It was said that Isabelle Martin, the wife of Larkin Soap Company executive Darwin D. Martin, never really liked the house that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for them in Buffalo. Its broad cantilevered eaves made the house too dark for her and, with her eyesight failing, she longed for a home with light.
She asked Wright to design them a house of sunlight that would also admit fresh breezes like those they found when they summered in the Adirondacks in years past. The result was Graycliff, a mid-career example of Wright’s concept of "organic architecture" where barriers are broken between buildings and the outside.
The Graycliff Estate, at 6472 Old Lake Shore Road in Derby, is set on a cliff 65 feet above Lake Erie with sweeping views of Lake Erie and Canada. Graycliff is comprised of three buildings set within eight scenic acres of gardens and grounds, all designed by Wright. The largest building, the two-story, 6,500 square-foot Isabelle R. Martin House served as the Martin summer home from 1927 to the mid-1940’s. The long, low, horizontal lines of the house complement the lake and the cliff strata. It not only captures the warm summer light and the cool lake breezes, but even in the depths of winter is light, inviting and welcoming.
Built between 1926-31, Graycliff is one of Wright’s most significant designs of the 1920s, and shares several innovative architectural elements with Wright’s most famous dwelling, Fallingwater in Pennsylvania (designed a decade later.)
All three Graycliff buildings are constructed of local limestone and feature bold sand-stucco planes with red stained cedar shingle roofs. The most prominent and dramatic design feature of the Isabelle R. Martin House is its transparency—with dramatic site lines through the house itself to the lake beyond. In this, Wright anticipated Philip Johnson’s design of the Glass House in Connecticut by twenty years. Glass doors in the first floor admit the lake breezes, giving the entire house a fresh, open quality. The Isabelle R. Martin House also features a broadly cantilevered, floating second floor, and a majestic balcony to the north that overlooks the sweeping lawns and shore. In line with Wright’s belief that the hearth was the heart of a home, a huge, off-center stone fireplace dominates the living room and is a presence in the dining room, too. Unlike the Buffalo house, with its crafted symmetries and lavish furnishings and windows, Graycliff is light and airy, and in many ways more inviting.
Graycliff is testimony to Wright’s relationship with the Martin family. Darwin D. Martin, who had been a financial patron for years, was instrumental in the architect regaining possession of his Taliesin home and studios in Wisconsin, that had fallen into the hands of creditors. Thus, it is not surprising that Wright made eight or nine visits to the building site as Graycliff was being constructed.
The architect returned in early 1936, after Darwin Martin’s death the previous winter. Presumably, Wright had come to pay his respects to Isabelle Martin, but the house had not yet been opened for the season. Western New York historian John Conlin drew upon the written recollections of Edgar Tafel, one of Wright’s apprentices:
The caretaker let us in. All the furniture was covered with sheets for protection. Mr. Wright led us in, surveyed the main floor, and directed us to take off the covers. He began to rearrange the furniture - beginning, as was his way, with the piano. Next he instructed us to get knives from the kitchen and to cut huge bunches of spring flowers and branches outside in the garden. We filled all the living room vases and pots. Mr. Wright left a note for the Martins, something like this: "Stopped by to visit you, FLW, your architect." 1
To rescue the property, the Graycliff Conservancy, a non-profit organization was established to acquire, restore, and preserve Graycliff. The Conservancy has obtained governmental funds, foundation grants and support from individual contributors to bring Graycliff back to life, authentically restored as Wright designed. Graycliff is now a New York State Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Tours of Graycliff are sponsored by the Conservancy.
Directions from Buffalo: Take the Skyway to Route 5 West. Continue on Route 5 West for approximately 15-20 minutes. Turn right onto Old Lake Shore Rd (at traffic light just past Wanakah.). Continue on Old Lake Shore Rd until you see the brown Graycliff sign on your right.
1 John Conlin, "Graycliff," from Buffalo Spree magazine, September 1997.