After a 20-year period of fundraising, research, and reconstruction, the restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House Complex in Buffalo, New York is complete. Buffalo’s collection of architectural masterpieces is a critical component of its revitalization, and the Martin House Complex in Parkside, a neighborhood designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1870’s, is the keystone.
Outside of Chicago, Buffalo is the only American city with designs by Wright, Louis Sullivan, and Henry Hobson (H.H.) Richardson within its borders. Between 1887 and 1927, leaders within finance, as well as the thriving grain and steel industries, commissioned homes and office buildings throughout Buffalo from preeminent architects, including Daniel Burnham, George Post, Louise Blanchard Bethune, and the Buffalo-based firm of Green and Wicks. Many of these architectural masterpieces now house theaters, museums, hotels, restaurants, and landmarks.
Darwin D. Martin, an executive with the Larkin Soap Company, was one of the wealthiest individuals in the country when he met Wright’s contractor, Elmer Andrews, in Chicago in September of 1902. Wright’s J.J. Walser house near Oak Park was nearing completion, and Martin, intrigued by the design, invited Wright to Buffalo in November of 1902 to discuss commissions for the Martin and Heath Houses, as well as the Larkin Administration Building. By nature cautious, Martin committed only to the Barton House after their meeting, a home for Martin’s sister Delta and her husband George, as a testing ground for their collaboration. Martin was taken by Wright’s charisma, as well as Wright’s values as an organic architect, who sought “harmony between the natural and built environment,” explains Mary Roberts, Executive Director of the Martin House Complex. Construction began on the Barton House in 1903, and a main house, pergola, conservatory, and carriage house were built between 1904 and 1905. A gardener’s cottage was added in 1909. The year of significance for restoration is 1907, when all work on the initial five buildings was declared complete.
Design elements of Wright’s prairie period are now familiar and quintessential, but at the turn of the century they were first finding physical form (the Dana House in Springfield, Illinois was completed in 1904, and the Coonley and Robie Houses, also in Illinois, were completed after the Martin House). In 1901, The Ladies Home Journal published a design feature, written by Wright, entitled “A Home in a Prairie Town,” as part of a series on model suburban houses. Wright included his design plans for a “prairie-style” home, characterized by low-hipped roofs with broadly cantilevered eaves, prominent foundations, and central hearths. As opposed to designing buildings that “reached for the heavens,” explains Roberts, Wright’s prairie homes are broad and horizontal, with expansive unit rooms—Roberts suggests that they “hold the earth and bloom where they are planted.” Horizontality is further emphasized in the masonry; Wright utilized thin Roman brick, which is wider and flatter than traditional brick.
The Martin House, Wright’s largest out of state commission at the time, most resembles the design in The Ladies Home Journal, although with larger dimensions. Ultimately, thanks to Darwin Martin’s largesse and unyielding trust in Wright, Wright designed a prairie house that, writes art historian Jack Quinan, exhibits “detailing that has no parallel in Wright’s other prairie houses.” The Martin House also relies upon pier clusters, or columnar arrangements, instead of load-bearing walls. This structural choice, as well as the 394 art glass windows, (termed “light screens” by Wright), creates the effect of a “diaphanous pavilion,” writes Quinan.
Wright’s detailed drawings, as well as Martin’s carefully archived correspondence with Wright, supported Hamilton Houston Lownie Architects’ (HHL) efforts to rebuild with the same or similar materials and methods that were used in the original construction. Wright hand-ground minerals into linseed oil and melted beeswax to create a range of autumnal tones for plaster compounds; he also used colored beeswax glazes for the interior walls. A topcoat of bronzing powder gave a soft golden glow for a chiaroscuro effect. Clay roof tiles were commissioned from a firm in Pontigny, France. To recreate the statue of Nike of Samothrace in the conservatory, visible in dramatic relief from the pergola that connects the main house to the conservatory and carriage house, archivists located the original Caproni Brothers molds. Original foundation stone unearthed in Phase 3 of the restoration now recreates a fieldstone wall on the western end of the property. To condition the temperature for a museum environment, HHL Architects decided upon a geothermal sensitivity system. Roberts speculates that Wright, who once wrote, “The outside of any building may now come inside and the inside go outside, each seems as part of the other,” would have embraced this green technology.
Wright and Martin’s thirty-three year friendship led to other commissions in Buffalo, including The Graycliff Estate, built in 1927 on a 65-foot limestone bluff overlooking Lake Erie. The horizontal elements “build from the land the house is fused to,” says Executive Director Bob Wooler. At Graycliff, Wright deepened his experimentation with the organic; he harvested the beach for rock and sand to formulate stucco for the exterior and to provide texture to the interior plaster. The Wright houses are just two of many architectural treasures in Buffalo receiving new attention (H.H. Richardson’s 1880 complex, a former state psychiatric facility, was recently restored and transformed into a hotel and conference center by Deborah Berke Partners, in collaboration with Flynn Battaglia Architects, Goody Clancy, and Andropogon Associates). By reclaiming and revitalizing these treasures, Buffalo emerges as a destination for architectural tourism, the past providing ballast for the city’s future.