Martin House Complex
By the turn of the twentieth century, Darwin D. Martin was the second-wealthiest man in Buffalo. He had long been a top-notch salesman for the Larkin Soap Company and had devised an efficient card filing system that simplified billings. He moved up in the Larkin Company administrative hierarchy over the years, becoming one of the highest-paid business executives in the country. Now, he was determined to build a home that befitted his stature in the community.
Martin had met Frank Lloyd Wright while on a visit to his brother in Illinois. Impressed with the architect, he had convinced the Larkin board of directors to commission Wright to design the Larkin Company Administration Building. Martin then asked Wright to design a house for him and his wife, Isabelle.
The structure became part of what is known as the Martin House Complex, the first opportunity for Wright to design, not just one house, but a series of interrelated buildings that fit one with the other. In addition to the main house, the adjacent George Barton House and the Gardener’s Cottage remain today and are undergoing restoration.
The covered pergola, or walkway, that leads from the main house to the gardens has been reconstructed along with a conservatory and a carriage house that served as a chauffer’s residence. Each structure is now part of the regular year-round tours of the Martin House Complex. A newly-designed visitor’s center by architect Toshiko Mori that incorporates some of Wright’s themes will also become part of the complex.
Darwin D. Martin House
The residence that was designed for Darwin and Isabelle Martin, at 125 Jewett Parkway, is considered by many architectural critics to be one of the finest examples of Wright’s "Prairie-style" homes. With its graceful horizontal lines blending into the landscape, it looks as though it could have been designed in 1954, not 1904.
It is said that Wright had a virtually unlimited budget in designing the Martin house. During its construction, fifty men were paid $2 a day and worked ten hours, six days a week for two years. The brick and wood house is enormous - 15,000 square feet-with an open plan that results in a free flow of space between rooms, and from inside to outside. Almost every room looked out onto the gardens and trees on the property.
The main house contains eight bedrooms, a spacious living room that connects to the dining room and to an outside veranda. The inside is notable for its large central fireplaces. The reception room fireplace, for instance, has a tapered arch with a sunburst effect, amplified by gold in the mortar. Rich wood accents remain, as do beautiful stained glass windows, including the famed "Tree of Life" design. It also showcased a statue of Nike, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, a remarkable replica of which has been recently installed.
Wright paid attention to every detail in the house, even down to designing finely crafted furniture such as his "barrel chair," which he would use again decades later in other homes. Martin was an avid collector of books, so Wright designed shelves that took advantage of load-bearing pier clusters and also covered the heating radiators. He created a home office with access off the porte cochere so that Larkin employees could meet with Martin without disturbing the privacy of the main house.
The architect at times chided or overruled his clients when they objected to, or expressed puzzlement about, some aspect of the design. But when it was done, Wright considered the Martin House "a well-nigh perfect composition." For many years after, he kept its site plan pinned to his drafting table for inspiration.
The George Barton House
The story behind the Barton house, 188 Summit Avenue, begins many years before its inception. Darwin Martin and his brother, William, left home at an early age and began selling soap door to door for the Larkin Company. Both became successful businessmen, but Darwin Martin’s unhappy childhood left him with a desire to build a complex of houses where his family might live together.
In 1902, Martin commissioned Wright to design a house for his brother-in-law, George Barton, and his sister, Delta. A floor plan based on an earlier prairie house design from Chicago was selected, and it became the first house to be built in the complex. Smaller than the main house, many consider it to be more charming and livable.
Like the Martin house, it was built on a cruciform floor plan, an architectural style found in Gothic churches, where the building is in the shape of a cross. In the case of the Barton House, the entry way is to the south, the dining room to west, the kitchen to the north, and the living room to the east.
The design gives the feeling of openness, despite the small room sizes. The reception, living and dining room spaces, though still identifiable as individual units, open one into the other. The two bedrooms on the second floor are at the opposite ends of a narrow corridor. Once again, Wright used the technique of going from a low, narrow space, into a wide, brilliantly lit one. Windows are wrapped around the house to create a feeling of spaciousness. The use of brick, concrete and oak makes the house an excellent example of Wright’s use of "organic architecture" in design.
The Gardener’s Cottage
The Martins employed a full-time gardener who was tasked with providing fresh flowers daily from the greenhouse for every room in the main house. Martin had Wright design a house for the gardener in 1908. A charming house that was under private ownership for many years, it has recently been acquired by the Martin House Restoration Corporation.
The house, at 285 Woodward Avenue, made of plaster on wood frame with its signature low roof lines and banks of leaded glass windows, is a sun-splashed gem of interior arts and crafts design, an inviting mix of wood, glass and light that is a pleasure to behold. It, too, will soon be open for tours.
The 100-foot long pergola connected the Martin House to a sun-lit interior garden in the conservatory. Landscape was an integral part of the plans for the complex. The Martin House veranda overlooked what Wright called a "floricycle," a semi-circular garden that was set away from the house, with of a variety of plants for year-round bloom. There were formal gardens, cutting gardens, a reflecting pool and a bed for peonies, Mrs. Martin’s favorite flower. The grounds also included clothesline poles designed by the architect, as well as concrete birdhouses.
Also part of the complex was a carriage house-stable, later used as a garage, with a chauffeur’s quarters above. It also housed the heating system and a generator for electricity. Heat was generated by boilers and then carried by pipes that ran below the pergola to radiators in the house.
Decline and Restoration
A strong friendship developed between Martin and Wright over the years of their association. Martin became the architect’’s prime benefactor, at times bailing him out financially, and he was directly or indirectly responsible for at least 15 of Wright’s buildings and projects.
Darwin Martin’s health began to fail in the late 1920s and when he died in 1935, the house was too much for Mrs. Martin to keep up. She abandoned it in 1938 and moved to an apartment house on West Ferry Street owned by her son. Vandalism and the elements took their toll during the 17 years the property remained vacant. There was talk of demolishing the complex in the 1940s, but somehow it managed to survive until 1955 when it was purchased by an architect, Sebastian Tauriello, who saved the house.
There had been so much damage over the years that, in order to maintain the house, Tauriello sold off the part of the land with the carriage house and greenhouse. They were demolished and replaced by three apartment buildings. These were recently purchased by the restoration corporation, then demolished.
The Barton house was restored in the 1970s by Eric Larrabee and his architect wife, Eleanor. During the 1960s and 1970s ownership of the Martin house went to the State University of New York, first used as the president’s residence then for special University functions. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
In 1989, then-U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Dem-N.Y) proclaimed the Martin House a national treasure and championed its restoration. Renovation of the home began in the 1990s with the formation of the Martin House Restoration Corporation and the start of acquisition of properties once part of the Martin complex.
The Greatbatch Pavilion at the Martin House
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House Complex has truly come into its own as a tourist destination with the opening of architect Toshiko Mori’s brilliant Greatbatch Pavilion. This 8,000 square foot interpretive center provides visitors to Wright’s Prairie Style masterpiece with museum quality exhibits, interactive touch screens, and a state-of-the-art orientation film that artfully and eloquently tell the story of Buffalo businessman Darwin D. Martin and the young man from Chicago who would go on to become the greatest architect of the 20th Century.
But as impressive as the interpretive elements are, it is the unobstructed panorama of the massive Martin House Complex framed in a series of uninterrupted glass panels that holds visitors’ awestruck attention. Toshiko Mori has succeeded in creating a sophisticated counterpoint to Wright’s masterpiece that is both deferential as well as dazzling in its own right. This wedding of innovative architecture separated by more than 100 years offers visitors an unparalleled architectural experience, one with few peers anywhere in the world.
While the final phase of the ongoing restoration of the Martin House interior remains to be completed, there is no need to wait to experience this true American treasure. For information on tours, click here.
We invite you to read The Weekly Wright-up, a blog of insights, observations and “Wright thinking” from the Curator’s corner of the Martin House Restoration Corporation.