A Visit to the Martin House Complex

A Visit to the Martin House Complex

Submitted by Carolyne Orazi, ASLA

Darwin Martin House

Darwin Martin House

On a recent visit to my family in Buffalo, New York, I discovered a delightful and enlightening tour of the Darwin Martin house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I always knew about the house. I grew up three blocks from it and have fond memories of the picking crabapples from the front lawn of the house but the house sat empty for years. Sadly, no one paid much notice to this gem in the neighborhood until the late 1980’s. In 1992, the Martin House Restoration Corporation began to raise money for reconstruction and restoration. The result is a superb representation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s extraordinary skills and talent.

Darwin D. Martin was a wealthy businessman who made his fortune working at the Larkin Soap Company (1890-1920) which was then the largest mail-ordered soap company in America. At that time, the city of Buffalo became very wealthy through the combined introduction of hydroelectricity and the shipping access provided by the Erie Canal. In fact, from 1860-1910, Buffalo, NY had more resident millionaires than anywhere else in the country.  Many of the city’s wealthy chose the prestigious addresses of Delaware, Bidwell and Lincoln Avenues for their massive family homes.  Martin chose to move to the other side of Delaware Park, to a neighborhood located in North Buffalo.  The park and neighborhood (and much of Buffalo) were laid out and designed by Frederick Law Olmstead.  It was the perfect setting to build a unique residential complex for Martin’s family on Jewett Parkway.

Darwin Martin had brought Frank Lloyd Wright to Buffalo to design the Larkin Administration building and then decided to have Wright design his own home, giving a young Wright his first two important commissions. The Darwin Martin complex consists of five buildings: the main house (Martin), the conservatory, the Barton house, the carriage house, and the gardener’s cottage. The complex is a diverse, but harmonious collection of disparate parts. The landscape design for the grounds is highly integrated with the overall composition of the buildings and the views. A sixth building, designed by Toshiko Mori, was added as a visitor’s center in 2009.

The Barton House, built for Martin’s sister and her husband, was the first building to be constructed. In characteristic Prairie style, the house has strong horizontal lines and extended overhanging eaves. The interior of the house has an open plan and uses thick moldings to define the space and the windows. The moldings or frieze rail are dropped about 30 cm from the ceiling, giving the rooms a cozy, almost claustrophobic feel. Wright was fond of the warmth of autumn colors and instead of the requisite white, he chose dark olive green and burnt orange for the interior walls.

The Martin House was built between 1903-05 and is a massive14,978 square feet. There are eight bedrooms including rooms for staff on the second floor. Wright designed the house using an unusual engineering technique where all the structure’s weight is thrown onto big piers at the corners, like a skyscraper. All the buildings used the brownish-yellow Roman brick on the exteriors.

Martin Complex Conservatory

Martin Complex Conservatory

Wright carefully orchestrated how he wanted his clients to interact with views to the outdoors.  He believed the window’s design and colored glass affected the view.  At the Darwin Martin complex, there are 394 examples of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed art glass, including the famed “Tree of Life” window.  Wright’s meticulous attention to every detail included designing 11separate patterns of stained glass windows, designing furniture, and even designs for the electrical lighting fixtures in the main rooms. The Martin House has more art glass in more patterns than any other house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

View of pergola

View of the Pergola

Typical of his Prairie style houses, the Martin house has two axes (north to south and east-west). The interior pier clusters not only support the floors but also hide the heating elements by enclosing them in wooden panels with window boxes on top. Strong visual lines are used throughout the design. The pier clusters contain casement windows that frame views across the east-west axis from Martin’s office to the house library. The main floor of the house contains a Prairie style essential, the central fireplace, that combines with the radiators to heat the house.  The basement of the house contains an enormous ballroom (currently, closed for restoration).  The basement windows facing the parkway were cleverly hidden by the brickwork, however, Wright compensated for the decreased light by adding neatly hidden skylights in the horizontal ledges.

Restoration work for the complex is ongoing, with many of the pieces being crafted by the Roycrofters in East Aurora, NY. The full tour is 2 hours long but feels much shorter with the knowledgeable docents. You can see a model and virtual tour of the site here and a historical video here. The Darwin D. Martin House received National Historic Landmark status in 1986.


Gardener's cottage

Gardener’s Cottage




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