In 1904 Darwin D. Martin commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design the complex of buildings that would become his family home. The Martin estate was completed in 1907 on a 1.4-acre site in the Frederick Law Olmsted designed Parkside neighborhood of North Buffalo. The composition consisted of five elements; the Main House, the Pergola, the Conservatory, the Carriage House, and the landscape. The complex so pleased Wright that he called it “the opus”.
During the Martin occupancy of the house, changes were made which altered the architecture of the building. The first was in 1909, when a new room was added to the second floor at the Northwest corner of the building. In 1920, the exterior wall of Mrs. Martin’s bedroom suite on the south side of the second floor was extended outward to enlarge the rooms. The movement of the wall altered the exterior profile of the building and severely altered the rhythm of the window pattern on the second floor.
Following Darwin Martin’s death in 1935, his widow moved out, essentially abandoning the estate. In 1947, the property was sold at tax foreclosure. For the next twelve years, the property changed hands several times until, in 1959, the owner sold off the Pergola, Conservatory, and Carriage House to finance his repairs and alterations of the Main House. The sold elements were demolished and three apartment houses took their place. In 1966 the University at Buffalo acquired the house and in 1986 it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
In 1992 the not-for-profit Martin House Restoration Corporation was formed whose mission was restoration and management of the entire Martin estate. A Joint Cooperation Agreement was executed between the new not-for-profit corporation, the University at Buffalo, and the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to jointly accomplish the restoration/reconstruction. The three apartments were purchased and demolished making way for the reconstruction of the three missing buildings and restoring the house to its 1907 condition through a phased construction program.
Reconstruction resulted from a multi-year search for materials matching the originals including roman brick, interior/exterior mosaic floor tile, handmade terra cotta roof tiles, cast-in-place concrete, limestone, art glass windows, old growth cypress, quarter-sawn oak, light fixtures, and bronze or brass hardware. To ensure the conservation of the buildings, a geothermal based HVAC system was incorporated to maintain constant temperature/humidity control in the buildings without requiring the use of chillers or cooling towers.
Our research included studying Wright’s original specifications, accessing archived letters between Martin and Wright, on-site archaeology, acquiring copies of historic photographs, visiting museums to study original Martin estate artifacts, and visiting the Frank Lloyd Wright archives to obtain copies of Wright’s construction drawings and details.