Buffalo is a major site for Frank Lloyd Wright architecture

The Darwin Martin House is the centerpiece of the architect's work here


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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- After his family was splintered by his mother's death when he was 6, Darwin Martin had one fervent wish: a simple, beautiful house so welcoming that his four siblings and father would come to live with him.

To fulfill his dream, architect Frank Lloyd Wright spent four years designing a Prairie-style complex of six buildings, and the next 30 years educating, sparring with and ultimately depending upon the self-made millionaire for moral and financial support. And although only one of Martin's sisters ever moved to Buffalo, the partnership between client and architect led to an incredible cache of Wright-designed structures second only to Chicago.

This summer, a pond, waterfall and other landscaping were restored at Graycliff (www.graycliffestate.org), a Lake Erie vacation home that Wright designed for Martin, and construction continues on his innovative 1927 filling station (www.pierce-arrow.com) intended for Buffalo but never built. Nearby are a boathouse (www.wrightsboathouse.org), mausoleum (www.blueskymausoleum.com) and several private homes made for other executives of Larkin Soap Co., which also commissioned the architect to build its headquarters. The Larkin administration building was torn down in the 1950s, but everything else designed by Wright in Buffalo is intact, inviting and within four hours of Pittsburgh.

PG map: Wright's designs in Buffalo
(Click image for larger version)

It all began with the Darwin Martin House (www.darwinmartinhouse.org) in Buffalo's Parkside neighborhood. Darwin's older brother introduced him to the up-and-coming architect in 1902.

"He will build you the finest, most sensible house in Buffalo. You will be the envy of every rich man in Buffalo. It will be talked about all over the East," William Martin wrote from Chicago, where he eventually commissioned his own Prairie-style house by Wright.

Darwin Martin, a bookkeeper who rose to become the equivalent of Larkin's chief financial officer, was "brilliant in his way, insecure, exacting and drawn mothlike to Wright's flame," Jack Quinan, former curator of the Martin House, wrote in his 2004 book, "Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House: Architecture as Portraiture."

From 1902 until Martin's death in 1935, he and Wright exchanged hundreds of letters that are excerpted in Mr. Quinan's book and archived at the University of Buffalo. They reveal not only the contrasting personalities of patron and artist but the emotional tug-of-war that yielded what became Wright's favorite Prairie-style house.

In the fall of 1903, Martin complained that Wright's plans showed a house nearly five times bigger than the 1,100-square-foot, Queen Anne-style house he and his wife, Isabelle, were then sharing. Wright was unrepentant:

"If we are going to realize the home you are entitled to and ought to have, you will have to 'ring off' on the square foot business and comparison with anything else in previous existence."

The main house ultimately had nearly 15,000 square feet -- 19,000 including its long open pergola and conservatory, whose 9-foot-tall classical statue, "Nike of Samothrace," is the house's focal point. It is pure Prairie style: long and low with bands of art-glass windows and structural piers supporting low-pitched roofs with broad, sheltering eaves.

Martin, a man of "data and details," was baffled by plans showing a central fireplace with no back and with openings onto the main hallway and living room. When Wright told him it was the latest thing, he shot back:

"The wig-wam style of fireplace may be, as you say, the latest in fireplaces. It won't however, be the last, for every time my boy sees the smoky arch, he will be the latest thing in fireplaces."

The client's clever retort drew this response from the architect:

"Wig-wam fireplace stands pat."

It stands to this day, although its four-sided glass-tile mosaic depicting purple wisteria has yet to be installed as part of an ongoing $50 million restoration.

Martin was equally watchful over his general contractor, Oscar S. Lang, who had to coordinate a 65-man crew plus more than 60 teams of subcontractors and manufacturers. Martin wrote to him about the fumed oak woodwork: "Have you 10 carpenters fit to put on trim? There must be no hammer marks."

Custom-made trim came from Milwaukee, art glass from Chicago and structural steel from Carnegie Steel Corp. in Pittsburgh. Another local company, Penn-American Plate Glass Co., produced white Novus Sanitary Structural Glass that covered walls in the kitchen and bathrooms.

Many of Martin's letters chide Wright for not supplying drawings on time or changing a design. But in August 1905, he praised Wright's furniture designs and layout: "We will never move a chair or footstool from the indicated positions."

The Martins didn't love all the furniture, however. They rejected Wright's initial prototype for three-legged Morris dining chairs with a solid back. On Dec. 26, 1905, Mr. Martin wrote:

"Yesterday p.m. a lady of more than ordinary intelligence sat down in the chair to try it and nearly tipped over. ... Please do not hug this child you have invented so close to you that you cannot see with others its impracticality."

The Martins finally got four-legged, spindle-backed chairs that still surround the quarter-sawn oak dining table shaped like the Roman numeral 1.

Finally, on Nov. 16, 1906, the couple held a reception to show off their new house. Wright arrived with a gift for Mrs. Martin: 24 Japanese woodblock prints, purchased with $250 of her money, during his 1905 trip to Japan.

Mrs. Martin, who was legally blind, found her new house dark and dangerous, with many jutting angles. Two years after her husband's death on Dec. 17, 1935, she abandoned it because she couldn't afford the taxes.

Martin lost his fortune to the Depression and a luxurious apartment building his son built in 1929. At his death, Wright owed him $70,000, according to longtime Martin House tour guide Mike Osika.

In a letter to Mrs. Martin two weeks before her husband's death, Wright wrote: "I only wish I had been less taking and more giving where he was concerned. But character is fate and mine got me into heavy going -- and no safe harbor yet in sight."


Correction/Clarification: (Published September 2, 2013) A previous version of this story misidentified the Barton House in a photo caption. travel - homes - artarchitecture

Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978. First Published August 4, 2013 4:00 AM


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