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Frank Lloyd Wright, quirky genius

© By Geoff Dale
  It was a relentlessly dreary Sunday Buffalo afternoon with no hint of impending sunlight; the silence of the day was interrupted sporadically by the sounds of showers incessantly pounding the busy Jewett Parkway. Yet, weather wasn't part of the enjoyment equation. We were indoors - dry, comfortable, oblivious to the grey outdoors -captivated by architectural gems comprising the Darwin D. Martin House Complex - a multi-structured work created in 1904-05 by the visionary Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), considered to be America's greatest architect.
     Since 1992, the Complex has been lovingly restored by the not-for-profit Martin House Restoration Corporation (MHRC) - a process that continues to draw both financial backing and attention from curiosity seekers on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.
     However educational the exercise may have seemed initially, it took only moments before it became clear this was more like a personalized trek into a bygone era - back to a time when Wright's celebrated genius transcended the drawings that graced his drafting table.
     As our tour group took a perfunctory pause in the 100-foot long pergola - a shaded passageway of pillars linking the 10,000 square-foot main Martin house to the normally sun-lit interior garden in the conservatory - we glimpsed a replica of the Nike of Samothrace (the Greek goddess of victory) - one of the prominent symbols of the Martin estate demolished in the 1960s but restored in 2007.


     Our genial docent (tour guide) Michael Thorp - a retired police officer with more than 30 years on the force - eagerly brought history back to life for us. Peppering us with little-known historical facts about the Buffalo of more than a century ago, spiced up by insights into Wright's often quirky personality, he regaled us with tales of the architect's fascination with the four elements of nature - earth, wind, fire and water - and their importance to his architectural vision.
     We were transformed into time travelers privy to Wright's eccentric genius and the home he designed for his friend and of-time benefactor Darwin D. Martin (1865-1935), a self-made millionaire and executive of the Larkin Soap Company. Wandering about the property - through the pergola, conservatory, carriage house and Gardener's cottage - we were mesmerized by the low hip roofs, prominent foundations anchoring the house to the site, the organic application of materials and horizontal bands of windows adorned with art glass.


     A prime example of Wright's Prairie House design, the complex is characterized by rectilinear, horizontally-oriented structures linked by crossing axes and woven into their site. It's an eye-catching marriage of nature and architectural design - a unique union that set Wright apart from his contemporaries.
     Thorp explained how Buffalo was and - to a large degree - still is central to the life and times of the acclaimed but quite eccentric architect. From 1927-1949, a then-bustling Buffalo was second to only Chicago in terms of showcasing Wrightian buildings - structures designed by Wright, like the 28,000 square foot Darwin D. Martin House Complex. "The goal of the restoration," he told us. "Is to bring the complex back to its condition of 1907 - considered "the year of significance". The project is currently in phase four, which includes restoration of various masonry elements on the exterior envelope of the Martin house and reversal of changes to exterior walls made in 1920."
     Embracing his tour duties with a sense of passion for the project, he offered a liberal sprinkling of personal humour along the way. "You know, the Martins' chauffeur was William Thorpe," he said. "But his name was with an e. So I'm just one letter away from that historic connection." Applauding his efforts at both entertaining and educating us, we hit the road in search of the Martin's three-building Graycliff Estate - about 40 kilometres south of Buffalo's downtown core in Derby, set high on a bluff overlooking large stretches of Lake Ontario with much of Canada in clear view.


     The complex - also being restored - was the summer retreat for Isabelle R. Martin - a more modern design conceived in an organic architectural style. Again Wright, who had final stay over all his creations, insisted the project, would be constructed in stone - which he considered to be the only true building material.
     Our docent for the second journey of the day, Dick Hiestand outlined in great detail how Wright ensured the experience of nature was felt within and throughout the complex. "In terms of demands, he could be quite a horrid man, you know," he said. "But he was a true genius and a very fascinating, talented man. This magnificent complex demonstrates that genius."
     Nearly two hours later, I paused briefly to reflect on our afternoon excursion into the world of Frank Lloyd Wright and began to re-assess my view of Buffalo. Hockey's Sabres, football's Bills and the culinary delights of those world-famous wings that test even the most durable of stomach linings may still be crowd pleasers. But add to my personal list of reasons to return to Buffalo, the quirky genius of Frank Lloyd Wright and his fascinating historic link to New York States' second largest city. Even on a cloudy rainy day.

Geoff Dale is a freelance business/travel/agricultural and entertainment writer & photographer based in Woodstock, Ontario. He is a regular contributor to a variety of media outlets including The London Free Press and Better Farming and writes profiles on Newfoundlanders for the Transcontinental Media chain in St. John's and Grand Falls-Windsor in Newfoundland.

Photo Credits
Exterior photos by Geoff Dale
Interior photos (circa 1907) courtesy of the Martin House Restoration Corporation - The University Archives, State University of New York at Buffalo.

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