One of Buffalo’s architectural treasures, the Larkin Soap Company Administration Building, was lost to the wrecker’s ball more than a half century ago, "an act of destruction," one of Wright’s biographers has written, "subsequently recognized as cultural vandalism." Wright, in his Autobiography called the Larkin Building "the first emphatic protestant in architecture against the tide of meaningless elaboration sweeping the United States." He said the brick and stone structure was "a genuine expression of power directly applied to purpose" that represented "affirmation of the new Order of this Machine Age."
There is no question that the building was one of the finest Wright ever designed. Completed in 1904 at a cost of $4 million, it was constructed of dark red brick, utilizing pink tinted mortar, and it was notable for its block-like vertical structure and large central atrium rising the full height of the building. Side gallery offices were illuminated by the central court and windows between the brick piers. The upper level contained a kitchen, bakery, dining rooms, classrooms, a branch of the Buffalo Public Library and a conservatory.
A roof garden, paved with brick, served as a recreation area for employees, families and guests. The entrances of the building were flanked by two waterfall-like fountains. Above them were bas-reliefs by Richard Bock, a sculptor who worked on other Wright creations. He also designed the globes on the tops of the building’s central exterior piers.
The interior walls were made of cream-colored brick. Wright experimented with magnesite, a mineral used in making bricks and for lining the interiors of chimneys, to make fireproof stairs, doors, window sills, coping, capitals, partitions, desk tops and plumbing slabs. Floors, later said to have been of marble, were actually made from a base of concrete, cushioned with a mixture of wood fiber and magnesite, then covered with sheets of magnesite.
Natural and artificial light was provided by a Wright-designed innovation, hermetically sealed double-paned windows. There were Wright-designed electrical fixtures that enabled the employees to work in comfort at their Wright-designed metal office furniture while breathing air from a Wright-designed "air conditioning" system, another first for a major office building.
One of his innovations was a wall-hung water closet. He said of his creation years later, "It is interesting that I, an architect supposed to be concerned with the aesthetic sense of the building, should have invented the hung wall for the w.c. (easier to clean under), and adopted many other innovations like the glass door, steel furniture, air-conditioning and radiant or ’gravity heat.’ Nearly every technological innovation used today was suggested in the Larkin Building in 1904."
In his Autobiography Wright wrote, "The dignified top-lighted interior created the effect of one great official family at work in day-lit, clean and airy quarters." The building was designed for a work force of 1,800 secretaries, clerks and executives of the flourishing mail-order company. It had to be clean and comfortable to attract women employees to an industrial section of the city.
A noted architectural critic described the central court as having "really monumental scale and even grandeur, not unlike the finest interior courts of certain commercial buildings" of the previous century, although "this grandeur is in no way unsuited to the purposes of the building."
A Wright biographer wrote of the Larkin building, "It was a spectacular concept, handsomely executed, an extraordinary structure," that received international acclaim and was written about in contemporary architectural journals. Wright described his Larkin building as "noble," and added, in response to a critic, "It may lack playful light and shade, but it has strength and dignity and power. It may not be ’Architecture,’ but it has integrity."
Retailing trends resulting in declining sales forced changes in the Larkin operation. In 1939, it was decided to move the Larkin Retail Store from across the street into the administration building where there was more floor space. An extensive renovation was completed that altered the Wright-inspired character of the building, and while company executives said the new store would be one of the most attractive retail establishments in this part of the country, the building’s eventual demise became inevitable.
In 1943, after selling off other Larkin buildings, the administration building was sold to a Pennsylvania contractor who had no plans for it. When the Larkin store lease ran out, the new owner abandoned the building and it was taken over by the city in a 1945 tax foreclosure. Despite a national advertising campaign to try to sell the building, no buyer could be found for the city’s asking price.
While various state and local governmental agencies floated ideas for the building’s use, many of them impractical, its value declined and its deterioration accelerated. In 1941 the globes atop the central exterior piers had been removed amid concerns about structural problems associated with their weight. Now, vandals had begun stripping anything of value. As Larkin historian Jerome Puma wrote, "By October 1947, the building was virtually useless. Every double-paned window was broken, the iron gate had fallen off its rusted hinges, and the iron fence surrounding the building was sacrificed for a wartime scrap collection."
Several proposals to buy the structure were rebuffed as being too far below value. Finally, a local buyer with the intention of tearing down the building took the property off the city’s hands and demolition began in 1950. It took more than four months to take down the building, however, because the floors were built of reinforced concrete and supported by steel beams. It was said that Wright took perverse pleasure in the fact that he had built the Larkin Building so well that it was hard to tear down.10
Thus, an important piece of Buffalo architectural history was lost in less than a half century, a victim of economic times and changing attitudes that favored "new" over what had been, not too long before, revolutionary in concept.
- Ada Louise Huxtable, Frank Lloyd Wright (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 101.
- Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1943), pp. 150-151.
- The description is from Jerome Puma, "The Larkin Building," (1978) which has a lengthier account and pictures of the history of the building from its early days through its demolition; and Iain Thomson, Frank Lloyd Wright: A Visual Encyclopedia (San Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 1999), p. 204.
- Edgar Kaufmann, ed. An American Architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1988; originally published 1955), pp.137-138.
- Wright, Autobiography, p. 151.
- Buffalo Architectural Guidebook Corporation, Buffalo Architecture: A Guide (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981), p. 271.
- Henry Russell Hitchcock, In the Nature of Materials: The Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright 1887-1941 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982; first edition published 1942 by Hawthorn Books), p.51. Illustrations of the Larkin building and its interior appear on pp. 172-175.
- Huxtable, p. 100.
- The quotation comes from a PBS documentary.
- Huxtable, p. 134.