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Wright Reconstructed

An ongoing restoration has re-created many exterior elements of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Martin House in Buffalo, NY.

Project: Pergola, Conservatory and Carriage House at Darwin D. Martin House Complex, Buffalo, NY

Architect: Hamilton Houston Lownie Architects, LLC, Buffalo, NY; Ted Lownie, principal

Engineers: Robert Silman Associates, New York, NY; Landmark Facilities Group, Norwalk, CT; Watts Engineers, Buffalo, NY

Construction Manager: LPCiminelli, Buffalo, NY

By Eve M. Kahn

In an eight-decade nonstop career, Frank Lloyd Wright finished more than 400 buildings and started a dozen more. And since his death in 1959, fans have realized 15 other Wright plans, including a scattering of houses plus the Marin County Civic Center. But only once, so far, has a demolished Wright structure come back to life at its original spot: in the backyard of the Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, NY.

Martin was a bookish, workaholic executive at the Larkin Soap Co., a self-made millionaire, and Wright's most steadfast customer. In 1902, before Wright had completed much of anything larger than houses, Martin wangled a plum job for the Wisconsin-based master: designing Larkin's headquarters, an atrium-centered monolith (which was tragically razed in 1950). Martin also commissioned from Wright three Buffalo-area homes for his family. The soap executive stood by the architect through adultery scandals and financial downturns. At times, Martin kept Taliesin afloat, but was never repaid for lifetime loans totaling $70,000.

Wright rewarded Martin instead with over-budget, experimental architecture, especially at the family's main house in Parkside, a Buffalo suburb planned by Frederick Law Olmsted. Steel I-beams support tile-roofed cantilevers over Roman brick walls. In the free-flowing 10,000-sq.ft. interior, brick piers and zigzagging dropped frieze rails create intimate yet airy spaces, illuminated by art glass in abstracted tree or wisteria patterns. The architect bisected the 1.5-acre lot with a 100-ft.-long pergola leading to a conservatory. Pagoda-like limestone birdhouses – meant to accommodate, of course, purple martins – cap the roof. The complex, writes curator Jack Quinan, is unique among Wright's early Prairie masterpieces "in the elegance of its detailing, in its pavilion-like spatial freedom, and in the unusual coherence and equipoise of its plan."

Darwin died nearly bankrupt in 1935, and his wife Isabelle moved out a few years later, so broke and disconsolate that she didn't lock the door behind her. An architect named Sebastian Tauriello took over the abandoned property in 1955 – "please take care of the opus," Wright magnanimously wrote the new owner. Tauriello stabilized the place, but funded the work by selling off the backyard. The conservatory and pergola and an adjacent carriage house were bulldozed, and in their stead arose three stubby brick apartment houses.

For the last two decades, however, the Martin House has been rebounding. Phase after phase, a Buffalo-based nonprofit called the Martin House Restoration Corporation has been reviving the site's 1907 appearance. Last October, a restoration team led by Hamilton Houston Lownie Architects (HHL) unveiled reproductions of the yard's three lost structures. "We'd been looking at photos and thinking about those buildings for so many years," says HHL partner Ted Lownie. "The conservatory is a wonderfully proportioned miniature cathedral, like Sainte Chapelle in Paris, and a dramatic finale to the very rhythmic walk of the pergola. It's astonishing to finally set foot inside the real thing."

HHL has been taking on Martin House commissions since 1992, making every decision with the kind of patient forethought that the meticulous Darwin Martin would have admired. Martin corresponded almost daily with Wright; Quinan describes Martin as "insecure, exacting, and drawn moth-like to Wright's flame." As the original construction budget soared from $35,000 to $175,000, the client requested ever more specs, so that "I may have an inclination of what I am getting into." Wright called him "my best friend, and most helpful one," and sent assurances that the completed house, in a neighborhood of tame Queen Annes, Tudors and Georgians, would leave observers "pleasantly shocked." The architect and client, observes Lesley Neufeld, the museum's project coordinator, "seem to have had a jolly old time disagreeing with each other."

The only person who minded the results was Darwin's wife Isabelle. Her vision had been damaged by eye ulcers, and the house, she complained, "discourages me and gives me the blues." In 1927, Wright built a lakefront country estate for her called Graycliff, where no overhanging eaves or art glass block the sun. At her city place, she was happiest outdoors along the wisteria-draped pergola, or in the conservatory, where a statue of Nike symbolized Darwin's professional successes and contented family life. That sense of triumph, and the vaunted Wrightian connectedness of interior and outdoors, vanished when the rear wings were chopped off in the 1960s.

To replicate the demolished appendages, the HHL team scoured archives for details of claddings and dimensions. Measurements for the conservatory and one pergola bay did turn up, along with schematic numbers and cypress-casework drawings for the carriage house. During excavations, the conservatory's stone foundations emerged (they could not be recycled to support the new extension, but the fragments have been saved to form a nearby retaining wall).

HHL worked with Northern Roof Tiles, a Millgrove, Ontario, importer, to commission copies of the variegated original roofing from an 11th-century kiln near Paris. Belden Brick of Sugar Creek, OH, supplied replica Roman brick. Tinted mortar simulates Wright's linseed-soaked formula. In place of Wright's copper conservatory skylight, HHL specified lightweight copper-clad aluminum. The carriage house's ground floor, lined in cypress horse stalls, has become a gift shop. Along the pergola, cuttings from the Martins' wisteria will be encouraged to enlace the piers.

The restoration of the Martin House will continue for at least four years. (The project budget, including a new visitors' center, will total $35 million, financed by government grants and private donors.) Iridescent glass mosaics depicting wisteria will be reinstated on a central fireplace, and the plaster will be re-tinted in its original palette – "There was an amazing variety of earthy greens, golds and mushroomy colors, some with metallic golden flecks," Neufeld explains. The MHRC is collecting and copying Martin family furniture: barrel-backed or vertically slatted chairs, two-tiered tables and Japanese prints. New landscaping will be based on plans by Wright's talented staffers, Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin. Replacement windows are in progress at Oakbrook-Esser Studios in Oconomowoc, WI. American Restoration Tile of Mabelvale, AR, has supplied swaths of inch-square gray-brown floor tile. In the end, the only major difference from 1907 status will be invisible: a geothermal HVAC system will replace radiator pipes that ran below the pergola.

Partly owing to Martin House momentum (the house has remained open for tours, see www.darwinmartinhouse.org), Wright recreation fever has swept Buffalo: A stepped mausoleum, which he designed for the Martins in 1928 but never built, has been completed on a cemetery hillside (www.blueskymausoleum.com); Wright's plans for a 1905 boathouse and a 1920s gas station are being realized (www.wrightnowinbuffalo.com); and Graycliff is undergoing restoration (www.graycliff.bfn.org). Hundreds of thousands of tourists are expected to descend annually on Buffalo's "Wright Trail," despite a lingering hole in the skyline: a parking lot where the Larkin headquarters stood. "The city hasn't quite made up for that loss yet," Lownie says. "But it's come such a long way since then in its treatment of landmarks, and this project clearly shows where our hearts and minds are now."

 

 

 
 

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