the inn was restored and reopened in 1995.

Founded by Elbert Hubbard, a sort of 19th century Bill Gates, the Roycroft campus in its heyday was home to over 500 artisans and crafts-people. The main business of the campus was printing, originally for Hubbard to publish his own work. In 1938 the campus was divided and sold off to different owners and the artisans left.

Today some of the buildings have been restored and a few artisans have begun to trickle back, but it is the inn that makes a trip to East Aurora worthwhile. And all this in Buffalo, New York. Who would have thought it?

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