Friday, October 31, 2008


Being the second in a series of postings on missing artifacts from Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House complex [not the hapless passengers of Oceanic Flight 815].

The idea: I feature an item sold, lost or stolen from the Martin House (at some point in its past), and you, sleuths and Wright aficionados that you are, r
espond to let us know if you have any information on the whereabouts of such items.

This week: Martin House sconces

Frank Lloyd Wright designed custom light fixtures for the Martin House, comprised of a glass globe suspended in an intricate, bronze bracket. Dozens of these fixtures were specified, fabricated and installed in the Martin House, c. 1905. The sconces came in two major types: "short stem" and "long stem" variations. The "short stem" sconces were installed on walls and possibly in a few outdoor locations, while pairs of "long stem" sconces emanated from each side of the pier clusters (see detail of the Fuermann photo above).

With so many of these sconces originally in the Martin House, it's curious that so few of them have come to light. Only two have made their way back to the Martin House collection, and two others have appeared on the auction block in recent years. These fixtures were certainly among the most easily removed parts of the house, but their scarcity today begs the question of whether there may be a large repository of them somewhere in the world, or whether they are rusting in attics and basements in Buffalo, Chicago or Wasilla.

Who knows? - maybe some of them were scrapped for the War effort in the forties, or melted down and recast into equestrian sculpture or Olympic medals.

If you can help prove or refute any of these fanciful theories, please contact us!

Dorothy's 1913 Masquerade

The Seminaria, vol. X (June, 1914), yearbook of the prestigious Buffalo Seminary, includes a story on the annual "Hallowe'en Masquerade" of the previous October 31. Included in the photo layout is one "canny Scothm[a]n," a.k.a. Dorothy R. Martin (in upper left). The following excerpt from the text describes the array of disguises donned at Dorothy's alma mater that year:

And the costumes - the very soul of the masquerade - why, they spelled wit and imagination, beauty and absurdity, just as in the days gone by. They delighted and convulsed, just as they will in the days to come. There were beggars and blind men gaily chatting with elegant couriers and jesters, all faithfully protected and attended by more than one gallant middy and impudent little clown. Gentlefolk of two and three generations ago were present in magnificent attire to wonder at the pranks of Miss Twentieth Century. There were nurses, to heal; and Gold Dust Twins, to cleanse; there were convicts , to avoid; and a messenger boy, to abuse. There were Teddy Bears, to growl; and a wondrous giraffe to over-top them; there was a bride to glitter, and a groom to be congratulated. There were ravens to bill and coo right in the faces of canny Scotchmen...

An evocative account of the days before Halloween costumes were overrun by mass media icons. Please consider rewarding anyone coming to your door tonight in a homemade costume with an extra piece of candy!

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Roots of the "Tree of Life"

Many in the "Martin House community" are well aware that the famed "Tree of Life" art glass design bears a popular name, one not given by Frank Lloyd Wright or Darwin D. Martin. The term first appears in print around 1968, coinciding with a major exhibition and sale of art glass from the Martin House complex through the Richard Feigen gallery, New York (1968-70). The Feigen gallery bought a number of pieces of Martin House art glass (including one or more "Tree of Life" windows) from John Crosby Freeman, then Curator of the nascent Maltwood Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia, Victoria, BC. Freeman had the enviable task of assembling an "Arts and Crafts" collection for the Maltwood, and had obtained 21 pieces of Martin House art glass from a dealer who most likely acquired them from Darwin R. Martin.

As to the burning question of the origin of the "Tree of Life" term (alternately written "tree-of-life"), Freeman has stated that he thinks the Feigen gallery may have come up with the name as a marketing device - a way to boost sales of the Martin glass by applying an evocative, romantic name. We may never know exactly when the term was first applied, or by whom, but one thing is clear: it stuck. The "Tree of Life" window soon became one of the most iconic of Wright's Prairie house art glass designs, and this "brand" has been sought by major collections of decorative and fine arts world-wide. Via Freeman and Feigen, "Tree of LIfe" windows and doors have made their way to the following collections:
  • The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA
  • The Grey Art Gallery, New York University
  • The De Young Museum (San Francisco Art Museums), San Francisco
  • The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY
  • The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
  • The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo
  • The National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (a modified window)

among others...

With ongoing recovery efforts by the MHRC's Artifacts Research and Recovery committee, we hope that some of these "trees" may some day be returned to their original "grove" at Jewett
Parkway and Summit Avenue.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

History Repeats Itself

In discussing turn-of-the-twentieth-century economic and social conditions, architectural historian Robert Twombley observes:

Few individuals could count on uninterrupted upward mobility, permanent employment or a happy future for their children. Even the upper middle class, especially people like Wright's clients who did not possess inherited wealth, faced the specter of possible downward mobility.
(Robert C. Twombley, "Saving the Family: Middle Class Attraction to Wright's Prairie House, 1901-1909." American Quarterly, vol. XXVII #1, March 1975, p. 59).

Sound familiar?


Being the first in a series of postings on missing Martin House artifacts [not the hapless passengers of Oceanic Flight 815].

The idea is simple: I feature an item sold, lost or stolen from the Martin House (at some point in its past), and you, dear readers, respond to let us k
now if you have any information on the whereabouts of such items.

No questions asked.

We're interested in identifying and recovering lost pieces of the Martin House, not in pointing fingers.

Maybe you've seen some of these items in local antiques shops, or Grandma's attic, or your living room... maybe you know someone who knows someone whose brother has one of these items.

This week: Tiffany floor lamps

Four floor lamps by Louis Comfort Tiffany with glass shades once graced the Martin House. Some of them appear in a series of family photos taken in 1912. Sadly, all four lamps walked out of the Martin House in January, 1980, when a number of original furnishings were in the historic spaces with little security.

The saving grace may be that various models of Tiffany lamps very similar to these are frequently available on the market - so replacing the Martin lamps with similar pieces is feasible.

We would prefer, however, to track down the originals - and perhaps you can help.

If you have any information as to the disposition of these four lamps, please post a comment, or, alternately, send an email to, or call (716) 856-3858.

Greatbatch Pavilion Takes Shape

Photos courtesy of Bernhard Wagner, fotoGrafix

That amazing structure emerging from the western side of the Martin House site is the Toshiko Mori-designed Eleanor and Wilson Greatbatch Pavilion, visitor center for the Martin House complex. Slated for substantial completion by the end of 2008, the building is well under way, with foundations, structural steel and dramatically cantilevered roof already in place. Contractors are currently preparing to install large, tripl
e-glazed sections of the building's curtain wall to complete the enclosure. When complete, the pavilion will form a platform for sweeping, horizontal views of the Martin House complex, and a multi-use space for visitor reception, orientation and special programming.

The powerful structure of the building is already evident, demonstrating Mori's great sensitivity to the tenets of Wright's Prairie design
s: prominent, sheltering roofs, cantilevers that visually gather outdoor space into the composition, dematerialized walls that foster a connection between site and enclosure, and an open interior plan that promotes a profound freedom of movement and interaction within the building.

Toshiko Mori will speak on "The Integration of Architecture and
Engineering in the Eleanor and Wilson Greatbatch Pavilion," in a panel discussion with three of the project's engineering consultants - Dmitri Jajich of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Paul Kreitler of Landmark Facilities Group, and Bruce Nichol of Front, Inc. - at the Albright Knox Art Gallery Auditorium, Wednesday, October 22, 8:00 p.m. Doors open at 7:45. The event is co-sponsored by the UB School of Architecture and Planning. Admission is free, but seating is limited. Call the MHRC at (716) 856-3858 for more information.

Fall "Homecoming"

Last weekend saw a family reunion at the corner of Jewett and Summit -a gathering of descendants of William Martin: brother to Darwin D. Martin and Wright client in his own right. Gathering in Parkside from various corners of the nation were five of William's grandchildren, numerous great-grandchildren, great great-grandchildren and spouses. Many had not visited the Martin House before, and the enthusiasm for family history and ties to Wright was in the air. MHRC Executive Director Mary Roberts and Senior Martin House Curator Jack Quinan led an in-depth tour of the complex, followed by lunch at the Gardener's cottage.

William's grandchildren plan to endow the reproduction of a "Tree of Life" window in honor of the family and William's important role in the Wright-Martin relationship. Our thanks to the family for this wonderful gesture.

Toward the end of the tour, it occurred to me that, with this reunion and many recent visits from other Martin relatives, Darwin Martin's dream of reuniting his family was coming to pass in an unexpected way. It may have been a century late, but I think DDM would have been pleased.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

American Bungalow Article Profiles Reception Room

The fall issue of American Bungalow magazine (available in the Wisteria Shop) contains an article by yours truly - with the invaluable assistance of colleague Lesley Neufeld - entitled "The Music of Their Lives: Remembering the Darwin D. Martin House." The article profiles the Martin House reception room as the center of harmonious domestic life fostered by the House's design, building on Wright's own metaphor of the "domestic symphony."

Editorial note for our learned Martin House Docents and volunteers: if you notice some factual errors in text or captions, they are just that, and unintentional. My apologies to all those readers who will no doubt notice these errors immediately.

Lambri's Slices of Art Glass on View at the Albright-Knox

Captivating, minimalist photographs by Italian photographer Luisa Lambri are now on view at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, part of the REMIX exhibition "Inner Space: Photography from the Collection" (in the Link gallery, through 1/4/09). Lambri's Untitled (Darwin D. Martin House) images (#04 shown at left), taken in the master bedroom of the house in the Spring of 2007, show the "slot" art glass windows in the space literally in a whole new light. The glowing bar of art glass slices through the darkness of the room like a miraculous, liminal parting of heavy curtains of masonry. Many of Lambri's images of architectural interiors feature windows, which seem to become luminous apertures in the plane of the photograph itself. At the same time, they are meditative essays on the nature of enclosed space. As Brian Sholis put it in Artforum, "Lambri's idiosyncratic documents, often depicting individual windows or glass curtain walls, are more somatic than panoramic, attending closely to the phenomenology of the built environment." (Artforum, Summer 2006, pp. 352-353). Viewing Lambri's work at the Albright-Knox is sure to enhance anyone's perception of Wright's equally idiosyncratic windows in the Martin House master bedroom.