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Tuesday, August 29, 2006


I made two trips to Buffalo in all with my neighbour. The first trip was an overview of the city, which improved my opinion somewhat from my original take that Buffalo was a city in severe industrial decline. There are plenty of signs of life, all of them associated with the local universities.
My second trip enabled me to take a special nighttime tour of an early Wright masterpiece, the Darwin-Martin compound.

Darwin Martin was an executive at the Larkin Soap corporation, and strange as this may seem to this century's ears, he made a considerable fortune selling soap mail-order. The concept of the coupon, the premium, and the 'sampler' were all invented by Martin's brilliant colleague Elbert Hubbard. When Hubbard quit Larkin to create the Roycroft, his friend Darwin Martin inherited his job and as mentioned before, made a killing in soap.
Wright was recommended to Martin and they tried him out first by having him design the Barton House for Martin's sister and brother in law. Before it was done Wright was building a mansion, a carriage house, a pergola, a gardener's house, and a conservatory for Darwin Martin. The whole compound connected to the Barton House via the pergola but words don't do it justice. The place was a true palace, built for a merchant prince, and it looked it.

Now I've never been a fan of Wright's Guggenheim Museum design. It's impractical, doesn't allow the art to be seen, doesn't allow most of it to be displayed, and is difficult to walk around. But his Prairie Style houses are divine.
Darwin Martin lost his fortune in the Depression and his widow abandoned the place just like that during the Depression. It was purchased by another architecht in the 1950s which probably saved most of it, but many of the buildings came down.
The Martin House is being restored in a unique fashion; since the Pergola and carriage house and other buildings are now being reconstructed from Wright's original plans. And they have gone a long way in a short period of time.
The Carriage House and Pergola are already rebuilt though the interiors are being worked on. After the structures are up, the next stage in the restoration is the interior of the old house. New foundations were put in in 2003.

Wright was asked to give the house 'a basement'. He created a ballroom with an amazing sunburst fireplace that originally had bronze dust in the grout to make the 'sun' flicker as the fire burned. I put my hand on this fireplace (not restored yet.)

The details in the house are also terrific--Wright built special birdhouses for 'marten's as a pun on his client's name. These were moved in the Fifties when the back buildings were demolished and at present they stand in front of the house--but not for long. Soon they will be put back where they belong.

The irony is that no martens or bird of any kind appear to have lived in the houses, which would be too warm for them. But what a design!

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