Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, NY.
Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) enthusiasts living in Western Pennsylvania might consider themselves lucky to have two of the architect’s designs here - Kentuck Knob, a good example of his organic design, and Falling Water located near Mill Run, PA, arguably one of his most iconic designs. What many might not know is located within a day’s drive of Pittsburgh is an opportunity to see several more Wright designed projects. One of those homes, Wright’s Darwin D. Martin House, was the focus of an interesting article in Architectural Record Magazine about two years ago spotlighting the completion of the restoration work.
Along with several other projects designed by FLW, the Martin House is located in Buffalo, NY, but has several Pittsburgh connections that will later be explained. As the Architectural Record article points out, the Martin House project is one of the few where not only the existing buildings were restored, but others were reconstructed in their former location from the original plans.
Darwin Martin asked Wright to design a house for his family in the Parkside section of Buffalo, an area that had been planned by Fredrick Law Olmstead. Pittsburghers may recognize Olmsted’s name, as he was responsible for urban design and parks in and around the City of Pittsburgh. The Martin site consisted of about 1.5 acres in a neighborhood of mostly Victorian and Traditional architecture. As a test, prior to designing his home, Martin had Wright design a house for his sister and her husband George Barton. If the result was pleasing, Wright would be given the go ahead to proceed with the main house.
The Barton House was a test case for many of the features that were to be incorporated into the Martin house, on a smaller, less expensive scale. With the Barton house successfully completed in 1905, Wright started on the designs for the rest of the site.
The Martin complex was completed in 1907. Consisting of five linked structures – the interconnected main house, pergola, conservatory, and garage are all part of the complex, while the Barton House is separate from the main house it still is a strong part of the overall design. The interconnected main house is about 15,000 SF; however, the low overhangs and the separation of internal spaces using structural elements rather than walls, makes the house feel smaller and more intimate. The final piece of the site design to complete the “T” configuration was the modest Gardner’s Cottage completed in 1908.
The design of the Martin house was unlike any other in the neighborhood, with deep, low overhanging roof lines, linear bands of casement windows, flat terra cotta roof tiles, elongated Roman bricks with recessed mortar joints, and a strong horizontal emphasis that secured the buildings to the flat site. It is a great example of Wright’s early Prairie School design and provided ground for future work that represent the ideals of his design concepts.
Wright designed all the elements and components of the property, from the exterior garden layout and bird houses, to the interior furniture, artwork, and paint colors. Included in the house were true masterpieces of the time, such as the 400 art glass windows produced from Wright’s design by the Linden Glass Company in Chicago, custom light fixtures produced by W. Lumley in Pittsburgh, and the legendary glass mosaic fireplace designed by Orlando Giannini.
The Martins lived in the house for about thirty years, but during the economic decline in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Martin suffered losses that he would not recover from, and when he died in 1935, the house was left to his wife and son Darwin R. Mrs. Martin lived in the house for two years before Darwin R. moved his mother out of the house and proceeded to strip the building of much of its contents, including furnishings, doors, lights, oak moldings and trim, windows, heating, and plumbing systems for other properties that he owned. This created quite an issue later when attempts were made to restore and reconstruct the buildings.
The building was left vacant, uncared for, and completely open until 1946 when the City of Buffalo acquired it due to back taxes. In addition to damage from water, there was also considerable damage done to the glass mosaic fireplace, moldings and finishes. Much of the window glass was broken, except for the art glass which had been sold or removed. The pergola and conservatory were completely open to the weather, and in 1948, the greenhouse adjacent to the Gardener’s cottage was torn down.
Change in Ownership
In 1952 the City of Buffalo considered demolishing the house to use the site for a future school, but fortunately the deal fell through. In 1954 a local Carnegie Tech Architect in Pittsburgh named Sebastian J. Tauriello was looking for a building he could use to relocate his family and business. Familiar with the history of the Martin House, he purchased the entire complex for $22,000.
Tauriello inquired about obtaining copies of the original construction documents from Wright. Wright offered to sell him copies of the original plans and asked Tauriello to do justice to what Wright referred to as his “opus”. Instead, Tauriello chose to proceed with his own ideas on renovating the house into living quarters for his family, an area for his architectural business, and three apartments. Due to financial issues with the renovations, Tauriello sold off the land occupied by the pergola, carriage house, and conservatory to a developer. In 1960, those structures were torn down. Tauriello provided the designs for the apartment buildings that were constructed on the site in a plain, modernist style that did little to complement the remaining Martin and Barton houses.
Some historians blame Tauriello for some of the damage to the Martin House, while others credit Tauriello with saving the house from complete destruction. Tauriello helped to maintain and preserve the building as much as he could, realizing the cultural value. Tauriello died in 1964, and his family retained ownership of the main house until 1967 when the SUNY Buffalo purchased the remains of the main house for $60,000, using it as the residence for the school president for many years.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, NY.
Interest in Wright designed properties grew over the years. In 1994, the Martin House Restoration Corporation (MHRC) was created to help restore the original house. SUNY Buffalo contributed to the restoration fund, along with many other public and private donors. In 1997, the restoration started in earnest. The City of Buffalo started a major effort to promote tourism, using the Martin House as a significant landmark to highlight the architecture of the city.
I visited the Martin complex for the first time in 2000. At the time, the apartment buildings on the site were still there, looming over the derelict Martin House. Demolition occurred shortly after my visit. The house was fenced in with chain link, but there was evidence that the site would soon be restored to its original condition. Since then, I have been back to the site several times and have witnessed the restoration process. The tours allowed visitors to see some of the spaces under reconstruction, gaining insight into the process.
The team of restoration experts faced several challenges, but the availability of the original construction documents was in their favor. Much of the original detail and trim remained intact, and in the case of the art glass windows, samples of the original patterns were still available. The windows were either purchased back from public and private sources from around the world or were recreated from the original designs. While some original materials were not able to be purchased from the original manufacturers, other manufacturers were able to duplicate the matching materials, such as the roof tiles and the golden tan Roman iron-spot bricks.
The restoration of the Martin house was completed in January 2017 and the Barton house in September of 2018. Tours are available of both. Being a Pittsburgher, it was interesting to learn the role Pittsburgh companies had in the original construction as well as the restoration. The Martin House is truly spectacular, a masterpiece that really needs to be experienced rather than just viewing photos in publications. The trip from Pittsburgh to Buffalo (recommended for the summer months only) is well worth the time and effort.
- Architects: HHL Hamilton Houston and Lownie, Buffalo, NY
- Structural Engineers: Stillman Associates, Buffalo, NY
- Roof Tiles: Karamic Winerger, France
- Art Glass: Oakbrook Esser Studios, Milwaukee, WI
- Brick: Belden Brick Co., Pittsburgh, PA