Parked like a red brick aircraft-carrier in the leafy suburbs of Buffalo, New York, stands the most opulent private house that Frank Lloyd Wright ever built. Its 400 windows sparkle with intricate art-glass panels, the mortar between its bricks gleams with gold, while its rooms are lined with 12 km of wooden panelling and thousands of hand-glazed mosaic tiles. It was “the most perfect thing of its kind in the world”, Wright said, with characteristic modesty, “a domestic symphony” that was the ultimate “opus” of his Prairie house style.
The Darwin D. Martin house complex in Buffalo, New York, was built between 1903 and 1905 for a client willing and able to provide design freedom. The Martin brothers, Darwin and William, successful manufacturers of stove and shoe polish, became lifelong clients and friends who bore Wright’s escapades and inconsistencies with affection and forbearance and timely infusions of cash.
Martin was one of Buffalo’s wealthiest citizens when Buffalo was one of America’s wealthiest cities at the turn of 19th century. He was a senior executive at Larkin Soap Company, one of America’s largest retailers, which pioneered mail-order sales.
William had commissioned Wright in 1902 to design a home for him in Chicago’s Oak Park neighborhood. When Darwin visited Chicago and saw the home that Wright had designed for his brother, he knew right-then-and-there that he had found the “Wright” architect to design his own home back in Buffalo. Martin and Frank Lloyd Wright became life-long friends and he asked his friend to design a home for him suitable for a wealthy executive. The house was extravagant beyond all reason. Custom-made trim came from Milwaukee, art glass from Chicago and structural steel from Carnegie Steel Corp. in Pittsburgh. Another local company, Penn-American Plate Glass Co., produced white Novus Sanitary Structural Glass that covered walls in the kitchen and bathroom. Just one of the windows inlaid with Wright’s trademark tree of life design costs $28,000 to reproduce today.
Wright also designed a new administration headquarters for Larkin Soap. Although it was an office building it featured many innovations and was one of the most revolutionary office buildings of all time. The five-storey dark red brick building used pink-tinted mortar and utilized steel frame construction. People marveled at its air conditioning, stained-glass windows, built-in desk furniture and suspended toiletry bowls. The office building was dismantled in 1950, today a small brick stump is all that remains of the Larkin administration building.
Martin lived in his house for more than 30 years, but the 1929 stock market crash left him penniless. When Wright’s first book on architecture was published in the 1930s, Martin couldn’t afford the $6 price, so Wright supplied a copy free.
Architectural scholars consider the Martin House Complex Wright’s finest architectural achievement. The complex consisted of six interconnected buildings designed as a unified composition, including; the main Martin House and a pergola that connects it to a conservatory and carriage house with chauffeur’s quarters and stables, the Barton House, a smaller residence for Martin’s sister and brother-in-law, and a gardener’s cottage added in 1909. The landscape design for the grounds of the complex was highly integrated with the overall composition of buildings. Over the decades, the Martin House Complex suffered considerable damage and three of the original five buildings were demolished, but exact replicas are today standing in their place.
In 1937, two years after Darwin Martin died, his widow moved out and the empty house was systematically and ruthlessly gutted by his son, Darwin R. Martin, who cared nothing for it, or for that “rascal”, Wright, and undoubtedly resented his father’s extended aesthetic and fiscal captivity. He stripped and cannibalized the house of its doors, windows, moldings, lighting fixtures and wiring to reuse them in other investment properties he owned, after removing and disposing of all the furnishings. Left unlocked and vulnerable to random acts of thievery and violence for the next 17 years, the house was vandalized continually, with the damage compounded by Buffalo’s notorious winter weather.
The city of Buffalo acquired the house for back taxes in 1946, and a nominal caretaker was installed who simply presided over the continuing destruction. The derelict house was bought by an architect, Sebastian Tauriello, in 1954, who restored it and furnished it in a 1950s fashion for his family and office. Tauriello loved the house, but he was not a wealthy man; to make his purchase economically feasible, he created rental apartments in the 21 room house and sold a piece of the property for an apartment building behind it, demolishing the badly deteriorated pergola and garage. It was not a historic restoration; this was a courageous, expeditious and purely functional adaptation of a building in terminal decay. Tauriello literally saved the Martin house. After his death in 1965, his widow sold the house to the State University of New York at Buffalo, to be used as a residence for his president, Martin Meyerson, a Wright admirer, who undertook a partial restoration. Myerson’s successor moved out, and the house languished, with only emergency repairs.
As structural studies and cost estimates proceeded doggedly through the 1990s, a serendipitous visit by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an ardent architecture buff, turned the tide. Shocked to find the building closed because of minor thefts and continuing deterioration, he obtained publicity and funding. The Darwin D. Martin house was finally secured after one of the longest-running dramatic cliff-hangers in preservation history. The house is now in the final stage of a $50 million restoration, which began in 1997 with the installation of terra-cotta roof tiles handmade in France. About $10 million of the $50 million restoration budget was spent on creating a modern glass reception and interpretive pavilion, separate of the Martin House Complex. It was designed by Toshiko Mori, chair of the department of architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
The restoration brought back to life one of the most dramatic entrances Frank Lloyd Wright ever designed: a spectacular view of Nike, the winged victory of Samothrace. The original statue, carved by an unknown artist around 200 BCE, is housed in the Louvre in Paris.
Open the front door and a long 50 meters away, down an entryway, through a brick columned pergola, through a plant-filled conservatory, there she stands, all 3 meters of classic Greek sculpture on a one meter base.
Visitors to Martin’s house in the early 20th century had something equally spectacular right before them: one of only three glass mosaic fireplaces Wright ever put in one of his homes. Fifteen thousand pieces of glass tile drenched in gold depicted a wisteria in full bloom. Its rugged brown trunks intertwined as they climbed the mantel with green shimmering leaves cascading into an explosion of nearly pure-gold blossoms. And the fireplace didn’t just end in the entryway. It wrapped around into the home’s living room, a four-sided mosaic with glass tile on every surface, 14 square meters in all, of gold-infused tile.
Both Nike and the fireplace were lost because of the 17-year abandonment of the Martin House. Nike was lost in the 1962 demolition of the pergola, conservatory and carriage house and construction of three apartment buildings. And the glass-mosaic fireplace was most likely ruined by a leaky chimney flashing. The leak allowed in water, and the glass tiles tumbled from the freeze-thaw cycle of nearly two decades without heat in the house.
Now, thanks to the Martin House restoration, Nike is back with the reconstruction of the pergola, conservatory and carriage house. But restoring the fireplace has been a bigger challenge. About half-dozen artisans from around the world have tried to restore the fireplace over the years, all of them failing, some of them miserably.
Now there is one more attempt to restore the fireplace, by the firm of Giannini and Hilgart, the same firm that created the original fireplace. One has to wonder why people didn’t think of that first! Ettore Christopher Botti of Evanston III, Chris Botti for short, is an old-world artisan whose Botti Studio of Architectural Arts dates to the late 16th century in Agripoli, Italy, and 145 years in US.
Inside the main house, much of Wright’s elaborate interior features had to be refurbished. There is approximately 10 kilometres of intricate woodworking in the house. Blending the outdoors with the indoors was one of Wright’s passions and in the house he used 400 stained glass windows to marry the two.