“Designed or Inspired? Controversy Surrounds Posthumous Wright Projects in Buffalo”



Buffalo has a well-deserved reputation among Frank Lloyd Wright fans mainly on account of the Darwin Martin House and the Graycliff estate in Derby.

Then there are the three structures built here in recent years based on drawings Wright left behind, many decades after his death. And soon there will be a fourth.

That’s where things get tricky.

Is a project really a Frank Lloyd Wright work if designed for a different location, for a different time and without his oversight?

Some say no, and point to the Blue Sky Mausoleum, built in 2004 in Forest Lawn; the Frank Lloyd Wright Fontana Boathouse, built in 2007 on the Black Rock Canal; and the Frank Lloyd Wright Filling Station, which opened in 2014 inside the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum. A Wright-inspired wedding chapel is also proposed for the Buffalo Grand Hotel, the former Adam’s Mark Hotel.

“You might look at these new buildings as Fake Lloyd Wright as opposed to Frank Lloyd Wright,” said Bob Skerker of Buffalo, who sits on the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation board, based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Mary Roberts, the Martin House’s executive director, also expressed concern.

“The risk is if this goes too far we may create a Disney museum of architecture that diminishes the city’s legacy of architecture and Wright’s brand,” Roberts said.

But not everyone who admires Wright agrees.

Pat Mahoney, an architect and Wright enthusiast, says there’s nothing wrong with pursuing Wright’s unbuilt works as long as it is properly explained to the public.

“If properly interpreted I think it’s a benefit,” Mahoney said. “If glossed over, I think it’s a detriment.”

Mahoney is working on plans to bring the wedding chapel to Buffalo. He was also the architect for the Frank Lloyd Wright Filling Station, and he played a role in the Blue Sky Mausoleum. HHL Architects, a Buffalo firm, designed the boathouse.

Mahoney said he thought the information provided for the filling station is done well but conceded the mausoleum and the boathouse could do a better job on site of explaining what they are and what they’re not.

Design or inspiration?

There are a lot of Wright fans and historians who don’t think projects Wright designed on paper based on topography, and which he didn’t have a chance to supervise and have input in, should be built. But they need to look no further than Wright’s apprentices, his widow and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to blame following his death in April 1959.

Wright’s unrealized designs were encouraged to be brought to fruition.

The foundation, who like the apprentices earned income from the sales, later had a change of heart.

“I think there was a very earnest intention in what they did,” said Stuart Graff, the foundation’s president. “I don’t think it was crass or exploitative.”

But Graff said Wright designed his work for specific sites that took into account the surrounding conditions, the light and the landscape. His buildings, Graff said, were rarely built exactly as they appeared on paper.

“The essence of his work was to respond to conditions, materials and opportunities that came about during construction, and it is this quality that flowed out of the connection to the surroundings – which some describe as spiritual – that makes a building a Frank Lloyd Wright building,” Graff said.

“For this reason, the foundation does not permit buildings that are based on Wright’s works, even if they are faithful to drawings and sketches, to be called Frank Lloyd Wright designs – they are missing that ineffable connection that Wright and those closest to him could create,” he said.

Graff said such buildings, however, could accurately be described as “based on” or “inspired by” Wright’s designs, but then should explain to the public what is different from the original design or plan to avoid misrepresenting him.

“They are not, at the end of the day, Frank Lloyd Wright’s works,” Graff said.

Mahoney, a past president and current board member of the Graycliff Conservancy that has overseen the restoration of Wright’s Derby estate, agrees. He is one of a small group of people who has visited all 430 Wright projects around the world, entering all but around 5o that are private residences.

He doesn’t include the posthumous Wright projects in that count.

For the Blue Sky Mausoleum, Mahoney researched the history of Wright’s designs. Tony Putnam, an architect who served under Wright, opted to use the middle of three designs Wright made for the cemetery. Putnam made some minor changes at Forest Lawn’s request, Mahoney said. He thinks it is a worthy project.

“Overall, I do feel good about it,” Mahoney said. “In my mind, schemes like this or the boathouse or the filling station, as well as what we’re proposing for the Buffalo Grand Hotel, which is in a slightly different category, were inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept.

“But the actual building is a Putnam or Mahoney or HHL,” he said.

The filling station is the only one of the projects inside a museum.

“It’s a building within a building, an exhibit that is also not used for its original purpose,” Mahoney said. “It’s part of a museum display, where the boathouse and the mausoleum are still in their original use.”

Mahoney said seven interpretive panels will be used in the Buffalo Grand Hotel to explain the wedding chapel, which Wright originally designed for the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, Calif.

Hotel owner Harry Stinson bought two bedrooms and a hallway intact – taken from a Wright-designed home – from a Minneapolis salvage company. They will be rebuilt adjacent to the chapel.

The panels will explain how the chapel and other rooms were adapted to the site and why.

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