Thursday, December 18, 2008

O Christmas Tree

The Weekly Wright-up editorial staff will be taking a Yuletide break starting next Wednesday, but here's a historic holiday treat before we fire-up the sled dogs and head to northern New York, where a broadband connection is as scarce as a chai latte:

University Archives, University at Buffalo

This holiday snapshot, likely taken by Darwin D. Martin, shows the family Christmas tree near the pier cluster at the southeast juncture between living room and library. The tall, slender tree rises above the frieze rails, reaching almost to the common ceiling shared by the unit room spaces.

An array of presents is piled under the tree, including one that appears to be wrapped in a plaid blanket. The tartan of this wrapping provides a coincidental reflection of the "tartan grid" of Wright's plan for the Martin House itself.

Although the photo is undated, another snapshot of the same tree shows family members assembled in front of it; judging by Dorothy Martin's appearance, the photo should be circa 1920.

I hope you enjoy this memento from a bygone Christmas at the Martin House, and best wishes for the Holidays to you and yours!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Beethoven Shtick's Around...

Here's and excerpt from Jack Walsh's (President, MHRC) comments to the Board of Directors yesterday (courtesy of his ghost writer):

As you may know, in his Autobiography, Frank Lloyd Wright described a steady diet of Bach and Beethoven growing up in his parents’ household, and he professed to hear strains of Beethoven in his head as he composed his own masterpieces of architectural space.

Goethe’s comment on his friend Beethoven could easily have been applied to Wright as well: “I can well understand how hard he must find it to adapt himself to the world and its ways.” Both were mavericks who changed the course of their respective arts, and one of many things we have to celebrate about the Martin House complex is how it defied architectural convention at the turn of the twentieth century.

And, in the seasonal, Dickensian tradition of Marley’s Ghost, this reminds me of the old story about the visitor to Beethoven’s mausoleum: upon entering the crypt, the inquisitive visitor was taken aback to find a dusty, disheveled Beethoven sitting at a small table, still working by candlelight—apparently unaware that he should be inanimate. But rather than producing notes with his pen, Beethoven appeared to be erasing lines from an existing score. Terrified, but still curious, the interloper asked, “my God, Herr Beethoven, what are you doing?” Beethoven slowly looked up and replied, “decomposing.”

But seriously, now that both Wright and Beethoven have shuffled off their mortal coils, it is up to us to preserve, interpret and share with the world their immortal works, of which we have a prime example here in the Martin House. Unlike the posthumous Beethoven, we are in the midst of re—composing Wright’s “domestic symphony,” note by note and line by line.

Chainsaws and Charity

OK, so maybe my tree / Wright / organicism musings here are a bit of stretch, but the students of the Canisius College Video Institute did a great job profiling the "Carvings for a Cause" project (among others, including Frank Lloyd Wright's Rowing Boathouse):

Amazing what you can do with digital video. I'm not even in the conservatory...what's next, holographic curators? I won
't even have to get out of bed.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Many thanks to all those docents and volunteers who braved an icy evening to attend my presentation earlier this week, "Confessions of a Furniture-Obsessed Curator - or - Mysteries of the Martin House Historic Furnishings Report, Vol. II." Sure, the title was probably more intriguing than the talk was, but one runs out of Wright puns eventually, so I had to go for the sensational.

A section of the unit room from Wright's "tout ensemble" furnishings plan

The talk brought to mind this quote from "Dune" author Frank Herbert:

The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand.

Now that you know what a science fiction geek I am, we can move on.

If there's any wisdom in Herbert's statement, then the Martin House Historic Furnishings Report is replete with the beginnings of knowledge (at least). In the course of research on various aspects of the Martin House complex - buildings or their contents - it often occurs to me that there's a sort of backlash in having too much documentation: one starts to assume that one can know everything about a work that was designed, built, furnished and occupied over a century ago. In other words, the more we know, the more the small holes in that knowledge come into sharp focus, becoming ever more challenging to fill.

I'd like to follow up on a few points raised in my presentation which bear clarification:
  • Bursar's office: the suggestion of a Larkin building metal desk chair (like the one currently in the collection of Martin-related furnishings) is certainly a good option for seating at Darwin Martin's desk. I did not mean to suggest that the possibility was off the table because Martin wouldn't have pilfered a piece of furniture from work. But I have a hunch that he may not have wanted to sit in the same type of chair in his home office that he sat in all day at the Larkin building. Also, a good point was brought to my attention about the supposition of a typewriter on the desk: it is unlikely that Martin would have typed all that correspondence to Wright himself. However, Martin's diary does mention a personal typewriter, and I think it plausible for the more personal correspondence (to his brother William and others) that he may not have wanted to dedicate to the Larkin Co. typing pool.

  • Dining room: I fully understand that the decision to reproduce the four corner stanchions for the dining table is surprising and controversial to some. Our reasoning, however, is based in what seemed most didactically beneficial for interpretation of the space. We think it will be easier for docents to explain that the stanchions were soon removed by the Martins, rather than to task docents with describing an elaborate and unusual detail that visitors can't actually see...

  • Living room: I think I forgot to mention the various pieces in the proposed plan to furnish the east alcove of the living room which will have to be reproduced: the piano bench, two "Morris" chairs, the barrel chairs and the four-sided, rotating bookcase (in the northeast corner). The "Morris" chairs will likely be particularly challenging to reproduce, as the only documentation is one presentation drawing (without dimensions or construction detail) and a few of the Fuermann photos.

  • Library: the two rocking chairs that we propose to include (not Wright-designed or "approved") will have to be reproduced, or represented by period-appropriate antiques. More research is necessary to identify the likely maker and model for these chairs. Regarding the library table: our assumption is that the as-built table will have to be completely reconstructed, as the original table was modified so extensively as to make the reversal of these modifications infeasible. Also, we do not intend to attempt reconstruction of the corner stanchions on this table originally proposed by Wright. The construction of these stanchions is much less clear than their counterparts on the dining table; there is far less information as to the detailing, materials and construction of the corner lamps in particular. In other words, any reconstruction of these fixtures would be largely based on conjecture and, I think, a fool's errand. These stanchions can always be added to the table later, if further research yields instrumental detail.

  • Master Bedroom: In general, it was particularly difficult to illustrate the unique configuration of this room through a few drawings. The wardrobe / dressing units protruding into the space from the large, south piers are particularly complex, and utilize mirrors as a device to convey the illusion of open space (where built-ins threaten to close off Wright's otherwise open plan). The master bedroom is one space that may only be understood when fully restored.

That's just scratching the surface of scratching my head. Much more to come in future missives, talks and various docent training efforts.