Buffalo New York and Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright Martin House in Buffalo New York

We have been to many places that Frank Lloyd Wright designed (http://www.activeboomeradventures.com/2014/08/21/frank-lloyd-wrights-racine-wisconsin-legacy/ and http://www.activeboomeradventures.com/2012/05/30/a-morning-in-oak-park-with-frank-lloyd-wright/  and http://www.activeboomeradventures.com/2011/11/10/finally-falling-water/)

We happily discovered that he also did some work in the Buffalo area. Of course we had to visit it while we were there.

Frank Lloyd Wright Martin House

The  five-building, 1.5-acre estate is one of Wright’s most important and beautiful residential buildings. Darwin Martin, an executive at the Larkin Soap Company, commissioned the building. The owner of the Larkin Soap Company was planning to commission Adler and Sullivan (Wright’s first employer) to build a new headquarters in Buffalo. Martin, who was intrigued by Wright’s early buildings, advocated that Larkin take a chance on an architect who had never before designed a commercial building.

He introduced Larkin to Wright and his work by commissioning the architect to design his own house. By the time Wright submitted his plan for the home in 1903, Larkin was convinced and contracted with the architect to design a new headquarters. While the critically acclaimed office building launched Wright’s commercial practice, the building was demolished in the 1950s. Luckily, the Martin House, which Wright described as his “opus” and the site plan for which he kept on a drawing board for the next 50 years, remains.

Touring the Martin House

After an introductory film, we took a docent-led tour of the complex. The building is a classic Prairie House exterior, with its horizontal Roman bricks, red-tile roof, broad base, low-profile, hidden front entrance, abstract, nature-themed lead-glass windows and landscaping (which is currently a dirt lot that is scheduled for completion later this fall.)

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The interior consists of three floors, the central main floor of which was accessible on our tour. Much of the interior is classic Wright Prairie Style too. It has low ceilings, ornate, double-sided fireplaces, mechanical systems hidden within clustered support piers, bare brick walls and Wright-designed lead-glass windows, light fixtures and furniture throughout. (While many of the original 750 windows are missing, they, along with missing furniture and details are being reproduced, as funds permit.) Color schemes are also classic Wright; primarily earth-based colors (as with brown tiles covered by muted green runners) and natural materials including white oak molding and furniture and glazes (versus paints) with subtle metallic finishes. This complex also uses another natural substance—geothermal steam—for heat.

The public area embodies Wright’s traditional open floor plan. Rooms are demarked by ceiling molding and employs his classic organic architecture, where the interior flows naturally into the exterior. This is evidenced in the library, with seating facing toward the windows, rather than toward other seats and people and especially in the entertainment area, where five nature-themed lead-glass doors lead onto a deck (and what were then the gardens) that when open, created a seamless indoor-outdoor space. Much of the beautiful, but famously uncomfortable Wright furniture was built-in (“client-proof” as Wright called it) which ensured that they stayed where Wright wanted them. The effect was completed with pictures, which Wright selected and specified their exact placement.

The kitchen, by contrast, is not classic Wright. It is large, spacious, open and virtually all white. A row of built-in iceboxes entirely occupies one wall, where ice was put in through the back. This food storage area led to the food preparation area, with counters, sink and stove and refrigerator (the latter two which have not yet been replaced), followed by a serving counter, which flowed through to the dining room.

The tour then moved into the pergola, a colonnaded, open-air space that flows straight from the front door to the conservatory. It was (and will soon be again) surrounded by landscaped yard and gardens. Another door takes you into the tree- and plant-lined conservatory to a headless sculpture of Winged Venus, which is visible from the front door to the conservatory. This then led to the carriage house, which is now used as a gift shop. Excluded from our tour was the other main residence (Martin’s sister’s home) and the garage, which was destroyed and must be rebuilt.

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This destruction and rebuilding process characterized the entire estate. The Martins lived in the house from 1905 to 1937, holding onto it for as long as they could through the depression. By then, they could no longer afford the upkeep and had been unable to sell it. They were forced to leave and the buildings stood empty until 1954, when an architectural firm bought it for back taxes, subdivided the property and converted the main house into apartments. The property (including subdivided parcels) were bought and, as funds and donations permitted, refurbished to original condition by the Restoration Corporation, University of Buffalo and the State of New York.

While we would never want to live in one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s homes due to the mandated furniture (uncomfortable) and low lights (our older eyes now need more light), we do greatly admire them. Falling Water may still be our favorite, but the Martin House was quite impressive and is well worth a trip to Buffalo to see.

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