Graycliff Estate is the summer home Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Isabelle and Darwin Martin in the late 1920s.
Graycliff, about 30 km southwest of downtown Buffalo, was intended as a summer retreat for Mrs. Martin, who today would have been considered legally blind. Since she could only distinguish vague colors, fragrant flowers and shrubs were important to her and were incorporated into the landscape design. The main house on the property, which has been named the Isabelle R. Martin house, has long porches with dramatic views of Lake Erie, two-tiered flower boxes, sunken gardens and a fountain and pond in front. The site overlooks the lake, terminating at the shoreline in a cliff; on clear days, the upward spray of Niagara Falls is visible on the horizon.
Wright designed a tower at Graycliff for the Martin children to get from the main house to Lake Erie.
Darwin Martin asked Wright to design the house with Isabelle’s wishes and needs in mind and focus on openness and illumination. Isabelle wasn’t afraid to make her demands known, at one point writing, “with all the realm of architectural design at your command your unparalleled genius surely will not balk at this small problem.” A great example can be found in the sprawling landscaping. Wright set about sketching a master plan for the grounds, playing with form and spatial relationships and adding an irregular-shaped pond to the center of the front yard. In one corner, flower boxes are mounted on the inside, and the sunken flower garden beyond the front porch makes the porch appear almost like another room of the house.
The front porch overlooking the flower beds and the pond was one of the two most scenic vistas of the house, with the second one being the second-floor porch off Mrs. Martin’s room with the best view of the lake.
But the landscaping didn’t include enough of the fragrant, colorful flowers that Isabelle requested, so the Martins eventually hired Ellen Biddle Shipman, the dean of women’s landscape architects, according to House & Garden to update Wright’s plan.
In addition to the landscaping and porches, Mrs. Martin’s wishes are represented in a number of other ways. Although Wright despised closets, Mrs. Martin’s bedroom at Graycliff includes a walk-in closet. The servants quarters are pleasant and well-lit by large windows, believed to be another request by Mrs. Martin.
Graycliff boasts an artful exterior of stucco and limestone (pyrite in the limestone gives the building its rusted look). Wright was moving past the Prairie style and utilized many features and materials specific to the lakeside location: limestone from the beach was used throughout the home, most notably in a large central fireplace, The sandstone has a naturally occurring orange stain from iron oxide within it. Wright apparently liked it and requested that the stone masons leave it exposed. It fits well with the orange/red color scheme of the roofs and walls, and similar stone was used for the new pond at Graycliff.
The most important element of the house was light. The main house is placed by the lake and its linear plan allows all of the principal rooms to face the lake. Wright use large transparent (not art) glass windows facing the lake, with panels of glass coming together at the corners of the home, separated by a metal rod (precursors of some of the techniques he used at Fallingwater eight years later). The copper window screens reflected more of the setting sun into the home. Wright named it “the Natural House”.
Public rooms are located on the ground floor and an additional connection between setting and house is achieved though the large expanses of floor-to-ceiling glass doors. Although a ubiquitous architectural device today, pioneering technology was required to make such large openings in the heavy masonry walls. The doors create a transparency which makes the view of the lake visible right through the house. Bedrooms on the first floor open onto a large terrace also facing the water, all served by a fully glazed corridor on the opposite side.
The public spaces flow into each other and are arranged along two perpendicular axes. As a perfect antidote to the transparency, the entire ground floor is dominated by a huge hearth made from local stone. This both roots the building to its site and also provides familial security and warmth, a strong axiom of Wright’s.
Beyond the carefully articulated house layout, Wright also carefully controls the entire site of Graycliff, which should be read as an enlarged pinwheel plan: buildings and nature are used to form a series of spaces around which a grand promenade is weaved. Moving between the mass of the buildings and banks of trees, the site and surroundings are carefully highlighted.
The estate consists of a main villa; a chauffeur’s house and garage, later occupied by the Martins’ daughter and family; and a heat hut located on the beach below. Wright’s conviction over the importance of the connection between a house and its place, which derives from pioneer mythology, is well documented; at Graycliff, the proximity of the lake dominates the architectural response, cleverly always visible from the house and site.
The driveway bisects the site diagonally and as one moves toward the lake a vista of the water is revealed. At the last moment the house becomes visible again as the driveway curves around an artificial pond, which in itself creates the allusion of bringing the water of the lake through the house and toward the visitor.
As a rural summer villa, the house is designed to be approached by car and the front door is contained under a large porte-cochère. The chauffeur’s house is perpendicular to this entrance elevation and its continuous masonry ground floor acts cleverly as an architectural ‘signpost’, directing the driveway in a loop back to the site gates.
The Martin family suffered badly in the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and never recovered their wealth. Darwin Martin died in 1935 and Isabelle Martin enjoyed her last summer at Graycliff in 1943, before dying two years later. The house was sold in 1951 to a Catholic educational order, the Piarist Fathers, who ran the estate as a boarding school (later as a Calasanctius school for gifted children).
The Piarist Fathers turned out to be poor caretakers. Starting in the mid 1950s, the priests began to add to the property, constructing a school house, chapel and additional living spaces that concealed Wright’s designs. The additions meant the home fell largely out of the conversation; even a plea by Wright himself, who visited the home in 1958 shortly before his death and offered to design a chapel for the priests, didn’t change their approach to overseeing (and obscuring) the property.
A few decades later, after its ranks had dwindled, the Catholic order decided to sell. The landscape and general look of Graycliff was a bit rough — between additions and overgrowth, you could no longer see the Wright architecture — and most potential buyers, originally entranced by the famous name, were scared away by the amount of money restoration would require. A developer began circling, submitting a bid and making an offer to buy the property, with the idea of demolishing the now overgrown and enveloped masterpiece and building condos on the prime lakefront property. Luckily for preservationists, a group of local Wright enthusiasts formed a group to save the building. They formed the Graycliff Conservancy in 1997 and raised $450,000 to secure the home, then embarked on a long-term renovation program.
After removing the non-Wright structures, the conservancy has now completed about 75 percent of the house’s renovation, including all structural repairs to the exteriors of the three Wright-designed buildings, including balconies, terraces, windows, doors and chimney. It also installed an underground drainage system throughout the property. The landscape renovation included the return of a fountain and pond in front of the main house.