Buffalo’s Wright Stuff

Buffalo is a city filled with interesting architecture. The Darwin D. Martin House Complex may be the crown jewel in the treasure trove of sparkling gems for architectural fans and history buffs.

Growing up with a father who was an architect, all five of his children learned a few things about architecture in our formative years, and you can’t learn anything about architecture unless you know who Frank Lloyd Wright was. Dad was a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright – a huge fan. Frank Lloyd Wright received many accolades during his lifetime, and even more since his death in 1959. Whether you love his Prairie style or think his buildings were just far-fetched, you simply must recognize that he was a visionary.

Frank Lloyd Wright believed strongly in “organic” architecture. He felt that the inside of a building should be easily connected or accessible to the outside – that the two were very closely related to one another and should be treated almost as partners when it comes to design. Having studied under Louis Sullivan in Chicago, Wright also subscribed to the “form follows function” principle of modern architecture. While these theories may seem commonplace today, they were astounding in the early 1900’s. Those were the days when each room was compartmentalized for a specific purpose – the library housed books, the dining room was only for dining, and so on. Wright threw those notions out the window. He called it “breaking the box.” The irony is that many of his homes appear, on the surface, to be very boxy. He loved long horizontal lines, feeling that the homes he designed that way would appear as if they were growing out of the earth.

Wright was fairly young and not well known outside of Chicago when he was hired by Darwin D. Martin, a well-to-do executive with the Larkin soap company, to build a home in Buffalo. Actually, Martin hired Wright to build a trial home first – a home for Martin’s sister and her family. That house, called the Barton House, is just north of the main house. Apparently the trial worked since Wright was hired to design the rest of the Martin complex.

The complex takes up an acre and a half in the lovely Parkside neighborhood of Buffalo, just a stone’s throw from Delaware Park and the Buffalo Zoo. Both the neighborhood and the park were laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted. Nestled among the Victorian, Tudor, and Queen Anne homes nearby, the Prairie style Martin House stands out as special and unique. I’m certain it did when it was completed in 1905, and it still does today.

The Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

The Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

Our first visit to the Martin House eight years ago was on a whim. We had been in Buffalo for something else, and had some time to kill. So we drove over to the Martin House just to see what it looked like. It happened to be closed to tours that day, but we stood on the sidewalk taking photos and talking about it when an older man approached us and asked us if we wanted any information about the house. It turns out he was a docent who lived in the neighborhood. He not only answered our questions, he “snuck” us inside for a quick peek. We got only as far as the reception room, with its magnificent sunburst fireplace, but we did get a glimpse of the rest of the massive home beyond. Ever since then, I have wanted to go back.

Since that first visit, the Martin House Restoration Corporation has been able to restore much of the homes former grandeur. The pergola and carriage house, which had been torn down years before due to extreme decay, have been reconstructed with the same attention to detail that the originals received when Wright was alive. The Gardeners Cottage, which was lovingly cared for as a private home for decades, has been sold back to the Martin House complex. Even some of the original Wright-designed furnishings inside are in their original locations. There is still much work to do, but it has come a very long way.

If you have seen Fallingwater, perhaps the best known of the Wright-designed homes, you should also see the Darwin Martin House. Built thirty years apart, the two are strikingly different. Yet Wright’s attention to detail and focus on the “organic” are evident in both. Fallingwater is a masterpiece built over a running brook in the woods. It was a summer home for the Kauffmann (department store) family of Pittsburgh. Its isolated spot in the woods allows it to not only blend into its surroundings, but also to stand out as a work of art. But having visited Fallingwater twice, I will tell you that both times I came away feeling that it is much more sculptural than homey. The Martin House is much more homey, even within the confines of Wright’s sculptural genius.

Darwin Martin lost his fortune during the Great Depression, and died in 1935. His family was not able to maintain the home and moved away, leaving it vacant for many years. When a Buffalo architect purchased it in 1954, Frank Lloyd Wright wrote to the man and thanked him for taking care of his “opus.” The Martin House stands today as a testimony to the dozens of people who cared enough to maintain and restore this architectural gem in Buffalo.

We took my mother on our most recent visit to the Martin House. She had never been before, and during my father’s lifetime it was never open to the public. When we left, mom said, “Your father would have loved this.” I know she was right.

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2 thoughts on “Buffalo’s Wright Stuff

  1. I’m so happy that your Mom had a chance to see the house, Sheila. What a lovely way to begin spring!

    I hope you are making plans to consolidate all of your amazing reflections into a book, Sheila. I have enjoyed them all thoroughly. You are an excellent writer!

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