We left the campground in Niagara early in the morning – we have a long day ahead of us; first we need to cross the border, then get to a 10:00 am house tour in Buffalo, then on to another tour in Rochester, then on to our next campground for the night…
The border was quite busy as we approached; the RV lane was very slow. They eventually opened another lane, and the RVs were cruising through at a fast clip, but we were stuck in our slow lane… Finally we made it to the customs agent. No smiles, no conversation, but easy questions and we were quickly on our way. It had taken almost an hour… But now we were on to Buffalo.
I don’t know what you think about Buffalo, but I didn’t have high expectations. However, the “Parkview” neighborhood we found ourselves in was lovely. There was a huge Olmstead-designed park, and a lovely neighborhood of well-kept houses and tree lined streets. It is about 1 mile from downtown.
Here is the house Frank Lloyd Wright built for Mr. Martin in this neighborhood:
Darwin Martin lived in this neighborhood in a Queen Ann style Victorian house. He was a rags-to-riches story, eventually rising to be a top executive with the Larkin Soap Company. In the early 1900s, the Larkin company needed a new headquarters, and Mr. Martin’s brother lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in Oak Park, IL. He suggested Larkin consider retaining FLW for their headquarters. FLW did not have much of a track record doing commercial buildings on his own, and Larkin was cautious. In the mean time, Martin was looking to build a new house for himself, and he had bought a lot in a prestigious neighborhood on the other side of Buffalo.
When FLW visited Martin, he saw a 1 1/2 acre parcel a few blocks from Martin’s house. He convinced Martin to sell his other lot and buy this parcel. FLW set out to design a family compound for Mr. Martin. The first house to be built was for Martin’s sister and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. Barton. This proved to be successful, and as a result, Larkin retained FLW to design the new Larkins Headquarters. This was FLW’s first substantial commercial commission, and it set the stage for many others. (The Larkin Building was demolished in 1950.)
After the Barton house was complete, the Martin house was built. It is the ultimate FLW “Prairie-style” house, similar to 60 other houses, but one of the first, and one of the largest. These houses are distinguished by horizontal lines: strips of windows, low and wide bricks, broad and low roof eaves, and a sprawling plan – nothing boxy like other houses of the era. (The more famous Robie house in Chicago has many of the same features…)
The Martin House Complex includes the main house, the Barton house, a Conservatory or greenhouse, a Pergola connecting the Conservatory to the main house, a carriage house with servants quarters above (and a steam generating plant below, to heat the complex), and a Gardener’s cottage. Mr. Martin and FLW became best friends, mainly because Martin referred FLW to other commissions, and helped him financially on many occasions…
The Martins lived in the house from 1905 to the early 1930s. Mr. Martin was pretty much wiped out by the 1929 stock market crash; he only had enough money left to build another FLW-designed summer house on the shores of Lake Erie, about 30 miles away. Mr. Martin died in 1935 and the family abandoned the complex in 1937, with Mrs. Martin moving full time to the summer house. The complex fell into disrepair; in 1946 the City of Buffalo sold the house in a tax foreclosure auction. The Barton house and the Gardener’s cottage were sold off, and eventually the Pergola, the Carriage house, and the Conservatory were demolished and that parcel was sold; apartment buildings were build on the land. Portions of the main house were turned into office space and several apartments.
In 1992 the restoration and rebuilding were begun. The parcels were re-purchased, the apartments were demolished, and the Pergola, the Carriage house, and the Conservatory were rebuilt to exacting standards. The upper floors of the buildings are still undergoing restoration, so we were not able to see them, and interior photos were not allowed.
The main house was quite amazing, considering the kinds of houses wealthy people were building during this era. The floor plan tells you a lot about how different this house was. Note the large kitchen on the main floor (not in the basement), and note the “Great Room” – Dining, Living, and Library combined together and open to each other, yet each well defined by the architecture.
Pictures don’t do the house justice; also, considering that the house has large, low roof overhangs, the facade is almost always in shade.
Horizontal strip windows:
The Pergola and the rear of the house (note the horizontal lines of the bricks and the eaves):
More circles within squares…
The entrance – note the hidden front door…
The Barton house…
The Gardener’s cottage:
The tour was very well done. We were welcomed at the visitor’s center by Frank himself:
Our intentions for the rest of the day were immediately changed; we abandoned the idea of going to Rochester to see George Eastman’s house; instead, we headed west towards Lake Erie to see Greycliff, the Martins’ summer house.
This house is Mrs. Martin’s house. She never liked the main house in Buffalo because her eyesight was poor and the house was dark. This house is very light, with more windows, and with views to the lake. The house has terraces on two sides, overlooking the lake and away from the lake, protected from the lake’s sometimes harsh winds. The upstairs hallways are on the exterior of the house, with strip windows that could be opened on nice days.
The house sits atop a bluff about 65′ above the beach. A stair tower was built to the beach, connected to the bluff by a bridge. The bridge has been removed due to safety concerns, and is being restored. The stair tower is still here, and is structurally sound. They will be reunited soon.
The “see-thru” house…
The lake side of the house:
Frank was here, too:
Mrs. Martin lived here until her death in 1943; the Martins’ daughter and her family lived here as well. The house was sold to a religious order, who kept up the estate until 1997, when it was purchased by the Conservancy and restoration was started. The house is still in pretty bad shape, but all the additions and changes installed by the religious order have been removed.
Again, we really enjoyed our tour here; but we had a long drive ahead. We set out for Canandaigua, a small town south of Rochester, just on the northern edge of the Finger Lake Region of New York.
An enjoyable time was had by all…