BUFFALO, N.Y. – Isabelle Martin walked out the front door of her outlandish Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home toward the end of the Great Depression, never to return.
The widow of Darwin Martin, a longtime Wright patron, had little if any money in 1937 when she left her "weird" house in Buffalo, NY, that was considered an to be eyesore by her neighbors.
“She couldn’t give it away because no one wanted it,” said Margaret P. Stehlik, director of operations for the Martin House Restoration Corp. in Buffalo, N.Y. “It was a very strange building.”
It’s obvious, now, that Martin’s neighbors were clueless about Wright’s genius or how he would later impact America’s concept and appreciation of great architecture.
Today, the house is undergoing the costliest restoration project ever performed on a design by the greatest American architect of the 20th century. The restoration corporation hopes to invest $50 million to transform this house into the best example of Wright’s prairie houses in the nation. It also is seeking to lure tourism dollars to Buffalo, knowing that Wright’s beloved Fallingwater in Faytte County draws more than 140,000 visitors a year.
“When this is done, people are going to say, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Stehlik told a July tour group.
Darwin D. Martin made a fortune as secretary of the Larkin Soap Co., a Buffalo-based powerhouse in the mail-order trade. He also influenced the company to hire Wright in 1904 to design the groundbreaking Larkin Administration Building, a remarkable innovation that had air-conditioning and built-in office furniture. However, the building was razed in 1950.
Recognizing Wright’s gift, Martin also hired the architect in 1904 to build his family a mansion in Buffalo’s tony Parkside district.
The suburb developed alongside a network of lovely parks designed in 1868 by Frederick Law Olmsted, the superintendent of New York’s Central Park who founded America’s landscape movement. Buffalo’s wealthy businessmen were soon attracted to Parkside, where they built pretty Victorian, Queen Anne and Tudor-style houses.
But Wright shunned those construction styles, having considered their sharp rising roof lines as being “fantastic abortions tortured by features,” like large, reaching chimneys that interrupted the sky. Those houses, he believed, lacked individuality.
“A house that has character stands a good chance of growing more valuable as it grows older while a house in the prevailing mode, whatever that mode may be, is soon out of fashion, stale and unprofitable,” Wright wrote in the 1941 book, “Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture.”
Martin, who rose to become one of America’s wealthiest executives of his time, apparently gave Wright an unlimited budget to build the 15,000-square-foot, two-story yellow Roman brick house. It cost him $175,000, excluding the windows and furnishing, an incredible sum of money at the time.
True to Wright’s signature designs, it has long dramatic horizontal lines, a solid base to firmly root it to the ground and a low rising roof with wide cantilevered eaves.
He went as far as to omit gutter downspouts so not to interfere with the horizontal planes, leaving rain water to free-flow to the ground.
Isabelle Martin didn’t always buy into Wright’s ideas, and complained that her house was too dark as she grew older and her eyesight began to fail.
The light danced through 394 art glass windows with sheets of gold sandwiched between two layers of iridescent glass. While Wright did not name the design, it is commonly called the “Tree of Life” and believed to be inspired by the wisteria tree.
A 15,000-piece glass mosaic in a wisteria design surrounded the main walk-around fireplace. Exposed to the elements, it fell to pieces and is expected to be recreated with new, matching glass.
The pergola, which has been rebuilt to its original scope, stretches from the back door and creates a 180-foot-long, straight unobstructed view from the front door to a statue in the new conservatory.
“It’s certainly an unusual way to come into a home, particularly at the turn of the century,” Stehlik said.
The original conservatory, with built-in planters, also was razed after the house was abandoned and left open to vandals for nearly two decades after Isabelle Martin left. Children then played inside and were even known to roller-skate down the long hall.
Eventually, the property was sold to an architect and then to the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1967, which used it for a time as its presidents’ residence. The nonprofit corporation now charged with preserving the house took ownership in 2002.
But by then, the university had already replaced the Wright kitchen and its thick milk glass counters with a 1970s-style canary yellow Formica design.
Piece by piece the house is being returned to its origins, although the heavy kitchen glass is no longer produced. In the meantime, it lacks furnishings and offers tourists a peek into the many challenges these projects encounter. Facing a $13 million shortfall in the money needed to finish the restorations, Stehlik said she doesn’t know when the house at 125 Jewett Parkway will entirely satisfy the many Wright fans who visit.
“When you come back, I think you’ll be dazzled,” she said.