Sunday, May 23, 2010

More Wright in Buffalo: The Darwin D. Martin Complex

The Darwin D. Martin House
(copyright 2010 by Dory Adams)


Earlier this spring, we made two trips to Buffalo, New York. The first was a daytrip to tour Graycliff which I wrote about here. On the second trip, we spent several days exploring and photographing in the Buffalo area. The first thing on my list of things to see was the Darwin Martin House, which architect Frank Lloyd Wright referred to as his “opus.” Intrigued that a family owned two Wright-designed estates, after seeing Graycliff I wanted to see their main residence in the city.

The tour gave me more than a look at the interior of the Wright-designed home. I came away with pieces of a story with complex characters, an historic setting at the turn of the twentieth century when Buffalo was an industrial behemoth, motivations and complications surrounding self-made wealth, friendship, family, scandal, tragedy and loss. Now I am more intrigued than ever, and the more research I do the more fascinated I become with Darwin and Isabelle Martin, and with Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Darwin D. Martin Complex includes the main residence for Darwin and Isabelle Martin’s family, with a long open-sided pergola leading from the house to a conservatory and carriage house, as well two other houses on the property – a gardener’s cottage and the George Barton House which was built for Darwin’s sister and her family. There is also a newly built visitor’s center designed by Toshiko Mori. The main house is currently undergoing restoration, and the tour we were on was the last to go through before they were temporarily suspended until the restoration work is completed inside. Tours of the other buildings, however, will continue in the meantime.

The Visitor's Center and Gardener's Cottage
(Copyright 2010 by Dory Adams)

I look forward to returning for another tour of the house after the restoration is complete. At the time of our tour the art glass windows had been removed from the main floor, the wisteria mosaic tiles had been removed from the living room fireplace, and protective drapes divided the open living space and blocked the view down the 100-foot long pergola to the statue of the Greek goddess Nike in the conservatory that would’ve normally been seen upon entering the house.

The fact that the Martin House has been saved is a story in itself. The property had been abandoned for nearly twenty years after Darwin Martin’s death. Martin had lost most of his fortune in the 1929 stock market crash and died in 1935 after several years of failing health. In 1938, Isabelle Martin abandoned the house after she could not afford to pay the back taxes. The day Isabelle Martin walked out of the house for the last time she didn’t even bother to lock the door behind her. The house stood vacant, vulnerable to vagrants and vandals and partially open to the elements, until 1955 when architect Sebastian Tauriello bought it to try to save it. Tauriello sold part of the property in order to save the rest of it. The original pergola, conservatory, and carriage house were destroyed to build three apartment buildings where they’d stood. Later, the University at Buffalo owned the main house and used it as a residence for the university president. Since 1992, the Martin House Restoration Corporation, a non-profit educational and restoration group, has worked to acquire and restore the complete property. The apartment buildings have been demolished and the pergola, conservatory, and carriage house were rebuilt on the original site.

Carriage House and Pergola
(Copyright 2010 by Dory Adams)

The Darwin Martin House was a grand and formal home where visitors were ushered into a reception room off the formal entry upon arrival. The family space on the main floor included a large open area with library, living room, and dining room, and upstairs were eight bedrooms. Darwin Martin, an executive with the Larkin Company, was a workaholic who also kept an office on the main floor of his home where business visitors could enter and leave through a separate entrance without disturbing his family.

Martin had brought Frank Lloyd Wright to Buffalo in 1902 when searching for an architect to design and build the Larkin Company’s Administration Building, which became Wright’s first commercial commission. Construction on the administration building began in 1904 and was completed in 1906. During that time, Martin also hired Wright to design an estate for his family that would include a house for his sister.

The friendship between Martin and Wright is fascinating. Both men were self-made successes who came from broken families, and both men made and lost fortunes. Darwin Martin was a friend and benefactor to Wright even during the years when Wright’s life was filled with scandal and tragedy, and he extended loans to Wright again and again at Wright’s request. By 1932 when Martin’s money was nearly gone, Wright owed Martin $70,000 which was never repaid.

Darwin Martin, who died in 1935 after a series of strokes, is buried in an unmarked grave in Forest Lawn Cemetery. Martin had commissioned Wright to design a family mausoleum for him in 1928, but could not afford to have it built after the onset of the Great Depression. By the time of Martin’s death, there was not even enough money left to put a tombstone on his grave. In 2004, nearby Darwin and Isabelle’s unmarked graves, the Blue Sky Mausoleum was built using Wright’s design.

Photo credits: Photographs copyright 2010 by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

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1 comment:

Amalia Pistilli Conrad said...

I used to be a graduate student in Art History at SUNY-Buffalo and my one of professors was the curator of the Darwin Martin House and took us to visit it. I was amazed at how a house that from the outside appeared so squat, with protruding eaves, and I imagined to be dark what with all the wood trims that Wright loved to use, was in fact flooded with light. FL Wright was a genius, he could really think three-dimensionally in a manner deeper than most other architect, and take care of all the details of a building. Nothing in this house was left to chance, it was a true work of art.