Graycliff: Secret Frank Lloyd Wright house on the Lake

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DERBY, N.Y. -- The newly restored Graycliff estate, a summer home Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Isabelle and Darwin Martin, has been a well-kept secret on the shores of Lake Erie for years.

Maybe not for much longer. This summer, the estate is the closest it has been in nearly a century to the property the famous architect designed in the 1920s.

Darwin Martin, secretary of Larkin Soap Co. in Buffalo, had earlier commissioned Wright to design a house for his family in Buffalo. Graycliff (, about 20 miles southwest of downtown Buffalo, was intended as a summer retreat for Mrs. Martin, who today would have been considered legally blind. Since she could only distinguish vague colors, fragrant flowers and shrubs were important to her and were incorporated into the landscape design. The main house on the property, which has been named the Isabelle R. Martin house, has long porches with dramatic views of Lake Erie, two-tiered flower boxes, sunken gardens and a fountain and pond in front.

As Wright said, the architecture was intended to infuse the property with a "spirit of repose." He worked with landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman to make sure that spirit extended to the 8-acre grounds.

With the landscaping recently finished, now is a prime time to tour Graycliff. It is one of the final steps in a long restoration project to undo what others did to Graycliff after Mrs. Martin spent her last summer there in 1943.

After her death in 1945, her son, Darwin R. Martin, sold the property to the Order of the Pious Schools commonly known as the Piarist Fathers. In the mid-1950s, the order built a school house, chapel and living space that concealed Wright's architecture. They also probably removed the fountain and pond.

When the priests decided to sell the house in 1997, it appeared a developer might buy and demolish it -- until a group of Buffalonians banded together and formed the Graycliff Conservancy. The Graycliff Conservancy was able to raise about $450,000, which was enough to secure the house. It started providing tours later in 1997. At the time of the first tours, some of the priests still lived in the house and would occasionally wave to tour groups in their bathrobes, said Reine Hauser, executive director of the conservancy.

The conservancy has now completed about 75 percent of the house's renovation, including all structural repairs to the exteriors of the three Wright-designed buildings, including balconies, terraces, windows, doors and chimney. It also installed an underground drainage system throughout the property.

The landscape renovation, completed in July, included the return of a fountain and pond in front of the main house. The flow of water starts at the front of the house and ends at the lake in the back, a hint of the role water would play later at Fallingwater. Long glass windows on the porch at the front of the house allow one to see straight through to glistening Lake Erie in the backyard.

Two of the house's most scenic vistas are visible from porches that Mrs. Martin frequented. The first-floor front porch overlooks flower beds and the pond, while the second-floor porch off Mrs. Martin's room provides the best view of the lake.

In addition to the landscaping and porches, her wishes are represented in a number of other ways. Although Wright despised closets, Mrs. Martin's bedroom at Graycliff includes a walk-in closet. The servants quarters are pleasant and well-lit by large windows, believed to be another request by Mrs. Martin.

Anyone who has ever been in a Wright-designed house will recognize his distinctive style. As one walks through various rooms, the line between inside and outside is difficult to distinguish.

In one corner, flower boxes are mounted on the inside, and the sunken flower garden beyond the front porch makes the porch appear almost like another room of the house. At several inside corners, panels of glass are separated only by a thin metal rod. This is thought to be a precursor to Fallingwater's famous corner windows.

All of the stone used on the chimney and at various places throughout the property is original and found on the shores of Lake Erie. The sandstone has a naturally occurring orange stain from iron oxide within it. Wright apparently liked it and requested that the stone masons leave it exposed. It fits well with the orange/red color scheme of the roofs and walls, and similar stone was used for the new pond at Graycliff.

The number of people who visit the property has increased dramatically since the restoration began. Beginning in the late 1990s with a few hundred visitors per year, the number has grown to 10,000 people last year from across the United States and the world. Graycliff is a secret no more.

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Monica Disare: First Published August 4, 2013 4:00 AM


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