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.