Restored to Glory: Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House
Completed in 1907, the Darwin D. Martin House is known as one of famed American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright's, greatest works. However, after falling into disrepair over the years, it wasn't until 1997 that this gem nestled in the city of Buffalo has been restored to its former glory.
Located just outside of the City of Buffalo's immediate downtown area, I had the chance to delve into Buffalo's breath-taking architecture by partnering with Visit Buffalo-Niagara and the Martin House Complex. Under the guidance of our knowledgable docents, well-versed in the history of the house and its property from its inception up to the modern day, we were instantaneously brought back in time to the home's former majesty, showcasing a masterpiece of the famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. For this particular tour, we were able to explore the entirety of the house's main floor, in addition to its pergola, conservatory, and parts of the newly restored gardens.
When reaching Jewett Parkway, we spent about ten minutes circling through the residential streets that the Martin House Complex is located on in search of parking, as the house itself does not have its own dedicated parking lot; however, though this can be difficult in terms of finding a (free) parking spot on the network of nearby streets, adding in a parking lot would take away from the beauty and historical originality of this house.
Upon parking, we walked over to the Eleanor & Wilson Greatbatch Pavilion (an all-glass visitor's centre that's impossible to miss) to begin our pre-booked tour. This modern building was added during the Martin House's restoration, designed by Japanese architect Toshiko Mori. Here, we were introduced to our incredible docent, Cynthia Silverstein, who played an introductory ten minute film in the open space of the pavilion, in order to give us a better idea not only of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the homeowner Darwin D. Martin, but also of what to expect while touring the house itself.
As a bit of a backstory, the owner of the house was the aforementioned Mr. Darwin D. Martin, who was born in Bouckville, New York in 1865. Just two years later, the would-be famed American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin. At the tender age of thirteen, Martin moved to Buffalo to begin working for the Larkin Soap Company, a business that quickly grew in the coming years and expanded from only selling soap, to an entire catalogue of items (much similar to Eaton's or Sears); as the company grew, so too did its CEO's trust and admiration of young Martin, who he quickly realized was a whiz at numbers. As a result, he was promoted into working within the financial side of the business as a corporate secretary and his personal fortune began to skyrocket because of it.
Soon, Mr. Martin was a millionaire and sought the help of an already successful architect just two years his junior, Frank Lloyd Wright, to build the home of his dreams for him and his family. Because the two men realized almost instantaneously how similar they were in nature and formed a swift friendship, Wright was given complete freedom and an essentially unlimited budget to execute this project for Martin. The result was more or less the restored Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House Complex that we see today.
As you walk toward the main house from the Greatbatch Pavilion, past the dreamy porte-cochère, you are instantly overwhelmed with the beauty of the home. Despite construction occurring between 1903 and 1907 (this includes the building of the Barton House, main Martin House, pergola, conservatory, and carriage house), this Prairie House — named after its complimentary nature of the architecture with the land in which it was built atop — has a very Art Deco feel to it. This is interesting to note, as the Art Deco architectural style did not begin until approximately the year 1920. However, as Wright was the pioneer of what came to be called the Prairie School movement of architecture, this modern take on residential homebuilding elicited an intimate yet free and spacious take on a family's personal space, thanks to its clean horizontal lines, fluctuating ceiling heights, inclusion of various building materials, and use of windows to allow the interior of the home to flow fluidly with the exterior gardens.
The front door and surrounding porch area, although sporting massive cement urns overflowing with greenery and flora, feels quite small thanks to its low awning. This was intended to discourage people lingering by the front door, and encourage privacy of the family living within its walls. Unlike many mansions of the time that boastfully welcomed prying eyes to try to steal a peek at the splendour within, Wright's Martin House Complex sought to prevent that from occurring, to grant solitude and seclusion to the dwellers.
As you enter within the interior space of the 1,391 square metre (14,978 square foot) main house, you'll be greeted by a larger foyer that instantly opens up from the smaller 'enclosure' you just witnessed. To the right you'll find a library and living room and to your left, the reception room. When looking directly ahead, you can see directly though the large window that leads down the striking pergola and out into the lush greenery of the conservatory, pulling your eyes forward with its long and strong horizontal lines. This entry space is full of simple yet intricate details, which pull your gaze to rest on different segments and appreciate its beauty for a few moments before moving on to bestow visual favour upon the next.
We began by entering the reception area, seen above in a before and after shot (the left from the house's archives, taken when it was first built, and on the right by me during my visit). This sitting room of sorts features wisteria-themed stained glass windows and a jaw-dropping sunburst fireplace made of Roman bricks and gilded mortar (the gold paint found coating the recessed space between the bricks can be found throughout the entire house). This would have been the space in which the family entertained guests during the time that they lived there, from 1905 to 1935.
When looking around this airy room, you will notice a Japanese influence, particularly the lovely Japanese prints hanging on the walls; though Wright was fascinated by the art and culture of this Asian nation (in fact, he travelled there for the first time in the spring of 1905, whilst the Martin House was still under construction), he was adamant that his architectural style was not influenced by the Japanese.
It's also in this space that you catch your first true glimpse of the home's entirely Wright-designed furniture on the tour, which the architect utilized to reflect the nature of both the home and the land it was surrounded by. This includes the barrel chair, with a high round back like half a barrel, which is still a popular piece of furniture even modern-day homes incorporate into their spaces. These accent pieces are critical to the room as well as to the house as a whole, not only because of their usefulness (after all, every home needs chairs, tables, and the like), but also because of the way in which they encompass everything that the home stands for: this ever-present 'from the earth' design mentality.
When you move further through the house and into Martin's spacious office, you can see the same lovely stained glass window patterns both on the windows facing the outside world beyond the house's walls (these are positioned higher up on the wall to avoid distraction from the outside world, when Martin was working at his desk), as well as when peering heavenward at the laylight directly above the desk. Wright referred to these windows as "light screens," which also encompassed glasswork on the home's doors, pier cluster casements, skylights, laylights, and sidelights. Though the wisteria pattern (at least to me) appeared to be the most prominent in the home, I was fascinated by the "Tree of Life" pattern, which is so incredibly detailed and labour-intensive in design that one light screen contains more than 750 individual panes of glass. An astonishing number when you think about it, especially when you take into consideration the fact that this is just one of 394 stained glass designs within the house!
As you exit into the reception room and leave through the back, you enter the kitchen: a spacious and cleanly modern culinary retreat. The kitchen is complete with a series of ice boxes built right into the wall as you walk in (the equivalent of a modern day refrigerator), long counters, an abundance of cupboard space, and massive windows allowing for sunlight to flow in and for a view of the beautiful garden stretching out just on the other side of the pane. Another perfect example of the nature on which the house is built upon becoming one with the interior design.
Moving across the house to the opposite side of the main floor, we found ourselves in the dining room; once again, the Wright-designed furniture stole the show, along with the prominent dental crown moulding along the ceilings. As with most of this open-concept home, the dining room flows seamlessly into the living room and then into an adjoining library, much like one would expect to see in a house built in the last decade. The long horizontal lines found throughout the entire area pull the eye from one end the room to the other, regardless of which end that you stand at.
Central to this space, the living room's series of doors opens up onto a massive veranda, which is encompassed by an absolutely ethereal semi-circular garden. Landscaped by Walter Burley Griffin, this garden at one time contained a wide variety of plant species, which were chosen for their blossoming cycles to ensure that blooms were visible throughout the entirety of Buffalo's growing season. Because the gardens helped link the home to the earth and vice versa, their design and contents were integral to complimenting the architectural design as a whole.
When standing just inside of the living room, opposite the entry to the veranda, your attention is captivated on the inside of the house by the Wisteria Mosaic Fireplace; this 360° focal point is made up of tens of thousands of individual glass tiles, all coming together to welcome onlookers' eyes to rove across it. Unfortunately, only a small number of the original tile pieces made it through the decades of neglect faced by this abandoned house, leading to the eventual collapse of the fireplace (due to water damage causing the glue that held the glass tiles to the wall to give way). However, these surviving pieces have been incorporated into the restored mosaic as proud segments that serve to restore the stunning visual that it once was. The fireplace is also visible from the hallway of the front foyer, from the moment you walk in, directly to your right.
As you trickle back into the central hallway, you once again come to face the 143 square metre (1,540 square foot) pergola just beyond the back of the house, separating the mansion of a home from its 254 square metre (2,655 square foot) conservatory. This outdoor, thirty metre (one hundred foot long) stretch is at the centre of the complex, connects the back entrance of the house to the front entrance of what was intended to be Martin's wife — Isabelle Reidpath Martin's — personal gardening haven. Though its lush greenery was not the type of gardening that Mrs. Martin was hoping for, visitors today can nonetheless appreciate the beauty of it.
A replica of the Winged Victory of Samothrace from 190 BC (the original is housed at Paris' Louvre Museum) stands proudly at the centre of the conservatory, atop a small fountain. When you close your eyes, you can hear the faint sound of birds chirping beyond the glass walls of the conservatory, the trickling of water from the fountain, and on a windier day, the whistling of the wind a mere few steps away from you.
Before you exit the property, be sure to wander around the beautiful 511 square metre (5,507 square foot) carriage house, which has today been converted into the museum gift shop. Within the stable's large entryway, you can find a plethora of artistic pieces, whose theme surrounds the details of the house itself, particularly the stained glass windows that I (and clearly, many other people) have fallen head-over-heels for. This design has been adapted into glass tumblers, napkins, table runners, throws, coasters, and even bird feeders. When you enter the back of the shop, you can find even more gems available for purchase — including bricks made from the very recipe used to form the blocks constructing the house, for a mere $8 USD (about $10.60 CAD) — as well as what were once the horses' stable stalls and a ladder leading up to the stable attic. This would have been where the groom had slept when the house was in its glory days.
Purchasing from the shop feels all the more rewarding when you know that funding from their wares (and from the cost of tours led by their knowledgeable volunteer docents) contribute to the maintaining of the house and its property after the recent twelve year restoration project; this was just completed this spring, with the final touch of its landscape renovation. Though the cost of the Martin House was an estimated $300,000 USD (almost $400,000 CAD) at the time that it was built at the turn of the century, today it would have been the equivalent of $8,188,436 USD, or about $10,888,450 CAD. However, the restoration process to bring the house back from complete disrepair after its 1935 abandonment was a $50 million USD (roughly $66.431 million CAD) endeavour, coming to fruition as the result of both public and private sources.
Thanks to the help of all of these monetary sources, a critical part of not only Buffalo, but America's architectural history, has now been salvaged for the enjoyment of generations to come. The Martin House Complex is truly present today in all of its former, majestic glory.
Regardless of which tour you opt into to wander the interior of the Complex, you're bound to discover tonnes of information and see incredible aspects of the house that no photo or retelling can do justice to. To see it all for yourself, you can book your public tour with the Martin House Complex by clicking here.
To read more of our posts on the city of Buffalo, click here.
Prairie Whispers (music track on our accompanying video) by Alexander Eurke has been used with permission.
Follow Eurke on YouTube: https://bit.ly/328Eai7
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