Sunday, April 18, 2010

Saving Frank Lloyd Wright's Graycliff

Graycliff (copyright 2010 by Kevin Scanlon)

Frank Lloyd Wright speaks to me. At least his houses do. And I am envious of anyone who lives in one. Yes, I know they are notorious for leaks and other functionality issues. This is a case where form trumps function. Living in a Wright house would be living in art.

I’ve toured Wright’s most famous house, Fallingwater, in every season and it never fails to amaze me. There are places in
nature that stir a similar sense of belonging for me, such as coastal Maine and the northern coast of California. I get that same feeling when I enter a Wright house: I belong here; this should be mine. This feeling of connection was one of the architect’s goals. Wright designed his homes to become part of the landscape surrounding it, using indigenous materials to integrate the building with the site. Early this month I made my first visit to Graycliff, which overlooks Lake Erie just south of Buffalo, New York. Guess what – that one should be mine, too.

Some Wright-designed homes remain in the hands of private owners. Writer T.C. Boyle, whose latest novel The W
omen is about several of FLW’s romantic liaisons, owns and lives in a Wright home. Built in 1910 for George C. Stewart, it was the first Wright home built in California and the only one there in the Prairie style. If you happen to be in the market for a Wright-designed home, here are a few that may still be available.

My favorite novel about Wright is Nancy Horan’s deeply researched and beautifully crafted Loving Frank, based on Wright’s scandalous love affair with Mamah Cheney after he’d been commissioned by Cheney’s husband to build a house for their family in Chicago’s Oak Park neighborhood. Horan’s home was on the same street as the Cheney house, and her walks past it inspired her to write the story. It took Horan seven years to write Loving Frank, and her focus on Mamah Cheney (who had previously been little more than a footnote in Wright biographies) shows a fascinating and intelligent woman who boldly took great risks and made difficult choices, particularly in an era when women did not even have the right to vote.

I’m always struck by how modern Wright’s houses were for the era in which they were designed. In fact, they still seem modern today, nearly a century later. Despite its yet to be restored interior, Graycliff shares that modern ambiance. Graycliff was the summer home for the Darwin and Isabelle Martin family. Their main residence, located in Buffalo where Darwin Martin was CEO at the Larkin Company, had also been designed by Wright. The Martins lived a Wright lifestyle year round (I’m just a tad envious, but won’t dwell on that here). When Darwin Martin commissioned Wright to design and build Graycliff, he instructed Wright that this one was to be Isabelle’s house and that it was her wishes that would have to be satisfied. Isabelle’s eyesight was failing and she wanted a house filled with as much natural light as possible. Rows of glass doors and floor-to-ceiling windows on Graycliff’s main floor bring light through the house and frame the view of the lake. As we approached the house by walking down the front driveway, our gaze was drawn to those windows where we could see straight through the house to the lake. I was already in love with Graycliff before I set foot inside.

Frank Lloyd Wright was notorious for his disagreements with clients over what he had planned for them versus what the owners actually wanted built. Isabelle Martin was firm in her demands, and for the most part FLW complied. Having worked with Wright previously on their Buffalo house, she had experience on her side and had figured out how to handle him. When he balked at a request or told her that it was not possible, she would declare that surely a man of his genius could figure it out.

The tour of Graycliff’s interior was particularly interesting because restorations are underway by the Graycliff Conservancy, which managed to purchase the house in 1999 with backing from The Baird Foundation to guarantee the $450,000 mortgage and provide another $200,000 toward restoration. The outside, with the exception of the sunken garden on the cliff side of the house, has been restored and now they have begun work on the interior. The Piarist Order of priests, who owned the property from 1950-1999 and established a boarding school there, had built an addition onto the front terrace for a chapel. These alterations have been removed and the house restored to its original configuration. Walking through the house I imagined what it would be like to live there. I saw exactly which sunlit corner of what is known as the fern room would be my writing space, and could envision my desk pushed against a window there with a view of the garden and lake. Upstairs, the long gallery above the front terrace would make the perfect library, with a long row of bookshelves along the interior wall.

When the priests put Graycliff on the market in 1996, there was little interest in it except for the lakefront property. In fact, an upscale housing development now stands within a hundred feet of Graycliff on land which was once owned by Dexter Rumsey, from whom Darwin Martin had originally purchased the parcel of property for Graycliff. There was some question of whether enough of Wright’s design elements had survived under the alterations made by the Piarist priests for the estate to be worth saving, but fortunately the group that became the Graycliff Conservancy investigated and confirmed that the bones and details were still intact and worth restoring.

There is a very 1950s looking chain link fence at the cliff precipice that would surely make Wright rant and rave in his grave. The docent for our tour claimed the fence dated back to the Martin family because they had young grandchildren who played there. I can imagine Frank saying one good 60-foot tumble will teach the little rascals to stay back from the edge and demanding that the fence be removed. Wright was known to place demands on the families living in his houses right down to the arrangement of the furniture and personal belongings. Surely he would have objected to a fence impeding the flow of the sightline he had designed with the sunken garden and esplanade leading from the terrace to the cliff – particularly a fence as ugly and utilitarian as that one. Wright had originally planned for steps to be landscaped into the side of the cliff to the beach below, but Darwin Martin hired a different builder to construct a metal staircase instead, which still stands but is in serious disrepair.

Stairs to the lake at Graycliff
(copyright 2010 by Kevin Scanlon)

The administration building for the Larkin Company in Buffalo was also designed by Wright. However, it was demolished in 1950 and a parking lot is now at that site. One low wall still remains, but there is nothing particularly interesting about it except that serves as a shameful reminder of that architectural loss.

Wright’s architectural grammar was one of horizontal lines and cantilevered terraces, continuity of interior and exterior space, and undivided rooms opening into one another. He literally took us out of the box with his thinking – the house was no longer a box of rooms. He was also a flamboyant character and lived a life of stories. It’s no wonder that writers and readers find him interesting. His life had everything that makes a good tale – conflict, drama, beauty, tragedy, romance, lies, suspense, mystery, and even murder. Even his houses reveal great stories.

Photo Credits:
Photographs of Graycliff, copyright 2010 by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved, used by permission

Around the Blogosphere

Congratulations to Paul Harding, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction last week for his novel Tinkers. This win is particularly poignant for the small press, Bellevue Literary Press, and its editor Erika Goldman – and for Jonathan Rabinowitz, editor at another small press who turned down the project but who nonetheless championed the book by bringing it to the attention of Goldman.

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Frances Archer said...

Why is it we're so drawn to Frank Lloyd Wright homes? I've also been to Falling Water several times, once when I was about 13, so it's been a lifelong interest for me. Here in Chicago we have the Robie House, which is the subject of a novel, The Wright Three, for kids. I read it with my daughter, and learned quite a bit of history from the book and we're planning to do the Wright 3 tour which is targeted to kids. Thanks for telling us about Graycliff.

Dory Adams said...

Hi Frances,I just got home today from another trip to Buffalo and was able to tour the Darwin Martin House this time (this was the Martin family's main residence, and Graycliff was their summer home). I hadn't realized there was a novel geared to children about the Wright-designed Robie House -- wonderful! I haven't toured any of Wright's Oak Park houses yet, but hope to get there eventually.

Gary Rosys said...

There is a tale often told of F.L. Wright returning to Graycliff and complaining about the monstrous effect of the chapel. There is also a story of a Piarist Father coming from Europe to Graycliff and wanting to know who the architect was because the man was such a genius. The name of the school was Calasanctius School or Prep. School.
Some of the alumni have a website with some of the stories. I don't know if the have the source of the stories cited.