Buffalo on the Wright track

While some communities struggle to save one or two landmark buildings, the city of Buffalo has summoned the will and the resources to preserve and restore an architectural heritage that has at its heart some of the most important names in early American architecture, including H.H. Richardson, Frederick Law Olmstead, Ereo Saarinen, and Louis Sullivan. But looming largest over this city known for its wings and professional sports teams is arguably America’s greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Restoration work is nearing completion on a masterpiece of Wright’s Prairie Style aesthetic, the 15,000-sq.-ft. Darwin D. Martin House complex (1903-05), which includes reconstruction of three previously demolished structures that were part of Wright’s grand vision for the site.

Wright Redux

Wright designed the Martin House for Darwin D. Martin, an executive for the Larkin Soap Company (Wright aficionados will recognize the Larkin name as Wright’s first commission in Buffalo, which was thanks to Martin, who hired Wright in 1902 to design the company’s administration building). The two became close friends, a relationship that would prove fruitful for Wright, who would design not only the family’s city residence but also its summer retreat at Graycliff.

The Martin complex is quite simply Wright’s most extensive Prairie House ever. Only once in his 72-year career as a practising architect did he have the opportunity to design — as an integrated whole composition — a multi-structure complex interwoven into a richly designed landscape.

The complex 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, such as eaves, cornices, and a faade emphasizing horizontal lines; massive, square porch supports; clay roof tiles and a broad, flat chimney. And of course, his signature art glass windows with abstract geometric patterns of small pane window glazing meant to accentuate one’s viewing of the surrounding landscape.

After Martin’s death, the house was abandoned and suffered significant damage until 1992, when the Martin House Restoration Corporation (MHRC) was formed to oversee a $26 million (all figures U.S.) restoration, including the rebuilding of the lost carriage house, conservatory and deteriorated pergola.

These reconstructions are the first ever for a Wright building, but are not the only developments on the site. Included in the MHRC’s master plan for the National Historic Landmark is a new $9 million visitors centre, being designed by Toshiko Mori, chair of the department of architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

A little west of Buffalo along the shore of Lake Erie, Graycliff, Wright’s last commission in the Buffalo area and the summer home for the Martin family, is undergoing its own restoration. Over the past few decades, the house suffered damage and neglect, much like the Martin House, until the Graycliff Conservancy Inc. was established in 1999 to preserve the estate. After acquiring the site, the group hired Buffalo-based Hamilton, Houston & Lownie Architects (the team also working on the Martin House restoration) and invested $3.2 million in its resurrection.

A complex of three buildings that includes a small Heat Hut, the 3,100-sq.-ft. Foster House and the 6,500-sq.-ft. Isabelle R. Martin House, all set amidst eight and a half acres of landscape also designed by Wright, Graycliff is a continuation of his design sensibilities seen at the Martin House.

The long, low, horizontal lines echo those of the horizon, the surface of the lake and the gray stone of the cliff below. Cantilevered balconies, extensive windows and long stucco walls enhance Wright’s incorporation of the buildings into the landscape, while also accommodating Isabelle Martin’s wish that the house be full of light and air, to compensate for her failing vision.

Expanding the Legacy

During his lifetime, seven Wright-designed buildings were erected in and around the city of Buffalo, an envious concentration of Wrightian structures. Now, almost half a century after his death, the city is returning the favour by constructing two of Wright’s unfinished designs. The first is a $3 million winged Tydol Filling Station being built on the campus of the Buffalo Transportation/Pierce-Arrow Museum, a few blocks from where Wright originally intended it in 1927, at the corner of Michigan and Cherry Streets. The second is a kind of architectural feel-good story we don’t hear of very often.

In 1905, Wright was approached by the son of a close friend to design a boathouse for the rowing crew of the University of Wisconsin. Without a commitment from the university, Wright took on the challenge and, possibly because it started as “something of an amusement,” took his initial ideas for the project beyond the conventions of the Prairie Style he had developed, taking it to the logical conclusion of his abstract style. Maintaining large vertical piers supporting horizontal planes, he abandoned the low-pitched hip or gable roof and used a reinforced concrete flat-slab structure.

The university passed on it, and it remained unbuilt until some Buffalo oarsmen made building it their mission after coming across the plans during a conference of Wright scholars 10 years ago, and retained Anthony Puttnam, a Taliesin architect and Wright apprentice (who is also involved with the filling station project) to make it a reality.

The $5.4 million, 4,800-sq.-ft. new home for the West Side Rowing Club now sits along the Niagara River, at Black Rock Channel, with the Peace Bridge as a backdrop. The two-story structure has quarter-sawn red oak doors and trim and second-floor diamond-paned windows beneath a cantilevered roof. It holds 16 eight-oared racing shells (or some combination of smaller boats) with room for 165 spectators on an upper level balcony.

Wright included his design in the Wasmuth portfolio, published in Berlin in 1910, and a 1930 touring exhibition. Given its sophisticated level of abstraction and lack of ornamentation, the boathouse, along with the now-demolished Larkin Building, represent some of the root structures that gave form to a burgeoning American modern architecture idiom.

As impressive as these efforts are, Buffalo isn’t done yet. The city is engaged in multiple acts of architectural good stewardship. Among them are the city’s iconic — but currently abandoned and isolated behind fencing — Buffalo State Hospital building (1870-1896), designed by H.H. Richardson, which recently received $76 million from the state for the first step in a major restoration plan leading to the complex’s ultimate reuse.

And Buffalo’s glory days as a boom city in the mid-19th century thanks to the Erie Canal, which disgorged millions of immigrants from the east looking for better lives in the mid-west, are being revived thanks to a landmark $50 million project called the Erie Canal Harbor. Twelve and a half waterfront acres surrounding the original terminus of the canal are being excavated and restored, including the notorious Canal District, which was home to sailors, stevedores and the saloonkeepers who served them. The current vision for the site is as a tourism destination with a new maritime interpretive and entertainment centre (Parsons Brinckerhoff for the waterside elements, and Flynn Battaglia Architects, Matthews Neilsen Landscape Architects, John Milner Associates, and C&G Partners for the landside and interpretive elements).

Change is in the grass

Buffalonians have inherited a wealth of striking architecture, but how that happened is somewhat unique. It’s no secret that Buffalo’s economy has been struggling for a long time. However, “this slow economic period reduced the pressure to demolish and rebuild major parts of the city, as in cities that have seen more growth throughout the 20th century,” explains Douglas Swift, principal of Cit
yView Properties. “While we have lost some major buildings due to various urban renewal efforts, we now realize that we are fortunate to have saved dozens of major structures and thousands of smaller but contributing structures that reflect our history.”

Yet to view all this activity as a coordinated preservation effort is imprecise. “These initiatives started as more of a grassroots efforts, more so than the product of some strategic plan for Buffalo,” explains Howard Zemsky, managing partner of Taurus Partners. “Some of the folks who took an interest were influential people such as a bank president, a university president, a newspaper publisher, a foundation head, in addition to the usual suspects of preservationists and academics. A large enough group of people with influence was able to convince some large public entities, for example the county and state governments, to support some of these projects.”

And it certainly helped that progress on some of the more famous projects, while slow, was measurable, starting with Louis Sullivan’s iconic 1896 Guaranty Building in the 1980s (nearly lost to fire but now on its third restoration). Then, of course, there is Wright. “The Darwin Martin House [restoration] was the most ambitious and of course the costliest,” says Zemsky. “Progress on that project, broad support from the community and funders helped fuel interest by others to tackle additional Wright projects.”

One of the people Zemsky describes is Swift himself, whose career in real estate development has given him the opportunity to be a part of several adaptive reuse initiatives involving historic properties, including his current project, the historic Roycroft Campus outside of Buffalo in East Aurora. Once the centre of the American Arts & Crafts Movement, the campus is in the early stages of a major restoration project that will include at least 10 buildings, at a cost of $40 to $50 million.

Of course, all this restoration activity is contributing towards economic development that Buffalo boosters hope will pay large dividends as the cultural tourism industry discovers the city. “If we can change the City’s image through our art, architecture and design then we can start to attract visitors and ultimately new businesses that are interested in our quality of life,” says Swift.

“In an era where most every place looks like every other place, which kind of means they all look like no place, Buffalo still looks unique and historic, and our community recognizes this is important to our future,” says Zemsky. “I have lived here for 25 years and there has never been a period of time where there is a greater interest among our population to preserve and enhance these great assets and to preserve and reuse our seemingly endless inventory of beautiful old buildings.”

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