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Frank Lloyd Wright and The Martin House

On December 3, 2007
The Darwin Martin House, Frank Lloyd Wright’s first residential commission, is only a short drive from the bed & breakfast where I stayed while visiting Buffalo.  Not simply a single residence, The Martin House Complexconsists of three houses which together make up a kind of living textbook of Wright’s early workings in the Prairie Style homes that for many remain his trademark architecture.  In 1902 Martin, apparently a forward thinking man with a good sense of humor, a forbearing wife and a fortune made working for the Larkin Soap Company, engaged Wright to design a house for his sister and her husband, Delta and George Barton.  This relatively modest – for Wright – home is where the extended two hour tour begins.  (Be sure to make reservations in advance as by the morning of the tour they are generally completely booked.  At the present time the site is not handicapped accessible.)

The Barton House
Interior photography is not permitted anywhere within the complex.

The home contains many signature Wright touches but does not have the more expansive and expensive features that would grace The Martin House itself.  Shortly after the ground was broken on this house, Wright began designing the Larkin Company Administration Building to be built in downtown Buffalo.  Considered by many to be the forerunner of modern commercial architecture, the building sadly – after years of setting empty – was demolished in 1962.

The Darwin Martin House

125 Jewett Parkway
Buffalo, New York  14214

After a trip through the Barton House, our group moved on through the pergola (literally “a room without walls” but in my southern childhood we would have referred to it as a breezeway).  These long hallways giving a view into a far reach of the house or even another building are common to many FLW houses.  There is an absolutely breathtaking hallway in the Ennis Brown house in the Hollywood Hills in California; unfortunately that residence is no longer open to tours.  Purists may find fault with The Martin House pergola as it has been rebuilt – rebuilt to a very exacting standard – but nevertheless rebuilt.  There are a variety of stories as to how the Martin family lost control of the complex – Mr. Martin lost all of his money in the crash; he lost some of it in the Crash and some through the profligate spending of his son; his wife burdened by debt and the death of her husband abandoned the house – but lost it was.  In the years between the time it was lost and then rescued, the grounds were subdivided, some of the buildings torn down and for a while replaced by apartment houses.  So, while in a perfect world all the buildings would be the orginal structures, quite often you make do with what you have and what we have is a rebuilt pergola.  Since it is not in any way represented as the original and it is from detailed drawings and pictures, I find it very helpful in capturing the overall feeling that the complex must have had during the time the Martins lived there.

Just another view, can you have too many?

Just as the pergola has been rebuilt, many of the lead art glass windows inside the home are copies not originals.  Anyone who is at all familiar with FLW – and many who are not – will recognize these windows as bearing the famous Tree of Life design.  Wright did not call them by this name, nor did anyone else closely associated with them, they acquired the name over time and given their beauty and the way in which they seem to pluck some common chord in those who view them, the name seems justified.  As I wrote previously, no pictures can be taken inside the houses (or actually in any area which has a roof) so click on the link at the top of the page to visit The Darwin Martin House website so you can go, “Oh, yeah, those windows.”

I cannot – without running on far beyond what you would read – present the information that our tour guide presented to us.  He was a delightful and knowledgeable man who quite obviously loved these houses.  He told their story with wit and grace and I never felt – as I sometimes do when taking a tour – that he was making some of it up as he went along.  I felt as I travelled through the various houses and outbuildings that I was really getting a glimpse into the family that lived there and I was truly distressed to hear that they lost the home in some distressing fashion in the mid 1930s.  Also, the house itself seemed more accessible than any of the other Wright residences I’ve visited.  Once again though I was struck by the ego and selfishness of the genius who designed so many marvelous buildings and really created an entirely new school of design. Wright called Martin one of his dearest friends and many times while still in the money, Martin underwrote Wright when the architect was in need and yet Martin died penniless with Wright still owing him $50,000.  However, I do not know what FLW’s own financial circumstance was at the time, nor can a person on the outside of relationship ever know what the friendship gave to both of those involved; so I will leave it to the two of them to sort it out in the hereafter, it probably didn’t upset Mr. Martin as much as it upset me.

Above is the complex’s greenhouse – again a recreation of the original – if it looks decidely unWrightlike it’s because it is decidely unWrightlike.  Wright offered to design and build a greenhouse more in keeping with the overall look of the project but Martin told him in a joshing but firm way that he couldn’t afford any more Wright designs and promptly bought one from Sears (or maybe it was K-Mart).

The Gardener’s House
285 Woodward Avenue

The tour ends in the garage/carriage house of the complex but it’s under a roof so you know the drill and besides the third residence included on the tour is really the highlight of the latter portion of the walkabout.  The last home the tour visits is the Gardener’s House which has its back to both the Barton House and the greenhouse.  Despite the fact that it contains none of the features of either the main house or the less decorative Barton House, it is a little gem all on its own.  You could live here quite comfortably and there are probably many tract houses designed with FLW in mind that bear many of these home’s elements.  It does have many of the floorplan elements to be found in the grand Wright residences but it lacks the eaves, art glass and other flourishes of its more expensive bretheren.  The family that owned it and lived in it prior to the house being bought by the Martin House Restoration Corporation (MHRC) did add on a significant portion at the rear of the house –

part of the addition to the Gardener’s House

but they did it with such care that it in no way diminishes the overall look of the home, in fact, for my money it brings a certain working class liveability to the home that may be missing from true, untouched Wright houses.  Ah, what heresy!

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