The MHRC was delighted to receive a rare donation of a barrel chair earlier this year from Sandra Maddigan Moore, a Martin House volunteer. Sandra's family was the second owner of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Heath House in Buffalo, and the chair came with the house; it was passed down to Sandra's brother who used it in his home in Maui, Hawaii. Adding another curious twist to this tale, the finish of this barrel chair was "pickled," along with other furniture, cabinetry and millwork, during the Maddigan family's residency in the Heath House (1937 - 1950).
This unusual, milky finish clearly ties the chair to the Heath House during the Maddigan era, but the question remains: was it made for the Heath family or for the Martin family? And how did it make its way to the Heath House in the first place?
The plot thickens with the fact that there's no documentation of barrel chairs being specified for the Heath House. Other Wright-designed furniture, including a dining table and chairs, a sideboard and fireside armchairs are well known, but no barrel chairs appear in the historic photos of the house's interior.
Wright designed and specified six to eight barrel chairs for the Darwin D. Martin House. One is currently in the Martin House collection, one in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and one was tragically stolen from the Martin House in 1990. There are various indications that other Martin House barrel chairs may reside in private collections. But this rough tally still leaves a few of these iconic chairs unaccounted for. Given that the Martin and Heath families were fairly close, it's possible that a barrel chair was "swapped" between them. Perhaps most plausibly, the Maddigan family might have obtained the chair as a period-appropriate furnishing from Darwin R. Martin, when the younger Darwin was acting as executor of his father's estate (c. 1940).
Further examination and research by the expert staff at the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites collections facility at Peeble's Island may shed new light on this odd barrel chair. Until then, join us in a round of applause for Sandra Maddigan Moore, who was instrumental in bringing this important piece back to Western New York. We may not be able to put this piece of the puzzle in place just yet, but at least it's in hand.
Above: the Heath House living room, looking toward dining room, c. 1907