Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Frank Lloyd Wright's Buffalo Connection: Darwin D. Martin Complex

Interior of Larkin Company administration building

I missed an opportunity back in the 1980s to tour Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater home and have always regretted it. So I was thrilled when Maggie squeezed a trip to Buffalo into our schedule to visit Wright's Martin House Complex and Graycliff Estate.

Darwin D. Martin was a self-made man. He began his career selling soap door-to-door with the Larkin company when he was 12. His hard work came to the company's attention almost immediately, and he was moved to Buffalo at the age of 13 to work in the office. Over time, he rose to become the equivalent of the company's chief operating officer.  One of his tasks was to build a new headquarters for the company. Although Martin initially wanted Louis Sullivan to design the structure, his Chicago-based brother told him about Frank Lloyd Wright, an
up-and-coming young architect. The rest is history.

Barton House

Darwin was so taken with Wright's talent that he also retained him to design a complex for his family. The site was just ten doors down from where the Martin family was currently living. Wright's first assignment was a starter home for Darwin's sister and her family. The Barton House is a modest 2,000 square foot home with one art glass window design used throughout. (This was Wright's nod to working on a budget.)  Interestingly, each art glass design became the property of the owner so is unique to the property for which it was created.  Wright's estimate to build the home was $4,000; it came in at $12,000. (And we're talking 1903 dollars.) 

Darwin D. Martin House
Wright then moved on to design Darwin and Isabelle Martin's 15,000 square foot home. The house's long horizontal lines exemplify Wright's prairie school design. The house is constructed of Roman bricks, which are narrower and longer (not to mention more expensive) than regular bricks. The grout between horizontal layers of the bricks is dug out to enhance the streamlined design. Entry areas to rooms have dropped ceilings that make the rooms themselves appear even more spacious.  (This is known as Wright's "compression and release" technique.)   Moldings are used to draw the eye to the 14 unique art glass window designs, the best-known of which is the 750 piece "Tree of Life" design.  (If all the woodwork in the house were laid end to end, it would extend for eight miles.)

Tree of Life window
While Wright gave the Martins a floor plan showing how each room should be furnished, it wasn't until years later that he began "client-proofing" his homes by building the furniture in. (Fallingwater, designed in 1935, has more than 80 built-ins.)  Darwin and Isabelle's bedroom is perhaps the best example of an unusual Wright design, with an interior wall in the middle of the room which the headboard of the bed was set against. (The furniture is not yet in place in the Complex, which is $4 million away from completion of its $50 million renovation. Consequently, we relied on our guide to explain the lay-out of the mysteriously shaped room.)

Darwin's relationship with Wright continued long past the completion of the Martin Complex in 1905, the estimated cost of which is $300,000. Darwin's devotion to Wright led him to act as Wright's private banker of sorts until the Martins lost all of their money in the crash of 1929. When Darwin died in 1935, Wright owed him $70,000. The money was never repaid.  Isabelle abandoned the property with back taxes due and moved to Graycliff Estate, also designed by Wright.

Reconstruction of the Pergola in 2006
The buildings in the 29,000 square foot complex sat unheated and empty for nearly two decades. In the 1950s, the property was privately purchased and subdivided. The Martin House itself was converted into three apartments.  What was (and is now again, thanks to the renovation) the carriage house, conservatory and pergola were bulldozed to make way for apartment buildings. The carriage house is the first Wright building restored from the ground up.

All in all, my first visit to a Frank Lloyd Wright home was worth the wait.  But our day wasn't over, with our next stop being Isabelle's Graycliff Estate on Lake Erie.  Stay tuned for my post about our visit. 

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