Alec Frazier in front of the Darwin D. Martin House
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) designed a unique residential complex for wealthy Buffalo businessman Darwin D. Martin and his family between 1903-1905. The most substantial and highly developed of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie houses in the Eastern United States, The Darwin D. Martin House received National Historic Landmark status in 1986. The house is considered by leading Frank Lloyd Wright scholars as one of Wright’s finest achievements of the Prairie period and, indeed, of his entire career.
The complex consists of six interconnected buildings on the estate: the main Martin House, the Barton House (built for Martin’s sister, Delta, and her husband, George), the Gardener’s Cottage, a two-story Carriage House containing a garage and a stable, a Greenhouse, and a Conservatory connected to the Martin House by a long Pergola. The landscape design for the grounds of the complex is highly integrated with the overall composition of buildings. This is where Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style reached its fullest expression with the full range of examples of housing in the Prairie mode being represented—from a large, highly detailed house for the affluent (the Martin House), to a smaller middle class home (the Barton House), to a simple, servant’s cottage (the Gardener’s Cottage).
The Martin House is a prime example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie House ideal, with strong horizontal lines and planes, deeply overhanging eaves, a central hearth, prominent foundation, and a sheltering, cantilevered roof. The complex contains 394 examples of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed art glass, including the famed “Tree of Life” window.
Over the decades, the Martin House Complex suffered considerable damage and three of the original five buildings were demolished. In 1992, the Martin House Restoration Corporation (MHRC) was formed to raise funds for and oversee a complete restoration of the complex. Extensive reconstruction and restoration efforts began in 1997 and are ongoing today. In 2009, the MHRC opened the Eleanor and Wilson Greatbatch Pavilion, a visitor welcome and interpretive center designed by Toshiko Mori Architect.
Darwin D. Martin
Darwin Denice (pronounced de NICE) Martin was born in Bouckville, New York in 1865. Following the tragic death of his mother in 1871, he endured a lonely childhood, finally going to work at the age of 13 as a “soap slinger” for the Larkin Company. It was this separation from his mother and siblings that determined his goal to build a complex of houses where his remaining family might reassemble.
Darwin was the only high-ranking executive in the Larkin Soap Company who was not related in any way to the Larkin family. He had been with the company since 1879, when Larkin trained the 13-year-old to be the company’s first bookkeeper. His success came as the result of hard work and his invention of a card file system of accounting which revolutionized the business.
William Heath, John Larkin’s brother-in-law brought from Chicago to head up the company law division, is the person who told Darwin Martin about Frank Lloyd Wright and encouraged Darwin to seek out Wright’s work in Oak Park. Heath had a brother working construction for Wright in Oak Park.
Darwin Martin convinced his brother, William Martin, who wanted to build a new house on the lake shore in Chicago, to go with him to Oak Park to see the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1902, William commissioned Wright to design a house for his family in Oak Park.
Martin brought Wright to Buffalo in November 1902 to look at a lot on Oakland Place that Martin owned. Wright convinced Martin to purchase the property at Jewett and Summit and the Barton House was started.
The decision to build a new Larkin Co. administration building was first made in 1902. John Larkin was interested in Louis Sullivan as the architect. Martin was instrumental in getting Wright the Larkin commission, as well.
Still another Larkin Company top manager, Walter V. Davidson, decided to have a home at 57 Tillinghast Place done by Wright in 1908.
Completing Wright’s architectural contributions to the Buffalo landscape was the summer house, Graycliff, that he designed for Darwin Martin at Derby on the south shore of Lake Erie in 1927.
The complex of buildings that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Darwin D. Martin (who was living at 151 Summit—the Barton House is located at 118 Summit) consisted of a main house and four outlying buildings, which were unified by Wright’s rigorous and consistent use of cruciform plans, piers and cantilevers, and other prairie house principles. The five buildings:
- The Martin House
- The Barton House
- Carriage house (demolished, but reconstructed by the Martin House Restoration Corporation)
- Conservatory (demolished, but reconstructed by the Martin House Restoration Corporation)
- Pergola (demolished, but reconstructed by the Martin House Restoration Corporation)
The Martins employed a full-time gardener who had to provide fresh flowers daily from the greenhouse behind the gardener’s cottage for every room in the main house, a task which he assiduously accomplished until his employer died in 1935. Martin had Wright design a house for him at 285 Woodward Ave.
The Darwin Martin House
The Darwin Martin House
- Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright
- Style: Prairie house
- Built: 1904-06
- Contractor: O. S. Lang
- Plumbing and heating system: Foster and Glidden
- Masonry: Pierson, Sefton Co., Jersey City, NJ. During construction, fifty men worked ten hours, six days per week for two years. They were paid $2 per day.
- Glassmaker: the company responsible for all of the art glass windows is the Linden Glass Company, Chicago, IL. (Replacement windows have been made the Oakbrook Esser Studio in Oconomowac. WI)
- Status: National Register of Historic Places
- Official Martin Complex Home Page: http://www.darwinmartinhouse.org/
Built between 1904 & 1905 the Martin House is distinguished from Wright’s other prairie style houses by its unusually large size and open plan, and is one of the largest built. Martin had imposed no budget and Wright is believed to have spent close to $300,000. By comparison Martin’s brother’s house was in the vicinity of $5000, and the Ladies’ Home Journal design quoted at $7000. On the ground floor a library, dining room, and living room all open into each other, with the dining room continuing out to a large covered porch. The porch at the east end is balanced by the porte-cochere at the opposite end. On the second floor there are eight bedrooms, four bathrooms, and a sewing room. The Martin House is located at the south end of the complex, at 125 Jewett Parkway, Buffalo.
Piers and walls of thin Roman brick with deeply raked horizontal joints combine with generous concrete copings and cantilevered roof sections to harmonize building with site. Large, shallow urns set upon terrace walls, designed to overflow with verdure, form a transition from the natural world outside and the architectonic realm of the building itself.
Wright, as was his preference, also designed the furniture for the Martin House and specified its positioning. The interior, with furniture as an integral part, constituted a fully developed formal composition. Despite its rectilinear severity, Wright’s furniture has subtleties of design which bear close inspection. It is possible, for instance, to find relationship between individual tables and certain elevations of the house Wright’s furniture, scaled as it is to the architecture rather than the human body, can be uncomfortable. By the same token, it is best appreciated in situ, rather than in a museum or house for which it was not intended.
If the house is relentless in the use of straight lines and right angles, it is relieved by the occasion curve of an arched fireplace, circular table top, and the magnificent patterning and iridescent cent color of the art glass windows. A significant cant number of the original windows and pieces of furniture remain.
The building complex was completed in 1906 for Darwin D. Martin, a director of the Larkin Company, a large Buffalo soap and mail order business. As originally conceived the compound encompassed the smaller George Barton house at 118 Summit Avenue, a conservatory joined to the main house by a long pergola (an enclosed walkway), a garage and stable with an apartment for the chauffeur, a greenhouse, and a gardener’s cottage at 285 Woodward Avenue (The extensive landscaping was designed by Walter Burley Griffin, who later planned Canberra, the Australian capital)
The Martin family lived in the house until 1937. The house was then vacant for the better part of two decades The pergola, garage and stable, conservatory, and greenhouse were demolished in the mid 1950s after a the long period of vacancy and neglect. A restoration of the main house is planned.
Today, after periods of neglect and vandalism, the Martin house is partially restored, although the conservatory, pergola, and carriage house have been demolished. In 1954, the Martin house was subdivided into two apartments and an owner’s residence, and so remained until its purchase in 1966 by the State University of New York at Buffalo. It has served as the residence for the university president, as well as headquarters for the Alumni Association and the repository for the university archives.
Today the Martin House Restoration Corporation is bringing the Martin House complex back to its former magnificence in the most ambitious restoration of a Frank Lloyd Wright site ever undertaken. Three of the original elements—the pergola, conservatory and carriage house, which were demolished decades ago, are rebuilt in the first-ever reconstruction of Wright buildings. The historic site is operated as a house museum and will remain open for tours throughout the restoration.
Typical Prairie Style features on the Martin House:
- Two stories
- Exterior: One-story wings or porches
- Exterior: Eaves, cornices, and facade emphasizing horizontal lines
- Exterior: Built-in planter box
- Porch: Massive, square porch supports
- Porch: deep, horizontal
- Porch: hipped-roof
- Roof: Widely overhanging eaves with enclosed rafters
- Roof: Wide soffit under projecting eaves
- Roof: Hipped usually
- Roof: Low-pitched
- Roof: Clay tiles
- Roof: Broad, flat chimney
- Windows: grouped casements
- Windows: Geometric patterns of small pane window glazing
- Large Suburban Prairie Home: Exterior: buttress piers
- Large Suburban Prairie Home: Exterior: Roman brick
- Large Suburban Prairie Home: Exterior: Pedestal urns
- Large Suburban Prairie Home: Windows: colored glass (“art glass”), leaded (brass on this house) glass
At about 100 ft. (30m) long, the Pergola connects the Martin House to the Conservatory and Carriage House, and provides definitive spatial organization along one of the major axes of Wright’s master plan of interconnected buildings and grounds. It also focuses a dramatic vista from the main entrance of the Martin House to the Conservatory with its cast of the Nike of Samothrace. The vista—and the building’s open sides—breaks down traditional definitions of indoor versus outdoor space.
Although an earlier design gave the Pergola 14 bays, it was eventually built with eleven. The original Pergola was demolished in 1962, and completely reconstructed in phase III of the Martin House restoration project (2004-07). The Pergola is at the center of the complex, running north-south between the Martin House and the Conservatory.
Evolved from the Martins’ request for a greenhouse, the conservatory provides a lush, light-filled indoor sanctuary for the family’s horticultural pursuits. In plan and elevation, the building is an abstracted cathedral, with a pronounced cruciform floor plan and central “nave” with brick piers supporting a metal roof with a large lass skylight. In the altar-like niche at the north, a full-size cast of the Winged Victory or Nike of Samothrace presides over the intricate composition of glass, cypress woodwork, and greenery.
The original conservatory was demolished in 1962, and completely reconstructed in phase III of the Martin House restoration project (2004-07). The Conservatory is at the north end of the complex between the Carriage House and the Barton House.
The Carriage House
The Carriage House
The Carriage House originally served a number of purposes: horse stalls, hay loft, storage for a carriage, storage and service area for a car, apartment for the chauffeur, and storage for boilers for the Martin House heating system. The building’s massing is far from that of an ordinary garage: the highly articulated corners and pier structure echo the design of the main Martin House, as well as that of the Larkin Administration Building (Buffalo, 1904-06, demolished 1950) and Unity Temple (Oak Park, IL, 1905)
The Carriage House was built between 1903 & 1905. The original structure was demolished in 1962, and completely reconstructed in Phase III of the Martin House restoration project (2004-07). The Carriage House is at the north end of the complex, directly north of the Martin House porte-cochere, to the west of the Conservatory.
Despite the wonderful escape the Conservatory provided, the Martins still desired a Greenhouse, so they had one built to the west of the Carriage House entrance.
Although the original Greenhouse was demolished in 1948, its foundations have been delineated for posterity. It has since been rebuilt on a slightly smaller scale immediately to the north of its original location.
The Barton House
The Barton House
The George and Delta Barton House (1903-04) was the first Buffalo commission for Wright, and the first building designed for the estate at the corner of Summit Ave and Jewett Parkway. Based on an earlier Wright house—the 1902 Walser house in Chicago—the Barton House fulfilled Darwin D. Martin’s aspiration to reunite parts of his scattered family, having been built for Darwin Martin’s sister, Delta Martin Barton, whose husband, George, worked for the Larkin Company. It also gave Martin an opportunity to sample the “brand” of Frank Lloyd Wright before committing to the whole complex.
Its low profile reflects the expansiveness of the American prairie. Wright’s use of unadorned natural materials—brick, concrete, and oak—reflected an organic approach.
Wright wrapped a continuous band of windows across the front (and rear) of the house and around the corners of these bedrooms to create an illusion of expansiveness.
The subordinate axis of the house consists of an open porch on the south with an abbreviated kitchen projecting to the north. Although this section contains very little usable living space, its function as a counterpart to the height and mass of the two-story part of the house should not be underestimated. Wright repeatedly experimented with cross-axial plans in order to lower the of his houses and extend them farther into the surrounding landscape.
The room dimensions of the house are small, but the effects of space are maximized throughout the design. The principal living spaces are concentrated in the two-story portion of the house, where the living, dining, and reception areas open freely in to one another as discrete subdivisions of a continuous space. In contrast, the two major bedrooms on the second story are located at the opposite ends of a narrow corridor.
The Gardener’s Cottage
The Gardener’s Cottage
The Gardener’s Cottage is an integral part of the Darwin D. Martin estate complex. The cottage’s plan, a variation of the Arts and Crafts-era Foursquare, is the simplest manifestation of Wright’s spatial experiments of the Prairie period. Such a plan is reflected in later designs such as the Stockman House (Mason City, IA, 1908) and “A Fireproof House for $5,000”.
The gardener of this wood-and stucco cottage was Reuben Polder, who had to provide fresh flowers daily for every room in the main house, a task which he assiduously accomplished until his employer died in 1935.
Frank Lloyd Wright strove to open up the confining “box” of traditional American houses in his prairie house designs, but the Gardener’s Cottage, made of wood and stucco, was so modest in size that a boxy configuration appears to have been inevitable. Nevertheless, Wright managed to create an illusion of the pier and cantilever principle that characterized the Martin House by placing tall rectangular panels (or pseudo-piers) at each corner of the building.
Illusion operates inside the cottage as well. The living room extends across the entire front of the house, gathering light and a sense of spaciousness from a sequence of windows on three sides. A fireplace suggests a fourth wall but allows space to extend deeper into the house on either side.
Discussion of housing for an on-site gardener began between Martin and Wright in 1905, but construction was deferred until 1909. The one-story addition on the east is not original to the cottage—it was added by a previous owner, Greg Kinsman, during an extensive renovation of the building from 1987-92 by the firm of Foit-Albert Associates, P.C. The Gardener’s Cottage is on the west side of the complex, at 285 Woodward Avenue, Buffalo.
The Eleanor and Wilson Greatbatch Pavilion
The Eleanor and Wilson Greatbatch Pavilion
A Low Profile Pavilion
The Eleanor and Wilson Greatbatch Pavilion serves as an orientation and study center for arriving visitors. The underground space, which is off-limits to the public, houses heating, air conditioning, plumbing and power sources.
The interpretive gallery offers a video orientation to visitors prior to their tour of the Martin House complex. There are interpretive exhibits focusing on aspects of the six-building campus that you can’t visualize during your tour, i.e. the structure of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House.
This visitors’ center for the Martin House complex was the winner of a design competition sponsored by the Martin House Restoration Corporation (MHRC). This group selected five emerging architects for the competition, just as Wright himself had been selected by Martin as a promising but essentially untried architect to design his house in the first decade of the 20th century. Like Martin, the committee hoped that by taking this risk, the result would be something important and original. The design challenge was immense: not only to respect the scale of the neighborhood (the prestigious Parkside East community) but to design an original building that was yet respectful of the Wright complex next to it. The winning design is by Toshiko Mori, principal of Toshiko Mori Architect in New York City and former Dean of the Department of Architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design; initial reviews have commented on the elegance and deceptive simplicity of this smallish building (7775 square feet) and its poetic response to Wright’s complex. The openness and connection to the landscape are obvious connections with its predecessor but less obvious is the reverse hip roof, recalling Wright’s typical hip roof with flat roof overhangs, and the fact that the pavilion reflects the spacing of the columns in the pergola opposite it. The differences are also telling. While the buildings in Wright’s complex are imposing masonry buildings, Mori’s pavilion is transparent and glass-walled, integrating the landscape and providing a dramatic view of the Martin complex.
Millard the Buffalo enjoys the Darwin Martin House