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Travel WNY: Tour Wright’s Darwin Martin House

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By Mary Heyl

Considered the greatest American architect of all time, Frank Lloyd Wright forever changed the face of architecture through his thousands of structures that were designed to be in harmony with nature. Today, Wright’s fingerprints can be seen throughout the United States and Europe in his many designs of the 20th century, which include schools, hotels, museums, office buildings, and private homes. A short drive from Springville, Wright’s Darwin Martin House in Buffalo is considered by many, including Wright himself, to be one of his finest Prairie Houses and is a must-see for all fans of Wright’s work.

Born in 1867, Wright championed the principles of organic architecture, which became most popular in the early 20th century. Wright appreciated the natural beauty of his surroundings and envisioned buildings that existed in harmony with nature. For example, Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater, outside of Pittsburgh, is a paragon of Wright’s seamless integration of structure with nature. Through carefully designed cantilevers, balconies, and natural materials like locally quarried stone walls, Wright built the iconic home over a waterfall on Bear Run.

Prior to gaining international attention with Fallingwater in the 1930s, Wright made a name for himself as an architect of the Prairie Movement in the early 20th century. Wright’s signature style emphasizes flat roofs, overhanging eaves, and other horizontal lines, including window groupings, reminiscent of the American prairie landscape. Between 1903 and 1905, Wright designed a large residential complex for Darwin D. Martin, a wealthy Buffalo businessman who would later commission Wright to design his family’s summer home, Graycliff, in nearby Derby.

The Martin House Complex is considered the largest and most highly developed of Wright’s Prairie houses in the Eastern U.S., and it’s not hard to see why. The complex includes five buildings totaling almost 30,000 square feet: the Darwin D. Martin House, which occupies almost 15,000 square feet, the Pergola, the Conservatory, the Carriage House/Stable, and the George Barton House, which was built for Martin’s sister and brother-in-law. After 1907, the Gardener’s cottage and the Greatbatch Pavilion were added to the estate.

The house is known for its unusually large size and open floor plan, although it has Wright’s signature overhanging eaves and horizontal rows of windows. In addition to designing the estate, Wright also designed over 50 pieces of furniture for the home—the largest amount designed during his Prairie period. Visitors can see his quarter-sawn oak tables, built-in cabinetry, and famous barrel chair, a design which he would later use in other projects. The Martin House Complex also contains 394 Wright-designed panels of art glass used in windows, doors, skylights, and more, including his best-known piece, the “Tree of Life” window.

Sadly, the Martin House Complex has not always been as well-cared for as it is today. After Martin’s death in 1935, his family abandoned the property and it remained vacant until 1954. In 1962, the pergola, carriage house and conservatory were demolished. Five years later, the home was purchased by SUNY Buffalo for use as the president’s residence, and in 1975, the home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1992, the Martin House Restoration Corporation was formed and the Barton House was acquired by SUNY Buffalo in 1994. Since then, the complex has been continually restored and all demolished buildings have been rebuilt, thanks to the hard work of the MHRC.

Although a drive past the Martin House Complex at 125 Jewett Parkway is sure to impress, a guided tour is a must to see the interior of the house. Different docent-led tours are scheduled year ‘round and include a one-hour tour, a two-hour tour and an all-day tour that takes visitors to different Wright-designed buildings throughout Buffalo. To view the available tours and get tickets, visit www.darwinmartinhouse.org. It is strongly recommended that tickets be purchased in advance to guarantee your entry into the home. Do keep in mind that not all areas of the home are wheelchair accessible and that visitors can expect a considerable amount of walking and standing on their tour.

The Martin House Complex is a great place to visit with the whole family, especially as the gardens begin to blossom this spring. On Saturday, April 1, the Martin House will be hosting “Architecture in Nature,” a Make and Take Workshop from 10:30 a.m. to noon. This event, which is for children ages five through 12, is just $10 and teaches children the importance of bees in nature by making a bee house and planting a pot of seeds that bees will love!

Stay up to date on Martin House Complex events and photos on their website and by following the Darwin Martin House on Facebook.

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