Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Top Eleven of Twenty-eleven

As another year fades to black, it's time to reflect on what has been another busy one in the life of a Martin House curator.  So here, in no particular order, are my Top Eleven Curatorial Moments of 2011.
And yes, for you Nigel Tufnel fans, this list does go up to eleven:

11) Meeting legendary Taliesin photographer, Pedro Guerrero and his wife, Dixie, and touring them through the Martin House.  Pedro has taken some of the most iconic photos of Frank Lloyd Wright, and his stories of his long association with the architect are equally vivid.

10) Travelling with fellow Martin House staff and volunteers to Michigan to visit Saarinen's Cranbrook Academy, Wright's Affleck House, Turkel House, Meyer May and others.  An added bonus in Grand Rapids was the opportunity to hang out with Martin grandson, Jerry Foster and his wife Hanne 
(on their turf, for a change).  

9) Assisting Rich Kegler of the Western New York Book Arts Collaborative in creating an ingenious image of the Martin House, formed entirely from metal and wood type and ornaments.  These unique, limited edition prints are still available in the Wisteria Shop.

8) Welcoming two great speakers to the Martin House:  David Patterson, who spoke on the fascinating topic of Wright and music, and Jonathan Massey, who introduced the intriguing life and work of Rochester-born designer Claude Bragdon.  These guys will be hard acts to follow!

7) Receiving a beautiful carriage house art glass window from Buffalo collectors Will and Nan Clarkson.  They miss it in their house, but are welcome to visit it in our house, any time they like.

6) The announcement of an extraordinarily generous gift of three pieces of Wright-designed furniture and a "Tree of Life" art glass window from the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.  I wish we could reciprocate, but we're fresh out of Clyfford Stills...

5) The return of a number of Martin House furnishings from the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites, just in time for the visit by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  The Preservation conference was a big success by all accounts, and folks say the furnished spaces of the house have never looked better.

4) Installation of two precisely-reproduced tables (dining and library) from craftsman Tim Coleman.  Tim clearly took a great deal of pride in his work, and the tables add an invaluable dimension to the unit room.

3) Giving a panel presentation with my NY State Parks conservator colleagues for the National Trust conference - a rare opportunity to showcase the close collaboration between the ivory tower and conservator's lab.

2) Presenting the ups and downs of the Weekly Wright-up to the Public Sites committee at the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy conference in Philadelphia.  There was lots of interest in the potential that blogs and social media hold for Wright sites that want to stay relevant in the 21st century.

1) Substantial completion of Phase 5A of restoration in the Martin House.  We now have state-of-the-art mechanical systems, new plaster throughout, restored or reproduced trim in the Reception room, restored floor tile, reproduction light fixtures and the re-installation of some art glass.  We're so close to the finish line, you can almost touch it...

Here's to the year ahead!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Larkin Building, in Graphic Detail

Copyright PrairieMod
The Buffalo Bills' record isn't the biggest loss in Western New York.  No, that would be the demolition of Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Administration building in 1950.

Fortunately, the building is well-represented by a series of professional photographs and drawings published in Wright's Wasmuth portfolio (1910).  But now the folks at PrairieMod have made the Larkin Building even more iconic.

This logo-like image is the latest in PrairieMod's series of graphic architectural illustrations.  Its abstracted silhouette invokes Wright's precis for the building:  "...a simple cliff of brick hermetically sealed." (An Autobiography, 150).

Friday, December 9, 2011

Burning Down the House


With the half-century anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright's death and three recent books on the intrigues of his personal life (The Fellowship, Loving Frank and The Women), perhaps it was inevitable that a big-screen biopic would come next.  "Driving Ms. Daisy" director Bruce Beresford will shoot "Taliesin," from a screenplay by Nicholas Meyer.  The film will focus on - you guessed it - the lurid murders and conflagration at Taliesin (Spring Green, WI) in 1914.

While I'm happy to assume the film is innocent until proven guilty, I'm proactively skeptical about two things:  the casting of the figure of Wright (to be determined) and the movie's treatment of his architecture.  The former could easily make or break the production.  Who on Hollywood's A list (or any other letters of the alphabet, for that matter) could tackle the role?  It may be tempting to imagine a British actor for the role, but inappropriate given the inherent importance of the American identity to Wright's story.

The potential depiction of Wright's architecture is equally fraught with pitfalls.  I will be pleasantly surprised if Meyer manages to make the buildings characters in their own right, as I think they should be.  Wright  anthropomorphized Taliesin in such a way that a powerful opportunity may be missed if the structure is reduced to a lavish set.  

So, I'll suppress my inner curmudgeonly critic for now and await the final product.  

At least it's not a musical...right?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Shop Till You Drop

Now that you've run the gauntlet of Black Friday, we invite you for round two of your Holiday shopping:  the Wisteria Shop's Home for the Holidays Shopping Spree, this Saturday at Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House Complex.

The Martin House Complex originally had nearly 400 pieces of art glass, and the shop is replete with related merchandise.  There's something art-glass-inspired for everyone, from postcards to jewelry to decorative wood or glass reproductions.  But perhaps the most functional and elegant items inspired by art glass are the place mats and table runners in the "Tree of Life," wisteria and Bursar's office patterns.  These accessories are just the thing to add some Prairie panache to your table, and the Bursar's pattern items are new to the shop.

If you're intrigued by the art glass of the Martin House Complex, be sure to pick up a copy of Frank Lloyd Wright Art Glass of the Martin House Complex, a beautifully illustrated compendium of Wright's "light screens" created for his Prairie masterpiece. 

For kids, check out the whimsical book Iggy Peck, Architect.  With Andrea Beaty’s irresistible rhyming text and David Roberts’s puckish illustrations, this book will charm creative kids everywhere, and amuse their sometimes bewildered parents.  For "big kids" (aka adults), indulge in one of the ingenious LEGO sets of Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces (the Robie House, Fallingwater, or the Guggenheim).
The sale is this Saturday, December 3rd, 10 AM - 4 PM at the Wisteria Shop at the Martin House Complex. The event includes free gift wrapping, holiday refreshments and special sale items.  The shop also has extended hours through December - click HERE for more details.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Welcome, Novice and Expert Alike

Toronto Star Theatre (that's theatre with an "re," mind you) Critic Richard Ouzounian declares that "the Darwin Martin House is high on everyone’s list, because it proves that Buffalo has the Wright stuff. Frank Lloyd Wright, that is. This is one of his most emblematic houses and it’s being lovingly restored by a staff who can communicate their enthusiasm and knowledge to even a novice visitor."

Whether novice, intermediate or Wrightian Zen Master, we aim to please!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Thank You, Lou

The MHRC announced this week that LPCiminelli has issued a challenge grant to the MHRC in the amount of $250,000.  LPCiminelli has been a long-time supporter of the Martin House, and this announcement reflects the firm’s commitment to ensuring that the restoration is completed.  In addition, the gift will assist the MHRC to prepare for the future with a leadership gift to the endowment.  Under the terms of this unique challenge grant, gifts can be made to either the restoration campaign or to the endowment fund.  The MHRC will need to raise $750,000 in order to earn the $250,000 gift. 

“This year marks the 50th anniversary of LPCiminelli, so we wanted to do something significant to say thank you to the Western New York Community,” said Louis P. Ciminelli, President and CEO of the firm.  “That’s why we are proud to announce that we will pledge $50,000 a year for the next five years to the Darwin Martin House through this challenge grant.”

“LPCiminelli understands the importance of the Martin House and our efforts to restore it,” said MHRC president John N. Walsh, III.  “The company and Lou Ciminelli have been loyal and capable partners, and this challenge grant takes that relationship to the next level—it will be a tremendous boost toward our fundraising goal.”

To date, $45 million has been raised for the restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House Complex, with both the public and private sectors contributing almost equally.  Funds raised through this challenge will be used for the interior restoration of the Martin House, including Wright’s intricate finishes and integral design elements.

The interior restoration of the Martin House is underway but only partially funded.  The MHRC seeks to raise $5 million to complete the restoration effort.  This final major phase of restoration work will involve all three levels of the 15,000-square-foot Martin House.  Work to be completed includes reinstallation of Wright’s elaborate interior woodwork, restoration of intricately layered wall finishes and recreation of the wisteria-patterned glass tile mosaic on the central fireplace.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Buffalo, A Home Where the Architects Roam

It's Not Easy Being (Yellow)-Green

An important aspect of Frank Lloyd Wright's concept of organicism in architecture was drawing design inspiration from natural forms, textures and colors.  Wright describes his preference and prescription for a natural palette in his his 1908 essay "In the Cause of Architecture:"
...go to the woods and fields for color schemes. Use the soft, warm, optimistic tones of earths and autumn leaves in preference to the pessimistic blues, purples, or cold greens and grays of the ribbon counter; they are more wholesome and better adapted in most cases to good decoration.

The interior of the Martin House is an outstanding example of this prescription fulfilled; in this case, however, Wright didn't exactly go to the "woods and fields."  Rather, he went to the Olmsted-designed landscape of Parkside.  The color palette of the Martin House - greens, golds and browns - is inspired by the leaves of a Parkside October - more specifically, by the vibrant yellow-green of ginkgo trees in autumn.

The resonance between the color of autumn ginkgo leaves and the colors of the Martin House interior came as a revelation in 2006, when the Reception room was partially furnished and painted in an temporary approximation of the original wall colors (left).  This palette of wall color, upholstery, carpeting and art glass is all the more evident today, when the room is fully restored.  For that matter, the ginkgo connection to the Reception room is all the more strategic when you consider that the young ginkgoes were planted at (or around) the same time the colors for textiles and walls in the house were being planned.  So Wright didn't so much draw his palette from the existing landscape, but from his ideal vision of an artificial "prairie" in Parkside, accented with Asian species (ginkgo and wisteria).

Although the ginkgoes that once graced the south lawn of the Martin House had to be removed (due to their roots that threatened the house's foundation), an even more mature example stands almost directly across Jewett Parkway (above), providing a luminous array of yellow-gold leaves that easily could have been Wright's original inspiration for the autumnal palette for the Martin interior. 

Reception room / Biff Henrich, 2011


Friday, November 4, 2011

Piano Mann

The return of the Martin family piano to the Martin House living room has inspired renewed curiosity about the instrument and about Wright's unexecuted design for a custom piano case, part of his 1905 "tout ensemble" furnishings plan.

Dorothy Martin at piano, 1912
To be clear:  the "family piano" is a 1909 Steinway grand with quartersawn oak veneer.  It appears in the 1912 photo of Dorothy Martin at the piano, with Aunt Polly (Cora Herrick) at her side.  In later years, Dorothy donated the piano to the Elmwood Franklin School, where it was used for decades before the school graciously re-gifted it to the Martin House.  in 2006, Illos Piano Rebuilders restored the piano with funding from the Western New York Foundation.  It was put through its paces during an unforgettable performance by BPO soloist Claudia Hoca in 2007, and has been on hiatus at the home of MHRC board member Donna DeCarolis for safekeeping since the beginning of Phase 5 of restoration.

Detail, "tout ensemble" drawing
But what of Wright's more unusual piano design?  It exists only in two drawings:  the "tout ensemble" plan, and a perspective drawing held by the Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt.  The tout ensemble indicates that the piano was intended for the northeast corner of the living room (whereas the family's Steinway settled in the southeast corner).  Both plan and perspective drawings suggest that the design is a curious hybrid of baby grand and upright, with pier-like front legs that sport ovular planters.  Overall, the design is an altar-like, Jugendstil-inspired piece that would have harmonized (no pun intended) with various other components of the Martin tout ensemble.

Wright's design for the Martin piano

Wright's design for the Shaw piano (background)
Wright's rare piano design for the Martins has at least one other relative:  a similar instrument proposed for the living room of the C. Thaxter Shaw house, Montreal (also unbuilt).  The Shaw piano is similar to the Martin design, with heavy piers supporting the front of the instrument.  But here, Wright incorporates cantilevered lamps rather than planters (surely a more practical option), and book storage in the pier/leg cavities.  The latter would have been right at home in the Martin House tout ensemble, with its extensive accommodations for book storage (e.g. the living room sofa arms).

The Shaw living room drawing is an exquisite example of the draftsmanship of Wright's collaborator, George Mann Neidecken; the Martin drawing, though unsigned, has a quality of line that suggests it may have been by Neidecken as well.  But, as with many of Wright's unexecuted designs, the Martin piano remains a tantalizing vision of what might have been, with nearly as many unresolved questions as it has keys.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Picking Up the Pieces

When it comes to the scattered bits of the Martin House Complex, it's remarkable how the smallest piece can tell a story.

Mr. Warren's artifact from the 1962 demolition
Artifacts of the 1962 demolition of the pergola, conservatory and carriage house are still coming to light, nearly half a century later.  Just this week, Robin Warren, an architect from Weedsport, NY visited the House and gave us a piece of iridescent glass in a frame of wide caming.  The rectangular piece appears to be a component of a carriage house window.  Each of the "garden variety" carriage house windows that spanned the perimeter of the second floor (three of which have been reinstalled) had ten such pieces - two rows of five rectangles across the pane.  But the plot thickened when I noticed that the piece returned by Mr. Warren is slightly more rectangular than its counterpart in a typical second floor window.  Such a size variation suggests a subtle shift in the geometry of the window as a whole.

A typical carriage house window
One possible location for such a variation would be the two high windows that flank the main doors of the carriage house on the south elevation.  These windows are barely visible in one of the Fuermann photos of the carriage house.  Two rows of seven rectangles each are discernible, but it's impossible to tell whether they're the same dimensional variation as Warren's artifact.

It's just one of those many instances when a time machine would come in handy.

Friday, October 21, 2011

In WNY We Trust

Much as I love Artvoice as a contributor and avid reader, I bristled at Zachary Burns' characterization of the National Trust's Annual Preservation Conference in this week's issue.  Burns' sarcastic comments about volunteers "dressing up" Buffalo to "hide [its] shame" for the sake of "streetcars and steel mills" of no apparent value smacks of the widespread and tragic misunderstanding of the practice of historic preservation and its potential to make a substantially positive impact on a nation and culture in the midst of painful flux.

I have to wonder if Burns stopped typing long enough and stuck his head out the window to feel the palpable energy that the Trust has brought to Western New York this week.  If nothing else, the thousands of preservationists from around the nation have provided crucial perspective on Buffalo / Niagara's burgeoning preservation scene - the accolades have been humbling and inspiring, and what reason would these out-of-towners have to sing our praises if they weren't genuinely impressed with how WNY is reinventing itself as a mecca for cultural, historical and architectural tourism?

I know that I may be a little close to the action to be objective on this, but that's precisely my point about such events that coax Buffalo / Niagara onto the national stage.  Time and time again, we prove that we're really good at being our own worst enemy, and it takes visitors from Tucson, Baltimore, Galveston and Santa Barbara to say "OMG - Buffalo?" to make us realize what genuine power of place and strength of community we have here.

And it's not just small city dwellers that have had their socks knocked off during the Buffalo conference.  New York's grande dame of architectural preservation, Dr. Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, said that the Martin House is "a singular vision executed to perfection" and promises to spread the word about Buffalo's gems when she returns to the City. How many such statements will it take to convince the naysayers that if you rebuild it, they will come?

So Mr. Burns' weekly scorecard is in need of some revision:  the National Trust's Buffalo conference was one for the "win" column, and our leadership role in "Preservation Nation" is secure.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Eight Bedroom House, Furnished

Lest you think the Weekly Wright-up has been shut down by the FCC, here's a late post to say that our editorial staff has been distracted by the exciting work of preparing the Martin House for this week's visit by more than 2,000 preservationists attending the National Trust's annual Preservation conference.
Each day of the past week has brought transformative additions to the Martin House, as we roll-out elements of the interior furnishings plan:

On Thursday, we installed the golden-green carpets, according to Wright's carpeting plan for the first floor of the house.  Later that day, the Martin family's custom, oak-veneered Steinway grand piano returned from its vacation across Jewett Parkway at the Wicks house (thank you Donna DeCarolis and Henrik Borgstrom).

On Friday, assisted by two of our outstanding conservators the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites, we took delivery of some thirty-five pieces of historic furniture (much of it Wright-designed) and decorative objects.  Each of these pieces, to varying degrees, has enjoyed conservation treatment over the past sixteen years at the Bureau of Historic sites' Peeble's Island collections center.

Today (Monday), we added accents of silk flowers and ferns, based on arrangements seen in the 1907 Fuermann photos of the Martin House interior.

The cumulative effect is nothing short of breathtaking.  But don't take my word for it--visit the Martin House and see for yourself!

Furniture conservator David Bayne and Furnituremaker Tim Coleman assembling the library table

Friday, October 7, 2011

Three Lenses on Buffalo

Don't miss Studio Hart's exhibition Three Photographers and the City opening tonight at 6 PM.  Each of the three photographers in this group show - Biff Henrich, Andy Olenick and David Steele - have made exquisite images of Buffalo's architectural treasures, including the Martin House.  This is one of many special exhibitions opening to coincide with the National Preservation Conference coming to Buffalo, and will be on view through November 2nd.
Biff Henrich

Errata (Did I Spell That Right?)

A couple of readers brought it to my attention that I goofed with last week's post on the Barton "family" of houses.  The house I pictured in that post is Wright's DeRhodes House (South Bend, IN, 1906).  The mysterious kit house referenced is in Florida.  In any case, both houses are closely related to the Walser and Barton Houses. 

Thank you, readers, for setting me straight.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Barton "Family"

John A. Dalles, via PrairieMod
Look familiar?

This Wright-inspired "kit" Prairie house was brought to my attention by way of PrairieMod.  It immediately struck me (despite the mysteries surrounding its designer) as a cousin to Wright's George and Delta Barton House (Buffalo, 1903-04).  

Barton House, Fuermann & Sons, 1907
If this "family resemblance" is valid, there are least three members of the Barton House architectural "family" - the third (or should I say the first?) being the Walser House of Chicago, the model that Darwin D. Martin picked out for his pilot project with Frank Lloyd Wright.

Further research may well identify more scattered members of this extended family - kissing cousins and coattail relatives not directly sired by Wright.


Wilson Greatbatch, 1919 - 2011

L to R:  Wilson Greatbatch, Eleanor Greatbatch and MHRC Director John Courtin, 2005
The Martin House Restoration Corporation mourns the recent loss of inventor and benefactor, Wilson Greatbatch.

Mr. Greatbatch’s implantable cardiac pacemaker was named one of the 10 outstanding U.S. engineering achievements of the last 50 years by the National Society of Professional Engineers. He was a member of the prestigious National Inventors Hall of Fame and held a National Medal of Technology, bestowed by President George H.W. Bush at the White House in 1990.

Even in his advanced years, Mr. Greatbatch, who held more than 350 U.S. and foreign patents, was thinking "outside the box" with new inventions and discoveries—from a cure for AIDS using genetic engineering to a nuclear-powered spaceship to send people to Mars.

The Eleanor and Wilson Greatbatch Pavilion (Toshiko Mori Architect, 2009) at the Martin House Complex was dedicated to Mr. and Mrs. Greatbatch through the generosity of the East Hill Foundation.  The building stands as a testimony to their progressive, entrepreneurial spirit, and to their great philanthropy to the Western New York community.

Friday, September 23, 2011


The rest of this week finds me in Philadelphia for the annual conference of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, but I thought I might as well report on what I'll be discussing with the Conservancy's public sites committee:  at the risk of getting too self-reflexive, my topic is the Weekly Wright-up itself.

In four years of maintaining this blog, I've never mentioned the inspiration for starting it in the first place.  It involves a great book about a cholera outbreak, of all things, and a visit to the Mile High City:  

In 2008, I attended the American Association of Museums annual conference in Denver.  Faced with the vast menu of conference session choices, I came armed with at least two needs that helped to narrow them down:  1) to find an outlet for the knowledge I had been amassing since I started at the Martin House in 2003, and 2) to utilize technology for this outlet.  Thus, I gravitated to a session on interactive media, pop culture and museums given by author, blogger and lecturer Steven Johnson.

Johnson was already on my radar, having recently read his bestseller The Ghost Map, a chronicle of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, and how the story of that tragedy interfaces with urban planning, mapping, and the rise of modern science.  It's one of those books that's so well crafted and written that you don't have to work for the CDC to appreciate it.  Within minutes of listening to Johnson, one of his other books - Everything Bad is Good for You - was added to my virtual pile of "reading to get to when I retire."

In applying his far-reaching intellect to the topic of museums, Johnson's central point was that, as "information spaces," museums stood to gain by embracing the Internet, interactive and social media, rather than eschewing it as a trivial distraction to audiences and insiders alike.  A memorable example of "old school" thinking offered was George Will's comment that "this is progress: more sophisticated delivery of stupidity."  Will's position is easy to dismiss, but I think Johnson put it best when he said "there isn't more 'idiotic teen behavior' today than there was 'back in the day,' it's just better documented via the Internet."  

Ultimately, Johnson was making the common-sense point that any technology - from movable type to the Internet - is what we make of it (and how we perceive it).  It (standing for blogging, gaming, streaming video, social media, etc.) doesn't inherently make us dumber; if anything, it has more potential to make us smarter, collectively, and it stands to reason that museums of all kinds would want to take advantage of such potential.  I think about how much my son has learned about history and world culture from a military strategy PC game called Age of Empires.  Sorry, history museums, but he still cites knowledge he's garnered from that game much more than he does any learning experience from a history museum (and we've taken him to many).

Sometimes, this is all it takes: an apparently responsible, obviously intelligent adult to say "it's can do this...they won't laugh."  I scribbled "curator's blog" in my notes from Johnson's session, and the germ of the Weekly Wright-up was formed.

If you're reading this, I'm probably preaching to the choir.  If so, forgive this retrospective assertion that the blog has accomplished most of what I had mused about that day in 2008:  it has provided an automatic outlet to disseminate information and observations about Frank Lloyd Wright and the Martin House, and in the process, fostered a new online community.  And, returning to Johnson's point, I firmly believe that establishing and maintaining the Weekly Wright-up has made me a better researcher and writer.  Essentially, it's made me a better curator, and what more could you ask from a free, online tool that was just sitting there waiting to be used?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Bridge Game

Darwin D. Martin's journal (Memorandum of Events in the Life of Darwin D. and Isabelle R. Martin) records a number of modern marvels observed by the inquisitive Martin, including his first encounters with a typewriter, "aeroplane," and, perhaps most vividly, a New York landmark seen during his brief time in the city working for the Larkin Soap Company:
Saw "Brooklyn Bridge" a-making:  reels of wire rolling from main pier to its mate across East River accumulating the main cables. (June, 1879)
Brooklyn Bridge - Annette V. Leach
John and Washington Roebling's famous span was one of a series of suspension bridges that would captivate spectators in post-Civil War America.  John Roebling's first masterpiece completed after the War was the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge spanning the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio to Covington, Kentucky.  Its design, with two prominent masonry towers, prefigures its Brooklyn descendant in many ways.  But the more refined design of the Brooklyn Bridge would become iconic not only of New York itself, but of American suspension bridges in general - surpassed in the collective consciousness only by the Golden Gate Bridge, fifty years later.

Today, a new contender for best-known American bridge is taking shape over San Francisco Bay:  the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (below). Its engineering claim to fame is that the East span will include the world's largest Self-Anchored Suspension Span. But it's the "Made in China" label on the Bay Bridge's steel components that's raising eyebrows with made-in-America proponents - a fact of globalization that would likely have Darwin Martin scratching his head in disbelief as well.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Towering Tragedy

As terrible as the toll of the 9/11/01 attacks on New York was in terms of human lives lost, that horrendous toll also includes the loss of modernist landmarks.  The collapse of the Minoru Yamasaki-designed twin towers of the World Trade Center left a gaping hole in lower Manhattan that is finally being filled after a decade of contentious property and design struggle.  

Although Frank Lloyd Wright may well have scoffed at Yamasaki's sleek, modern skyscrapers, there is at least one indirect connection between the two architects:  the 1968 First Day of Issue ceremony for the two-cent Frank Lloyd Wright stamp's Buffalo debut was held at the Yamasaki-designed One M&T plaza [see "Wright's Two Cents"], with dedication remarks that put Wright in a larger context of modern buildings in Buffalo (a context that might have made him squirm if he had heard them).  

In light of the ten-year anniversary of these tragic events and two wars in their wake, Yamasaki's assertion concerning the symbolism of the WTC takes-on an eerie quality of inverse historical foreshadowing:
The World Trade Center is a living symbol of man's dedication to world peace... a representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the cooperation of men, and, through cooperation, his ability to find greatness.
One can only hope that the One World Trade Center tower ("Freedom Tower") now rising above the WTC site can fulfill Yamasaki's altruistic vision, as his former landmarks ultimately failed to do.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Vote for Pedro

Don't miss Mark Sommer's front-page account of Pedro Guerrero's visit to the Martin House in today's Buffalo News.  A legendary documentarian who photographed Frank Lloyd Wright's work and life at Taliesin from 1940 to 1959, Guerrero and his wife, Dixie Legler Guerrero, visited the Martin House complex and Graycliff this week for the first time in twenty years.  Spending a few hours with "Pete" (Pedro) was priceless, but his astonished enjoyment of the Martin House Complex restoration was reward enough.  His spontaneous characterization of the restored complex was memorable: "like a marvelous drawing...from the hand of Frank Lloyd Wright." 

Guerrero's quick wit and charm was infectious, making it immediately apparent why he was - and is - a beloved figure of the "old guard" of Taliesin.

Pedro Guerrero (R) with Martin House Senior Curator Jack Quinan

Friday, August 26, 2011

48 Hours at the Martin House

Check out this short film created by Point & Shoot for the 2011 48 Hour Film Project.  One Small Step might be pitched as a mid-century modern mash-up of Romeo & Juliet, Othello and Mad Men, set, in part, on the "Prairie."


Friday, August 19, 2011

Wrighting the Ship

From the ocean liner appurtenances of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye to Louis Kahn's floating concert hall, Point Counterpoint II, nautical vessels have figured significantly into the history of modern architecture.  But before Le Corbusier or Kahn's celebration of boats as the ultimate expression of "form follows function," Frank Lloyd Wright referenced them in his work of the Prairie era.

Rendering of the Robie House
The best-known instance of this may be Wright's use of the German term  Dampfer ("steamship") to describe his design for the Frederick C. Robie House (Chicago, 1908-10).  Here, Wright applies the term as a metaphor for the hull-like volume of the Robie main living space, with its belvedere third floor evocative of a ship's bridge above.  Prior to the Robie commission, Wright and his Buffalo client Darwin Martin employed nautical terms in discussing the highly integrated environment of the master bedroom proposed for the Martin House.  In response to the ship's cabin-like qualities of the room's extensive built-in furniture and storage (to be reconstructed in phase 5A of interior restoration of the house), Darwin Martin refers to the "port" and "starboard" sides of the space (letter to Wright, 24 March, 1906).  Such nautical connotations also serve to underscore the generally masculine nature of the room's design, with integrated sleeping berths and stowage units that suggest naval efficiency.  This masculine coding of the master bedroom may have contributed indirectly to Isabelle Martin's exodus from the space some time after 1907.

Detail of Martin master bedroom
Nautical metaphors have been employed by Wright scholars to great effect in interpreting aspects of Wright's Prairie designs.  Robert Twombley poetically describes the sense of shelter achieved in the Prairie houses by saying, "Anchored resolutely in place, looking as if nothing could rip it from its moorings,  the prairie house offered a snug harbor to the family battered about on the uncharted seas of metropolitan life" ("Saving the Family:  Middle Class Attraction to Wright's Prairie House, 1901-1909," American Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Mar., 1975), p. 68).  Underscoring this metaphor of house-as-moored-vessel, Jack Quinan characterizes the Robie house as "...a design that so transcended conventional notions of domestic architecture as to resemble a magical brick ship moored alongside East Fifty-eighth Street in Chicago" (Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House:  Architecture as Portraiture, p. 172).  Quinan extends the seagoing vessel analogy even further in discussing the plan of the Martin House complex:
A metaphorical interpretation of the Martin plan would hold that the buildings are shiplike...Understood as a vessel, the Martin House "steams" eastward, "driven" by Darwin's office at the west end of the main floor, its bow (the east porch) breasting a wave of flowers (the floricycle designed by Walter Burley Griffin, later redesigned as a semicircular pool) in the vast "sea" of lawn in the southeast quadrant of the lot.  The destination of Darwin's metaphorical vessel is the village of Clayville in central New York, the site of Darwin's fondest childhood memories and of his mother's grave.  Delta's house is poised, tuglike, to assist, just as she had assisted Darwin through his most difficult early years in Buffalo... (Quinan, p. 188).
Detail, north end of conservatory
Nike on "prow" in conservatory
In addition, it's worth noting that the Nike of Samothrace, a cast of which is the sculptural consort to the Martin conservatory, was originally part of a Hellenistic monument to naval victory.  The ship's prow of the original Samothrace monument (now part of the Nike's installation in the Louvre) was abstracted by Wright into the prow-like form of the small pool / fountain at the base of the cast in the Martin conservatory.  Along with its larger counterpart at the north end of the west gardens, the Nike pool / fountain conveys a sense of the Martin "fleet" steaming southward, driven by the carriage house and conservatory (with their dual metaphorical engines of nature and technology).  Alternately, the complex is "moored," with an abundance of potential energy provided by its sublimated nautical forms and vigorously axial composition.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Special Delivery

Tim Coleman posing with his handiwork

A very special delivery was made to the Larkin district today:  Furniture craftsman Timothy Coleman delivered the components of the Martin House library and dining tables to Hulley Woodworking for finishing and eventual installation in the house. 

Selected from a talented national pool of furniture-makers through a competitive bid process, Coleman was awarded the contract to reproduce the Martin tables in April of this year.  Since then, he has dedicated the lion's share of time (and space) in his Shelburne, MA workshop to the challenge of creating exacting reproductions of the two large tables that anchor the "unit room" of the Martin House.  The precision of these reproductions begins with Coleman's choice of materials:  all the quartersawn white oak used for the tables came from the same log, ensuring an exceptional consistency of grain between them.  Even in this unfinished state, the joinery and attention to detail evident in these tables is impeccable. 

Once the table components are finished to match the millwork and built-in cabinetry in the Martin House, Coleman will return to assemble and install his masterpieces in the library and dining room.

The Return of Spring

Among the many signs of progress at the Martin House Complex, our reproduction of the Richard Bock outdoor sculpture, Spring, is visible once again.  

The piece, recreated by Skylight Studios of Woburn, MA, was installed in June, 2009, but has been obscured for more than a year behind temporary, plywood protection amid the construction staging area of the east lawn.  With Phase 5A drawing to a close, the staging area is being returned to it's usual condition, and Spring has emerged once again.  

That was a remarkably short winter, wasn't it?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Wright Away

The influence of Japanese architecture - however indirect - is often cited in analyses of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie designs.  It may be somewhat surprising then to note that Wright did not truly see any Japanese architecture first-hand (the Ho-o-den notwithstanding) until the middle of the Prairie period, when he first traveled to Japan in the early spring of 1905.

That's right - at exactly the same time that the Darwin D. Martin House was taking shape at the corner of Jewett Parkway and Summit Avenue, Wright went half-way around the globe for three months, leaving a disconcerted Darwin Martin with an unfinished "opus" in need of detail.  During this period, Walter Burley Griffin held down the fort of Wright's Oak Park studio, corresponding with Martin concerning open items such as art glass and landscaping.  But, with little contact with his friend, architect and daily pen-pal (Martin continued to send letters to Wright, and got a few in return), how did the anxious Mr. Martin bide his time until Wright's return?  Here's a summary of Martin's activity that spring, from his journal:

Mr. Wright starts 14th with Mrs. W. for Japan [journal, February]

Coldest night of winter.  Snow is perhaps 2 1/2 feet deep [journal, February]

Baby girl, Lois, born to Winnie and Will, a CS. birth [journal, 10 March]

DDM attended stag dinner at Mr Barcalo's [journal, 16 March]

John Curtis, coachman, moved into stable [journal, 1 April]

Harry Hebditch left us, (sailed for England 22nd) and George Frampton took his place [journal, 19 April]

DDM at luncheon given by trustees Chamber of Commerce to Rear-Admiral Schley (retired) after which Henry E. Boller took the Admiral and Major Cutler of Niagara Falls for auto ride and stopped to view our new house whence I went to receive them.  Had flags flying.  Took party into Delta's where Belle and children joined us.  The Admiral kissed Dorothy and Darwin. [journal, 27 April]

About 60 trees, 260 shrubs and 1200 perennial plants set out on Jewett Ave place.  Two white pines, [...] feet high age of Dorothy, two small ones, two hemlock, & four arbor vitas from Bouckville set out on the 12th [journal, 9-12 May]

Mr Wright here after three months trip to Japan [journal, 20-22 May]

Upon his return Stateside, Wright penned a classic of breezy correspondence, casually complimenting (and playfully challenging) Martin as if he'd never left at a crucial juncture in the implementation of his most ambitious domestic commission to date:

My dear Mr. Martin -- 

We, Mrs. Wright and I, have come back much improved in health and spirits -- can lick my weight in wild-cats.  How would you like to be a wild cat? 

A three month's absence and entire change of scene meanwhile has given me my clients and friends in perspective and the spirit of one D.D. Martin shines our clear and white.  I shall be glad to see him in the flesh once more... [letter of 18 May 1905]

I think it's safe to assume that Martin's reaction to Wright's return must have been one of relief.  No doubt he maintained his "clear and white" spirit, but harbored some consternation beneath that angelic facade.

AND we have Tim Hortons


If our relationship with our neighbors to the north gets any warmer, we may have to raise the Maple Leaf over the conservatory...

Friday, July 29, 2011

Another Tree That Escaped the Forest

The latest stop on my world tour of "Tree of Life" windows in museum collections was Richmond, VA, where I visited the Martin House art glass at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.  Their "Tree of Life" window is displayed as part of the Lewis Decorative Arts Collection, and its curator, Barry Shifman, kindly gave me a personal tour.

This particular "Tree of Life" window is in good company - The Lewis Collection is an exceptionally rich representation of Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, Arts & Crafts and Art Deco objects, from furniture and art glass to jewelry.  In this context the Martin window stands as yet another instance of how world-class decorative arts collections seek a "Tree of Life" window as a prime example of Frank Lloyd Wright's design in art glass.  

The window is installed in the Wright section of the Arts & Crafts gallery of the Lewis Collection, along with a pair of Coonley playhouse windows, and a number of iconic Wright chairs - including a Larkin Administration building metal desk chair.  The installation as a whole reads like a "who's who" of Wright's designs for furnishings and art glass.  Surrounded by Stickley, Rohlfs and Greene & Greene pieces in the Arts & Crafts gallery, the Wright objects display a geometric affinity with their counterparts, but remind one that "Prairie" is not "Arts & Crafts," or vice versa.  The Greene & Greene pieces from the Gamble House in particular are exquisite examples of turn of the century Japonisme - an influence on Wright, to be sure, but more sublimated in the unique synthesis of his designs.

My only regret concerning the VMFA's "Tree of Life" window (shared by Mr. Shifman) is its installation:  set into the gallery wall and back-lit with a less than natural light, its lustrous iridescence is impossible to detect.  Perhaps the installation can be revised so that both sides of the window are visible.  Still, the Martin House window is a highlight of a museum and decorative arts collection not to be missed by those seeking an unforgettable aesthetic experience in Richmond.