Monday, March 28, 2011

Martin House Dollars & Sense

As impressive as the effort to restore Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House Complex may be, the fundraising effort behind the project is equally incredible.  To date, 41 million dollars have been raised from both private and public sources in support of this unprecedented and painstaking restoration.  Even more impressive is the fact that the funding formula has been an almost even split between public and private sources.  An incredible coalition of financial support has formed around this project.  This week, two announcements of additional support (again, from both public and private sources) toward the $6 million still needed to fully restore the Martin House have made the news.  All great news and a testament to the vision and determination of Buffalo, right? 

In an economically-challenged community like Buffalo, struggling all the more in the midst of a national economic slump and a state that Governor Cuomo has called “functionally bankrupt,” what would appear to be a tremendous success story also raises eyebrows and stirs the debate over cultural funding at the intersection of public and private spheres.

To dive into the recent debate swirling around Erie County funding for the arts would be problematic (not to mention all-consuming) given my polemic position as scholar and champion of the Martin House.  But, at the risk of dipping my toe in, I’m compelled to make a few points, as objectively as I can:

A significant distinction tends to be lost in sound bytes on these issues:  the County Executive’s proposal of a $500,000 challenge grant to match the first $1 million of funds raised from the private sector in support of the final phase of restoration of the Martin House was made with the crucial distinction that these are capital funds.  That means that County Executive Collins’ commitment is an investment in a permanent cultural asset.  Not a dime of that proposed grant will go toward salaries, overhead or programming support for the MHRC.  Yes, the MHRC was fortunate enough to retain operational funding via Erie County this year, when many worthy cultural organizations were cut; but that’s a separate discussion, and there's help on the way for the de-funded organizations.*  For that matter,  the Martin House Complex is hardly the only Western New York asset that has received public sector support; it may receive more scrutiny of this support, however, due to the high (and unavoidable) cost of such an ambitious restoration. 

Those who cry foul over the “haves” and “have-nots” in this scenario often miss the fact that we’re not talking about disproportional slices of one pie, we’re talking about two different pies.  Operational funds are needed by organizations every year; capital funds are one-time investments in assets that will produce returns in the long run.  Both funding streams are necessary, but it’s an unfortunate reality that they become conflated in the realm of public opinion.  There will always be those who argue that both of these funding “pies” should be eliminated entirely (and permanently), but I hate to think of what that would mean to the quality of life that we currently enjoy in Western New York.  Arguably, complete privatization of culture means the withering of culture as a whole.

The Martin House is a bricks-and-mortar investment (literally and figuratively), part of the irreplaceable historic fabric of Western New York.  It is embedded in the past history of Buffalo, and will surely help shape the city’s future as a magnet for cultural tourism.   

As Wright himself said, “if you foolishly ignore beauty, you will soon find yourself without it. Your life will be impoverished. But if you invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life.”  Let’s invest wisely, Buffalo—we only get one shot at this.

*You can help leverage $1 million to support 46 cultural institutions in Western New York by participating in the Give4Greatness campaign, sponsored by Artvoice, M&T Bank and Channel 7:

As of this post, it seems there is funding from the City of Buffalo in the offing, which may offset much - if not all - of the losses of County funding.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Judging a Book by its Cover

by Daniel Kuether

Is this a cloth book cover or perhaps something more?  This unusual item, graciously sent to the MHRC recently by Margaret Foster, was originally thought to be a beautifully detailed book cover used by the Darwin D. Martin family.  Upon further research, it appears that not only was the item used as a book cover, but it is also an important personal object from the Chinese Qing Dynasty!

The item is known as a Rank Badge or Mandarin Square.  The Rank Badge was worn by men and women during the Qing Dynasty through the early 20th century.  The squares were sewn to the front and back of coats, to outwardly display the achieved position in society.  Different motifs meant a different personal status.  This design, now in the Martin House collection, contains the “Silver Pheasant” motif of the 5th rank.

So why a book cover?  The popularity of these items in private Western collections at the beginning of the late 19th century saw creative alterations in their use.  The badges were often turned into wall art, coin purses, furniture upholstery, and for the Martins, an unusual cover for a beloved book.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

This Just In...

Margaret Foster, granddaughter of Darwin D. and Isabelle Martin, just sent another "care package" of family artifacts to the Martin House and Graycliff.  In this latest shipment were two unique items for the Martin House:  an Asian rug that appears to be the hearth rug used in the reception room, circa 1912 (shown in Müller photos of that year) and a fabric book cover, apparently Japanese-made, with an elaborate, embroidered Phoenix motif.  The latter may have come from the cache of items that Frank Lloyd Wright brought back with him from his first trip to Japan in 1905 and distributed to clients such as the Martins. 

Hearth rug
Further research is needed to confirm these identifications, but their provenance as items handed-down within the family is clear.  Thanks to Margaret and her family for their wonderful ongoing generosity in adding such objects to the Martin House collection! 

Book cover with Phoenix motif

Japan's Darkest Hour (and One of Wright's Finest)

The unfolding tragedy in Japan following last Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami (and subsequent radiation threats) is exponentially greater than that caused by previous quakes, such as the Kobe earthquake of 1995 or the Kanto quake of 1923.  The latter tested Frank Lloyd Wright's barely-completed Imperial Hotel, one of few Tokyo buildings left standing in that cataclysm (a distinction that he exaggerated to the media). 

See Tuesday's story on for more on Wright's hotel design and Japan's ongoing campaign to design more earthquake-resistant buildings.  Sadly, creating buildings impervious to earthquakes accompanied by massive tsunamis may be an insurmountable challenge for architects of any nation.

Part of Wright's Imperial Hotel, in the wake of the 1923 Kanto earthquake

Friday, March 11, 2011

Central Not Terminal

A crumbling Buffalo landmark; a grass-roots effort rallying around it; a multi-year, multi-million dollar master plan to give it new life... Sound familiar? 

Illustration by Michael Gelen, Inkwell Studios

Sidelight Aside

Sotheby's sale of a Martin House pier cluster sidelight from the collection of Max Palevsky yesterday prompted this story on Buffalo Rising, profiling the Restoration Corporation's philosophy concerning acquisition of original art glass.  Thanks to BR for their sensitivity and astute understanding of why we don't jump at every piece of glass that happens to wink at us.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Showing Their Metal

by Daniel Kuether, Heavy Metal fan

When it came to objects d’art, the Martin family gathered pieces from everywhere.  This included work by local artisans, Japanese prints, and pieces given or sold specifically to the family by Frank Lloyd Wright.  A group of pieces in the Martin collection of particular interest to Buffalonians and Arts and Crafts enthusiasts is a series of metalware vessels bearing the maker’s mark of a local craft shop:  Heintz Art Metal. 

In 1903, Otto L. Heintz left his Buffalo family business - the Heintz Brothers jewelry shop - and bought the local Arts & Crafts Company.  He changed the name to Art Crafts Shop in 1905 and, finally, to the Heintz Art Metal Shop in 1906.  The shop quickly grew in popularity for its distinctive designs.  The business would be short lived however, and after the death of Otto Heintz in 1918, the company closed for good following the stock market crash in 1929.

The Arts and Crafts Movement was in full swing by the time the Martins were preparing to make their home on Jewett Parkway.  The styles and motifs of this movement can be seen in many of the local craftsmens’ works, including the products of the Roycrofters and their charismatic leader Elbert Hubbard, a dear friend of Darwin Martin’s.

Heintz Art Metal gained prestige primarily for its popular silver-on-bronze decorative overlays.  Darwin Martin owned a desk set of this signature Heintz variety. What’s unusual about the Martins’ set of five Heintz vessels is that they look nothing like this popular style, though they still bear the Heintz stamp.  Each has a brass, acid-etched finish producing an irregular design, but there is no trace of the famous silver - or the earlier colored enamel - overlay.  

The Martins' set of five Heintz Art Metal vessels
 So where does that put the Martins’ Heintz metalware vessels?  The acid-etched pieces were produced prior to the popular silver overlay wares.  They most likely belong to the early transitional period between 1903 and the company’s name change in 1906.  Their finish has become known to dealers and collectors as a “Tiffany-type patina,” referencing their resemblance to works by the Louis Comfort Tiffany Co.  This would be a sign of the times and the competition between the two metalware companies. 

The Martins’ vessels are quite unique, and few similar pieces exist.  Their presence in the Martin House collection is an important example of Arts & Crafts design tied to local Buffalo history.

Bottom of one of the vessels, showing the Heintz shop mark and "IRM" monogram (Isabelle Reidpath Martin)