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Road Trip! Destination: Frank Lloyd Wright designs in Buffalo

| Saturday, July 12, 2014, 8:15 p.m.
Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Darwin Martin House in Buffalo.
Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Darwin Martin House in Buffalo.

Buffalo seems to be built of the Wright stuff.

Spread throughout the city are a collection of homes and buildings — some that were only dreams of architect Frank Lloyd Wright — that in some way rivals the cluster in the Chicago area, says Mary F. Roberts.

She is the executive director of the Martin House Restoration Corp., the group that was founded in 1991 to restore the magnificent property that can be seen as the centerpiece of the sites. Wright called the homes and buildings connected by pergolas his “opus.”

Roberts says interest in reviving the home began in the mid-'80s and was prompted by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003), who told community leaders something needed to be done with the abandoned property. That restoration project, which still is ongoing, led to other efforts, such as work on the abandoned Graycliff Estate, and even the construction of projects that never were built in Wright's lifetime.

The Wright legacy is tied closely to the Larkin Soap Co. in Buffalo, for which Martin worked. He introduced his boss, John Larkin, to Wright, and Larkin had the architect design his downtown headquarters. Two other Larkin executives commissioned Wright homes.

But the Martin House is the showplace of it all and had taken on another role, Roberts says.

“The Martin House project became the poster child for public-private partnerships,” she says,

Interest in the Wright legacy has sparked other non-Wright jobs, too, she says. The site built as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane is being restored now as the Richardson-Olmstead Complex, a hotel, conference and event center.

It is named after H.H. Richardson, who designed the Allegheny County Courthouse, and Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed New York's Central Park as well as the town of Vandergrift.

‘The most perfect thing of its kind'

With its archetypal lines and pergolas connecting the home to a conservatory and a carriage house, the Darwin A. Martin house was a favorite of Frank Lloyd Wright.

He called it “the most perfect thing of its kind in the world.”

Built between 1903 and '05, it got National Historic Landmark status in 1986 and is considered one of Wright's finest achievements in the Prairie style of architecture.

The complex where it sits also includes the Barton Home, built for Martin's sister and her husband. The Martin house suffered considerable damage when it was abandoned after the Martins lost a great deal of their money in the Great Depression. But in 1991, the Martin House Restoration Corp. was formed to raise money for its renewal.

Besides bringing the house back, the work led to a visitor's center designed by another famous architect, Toshiko Mori.

The Martin house complex is open for tours and is the site for events such as a summer garden series by the site horticulturist and Bricks & Brews, a beer festival. Details: or 716-856-3858.

A place to get away

Darwin and Isabelle Martin liked their in-town home so much, they had Wright design a weekend retreat, as well.

Graycliff Estate, sitting above Lake Erie, became their getaway in 1927. It was owned by the Martin family until it was sold in the early '50s to a group of Hungarian Catholic priests, who used it as their motherhouse.

The home is greatly cantilevered and features a large amount of glass, creating an open, colorful feeling. But the priests, who had no desire to maintain architectural features, changed it a great deal. When their declining numbers forced them to put it up for sale in 1997, a group called the Graycliff Conservancy began efforts to restore it.

Like the other Martin home, it is open for tours. More than a half-million visitors have stopped at the dramatic setting.

Details: 716-947-9217 of

Not on the tour map

The architect not only did the great homes for Larkin executive Darwin Martin and the now-gone administration building, but he also added homes that are still occupied and not for tour.

The Walter V. Davidson house at 57 Tillinghast Place has a typically low Wright entry but expands to a two-story living room with a cathedral ceiling. There is a wall of diamond-shaped leaded-glass windows that rise from low cabinets to the ceiling.

The William R. Heath house at 76 Soldiers Place was built for the brother-in-law of the company president, John Larkin. It is noted for being on a small lot. Wright raised the elevation of the windows to restrict the view from the outside in.

While neither is open for tour, they are frequent sites for drive-by inspections.

Giving life to a gem

One of Wright's dreams has become a reality in Buffalo.

In 1910, Wright included designs for a home for a rowing club in a portfolio of his work. He had the designs in another collection 20 years later, but the project never got beyond design status.

In 2000, though, the Frank Lloyd Wright's Rowing Boathouse Corp. was able to get the plans and raise the $5.4 million needed to build the structure as the home for the West Side Rowing Club. It also is the site for public and private events.

It is built in a style that calls to mind the Martin house with its large vertical piers supporting horizontal planes. The second floor, which is the club room with locker facilities, has east- and west-facing balconies.

Besides events, it is open for tours. Details: 716-362-3140 or .

‘Facing the open sky'

The Martin family not only wanted to live in Wright buildings, the members were planning on an after-life in his structures, too.

Wright had been commissioned to design for the family a burial space, which Darwin Martin called the Blue Sky Mausoleum because of the way it blended into the landscape and the sky.

Wright called the 24 crypts a “burial facing the open sky” and a “great headstone commune to all.” But when the family lost so much money during the Depression, the plans for the work in Forest Lawn Cemetery were put aside.

But, in the 1990s, when the restoration of the Martin homes began, cemetery president Fred Whaley Jr. raised $500,000, and the work began on the mausoleum.

The mausoleum site opened in 2004. None of the Martin family is buried there, and crypts are open to anyone.

Details: 716-885-1600 or

Later life for Larkin land

Restoration has gone a different direction with one of the most dramatic Wright sites in Buffalo.

The building is gone, but the area has found a new life.

Larkin Square, in the heart of an area called Larkinville, is nestled among warehouses that harken to the area's past. It now is the home to Food Truck Tuesdays and merchants, a concert and author series.

But it is built on the site of the Larkin Soap Co. administration building, a hefty bit of Wright architecture dominated by a multilevel atrium full of work spaces. Opened in 1904, the building was office space and a store for the Larkin company until the Depression took its toll.

After other Larkin buildings were sold, the administration building went to a Pennsylvania developer in 1943. In 1945, the city took it over in a tax settlement, and it was torn down in 1950.

Some buildings dating back to the Larkin era are still in the warehouse district, but they are not Wright works.

Details: 716-362-2665 or

Topping it off to history

Like the home of the West End Rowing Club and the Blue Sky Mausoleum, a never-built Wright gas station has found life in Buffalo.

The architect designed a Tydol Oil station in 1927. With gravity-fed tanks and a copper roof, it had a second-story room with a fireplace, restrooms and a waiting room where work on the car could be watched.

The station was never built until recently when it was added at the Buffalo Transportation/Pierce-Arrow Museum, a site dedicated to transportation and the impact of the automobile. The elegant Pierce-Arrow cars were built in Buffalo.

Jim Sandoro, founder and executive director of the museum, says the gas station project cost about $10 million.

“We were going to put it outside, but the we thought of protecting the copper roof, wind shears and kids hanging from the hoses,” he says,

The grand opening of the gas station was June 27.

Details: 716-853-0084 or

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7852.

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