Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas at the Martin House

On December 25, 1907, Darwin D. Martin wrote in his diary, Memorandum of Events in the Life of Darwin D. and Isabelle R. Martin, the following words:

A beautiful Christmas.  We sent and received many gifts--one from Belle [Isabelle Martin] to DDM [Darwin D. Martin] a lovely miniature of Darwin's.  As usual Grandma and Margaret out Christmas eve until 26th.  Grace Peckham also overnight Christmas eve, Christmas dinner guests were these, Mrs. Peckham, Mrs. Parmalee, and family.  To supper with these except Parmalee, also Moreys, Simpsons and their friends Mr. and Mrs. Austin of Ithaca.  Assets reach a million for first time. 

Here, Darwin D. Martin describes the familiar traditions we often associate with the holidays--the exchanging of gifts, the welcoming of house guests, and the hosting of dinner parties--and he concludes with the proud, yet factual, declaration of his newly-reached status as self-made millionaire.  Yet in reading this journal entry, one begins to wonder what more do we know about Christmases past in the Martin family household?

Martin Family Photographs, University at Buffalo Archives

An archival photograph sheds some light on the Martins' custom of decorating the family Christmas tree.  A tall, slender spruce rises to the height of the ceiling frieze rail and stands adjacent to the southeast pier cluster at the point where the living room and the library meet.  Clusters of multi-shaped glass ornaments and sparkling strips of silver tinsel adorn it, underneath which sits an overflowing pile of gifts--including what appears to be a large box "wrapped" in a plaid blanket--all awaiting to be opened.

Nellie Gardner and volunteer members of the Interior Beautification Committee trim the Martin House Christmas tree.

Taking inspiration from this historic snapshot, staff and volunteers have brought the yuletide spirit back into the Martin House through the temporary installation of a Christmas tree evocative of the one that was once trimmed by the Martins--right down to the very detail of using a period-appropriate tree stand by North Brothers Manufacturing Company, an early 20th century iron and brass foundry from Philadelphia, PA.

We hope you will come for a tour of the Martin House and discover it with your own eyes.  And until then, best wishes for a holiday season filled with much joy, peace and success--from our house to yours!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


1. Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.
2. Edgar Tafel (photo by Al Sabatini)

Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. never attended college, instead he studied painting in Europe and in 1933 joined Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin Fellowship for a year before returning to his family's department store business in Pittsburgh. Possessed of an exceptionally  keen eye for design, in 1940 Kaufmann became the head of the Department of Industrial Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In that capacity one of his tasks was to locate and select objects for the Museum's collections. On May 20, 1947, while lecturing in Buffalo, he wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright about the status of Wright's Buffalo buildings, with an eye toward finding likely specimens. Following a discussion of the Larkin Building he wrote:

"I visited the Martin and Heath houses. The first is almost as shocking as the [Larkin] office building and parts of it are already being demolished. The furniture is not in the house. The Heath house is up for sale and by the owner whom as you know, installed a picture window opposite the fireplace; and I'm hoping to get for us a pair of the leaded glass doors from the bookcases which were removed in order to insert this window. I hope you will agree that they are among the glass designs of that period most likely to look well isolated from their original surroundings. I'm sorry to say that the Heath house too has been pitifully neglected, although it remains entirely liveable." 

Both New Yorkers and Taliesin Fellows, it is obvious that Kaufmann visited the Martin House with Edgar Tafel when the photograph (#5. below) was taken, probably by Tafel. According to Tafel, Wright distinguished them as Edgar "Son-of-Tafel" and Edgar "Son-of-Fallingwater." Rumor has it that some of the Heath furniture was acquired by an apprentice to Wright from Buffalo who turned it over to Wright when the house was altered by a subsequent owner. And there it remains today.

3. Heath House door as installed at Taliesin today (photo: JQ)
5. The Martin House interior with Edgar Kaufmann barely visible at the right (Edgar Tafel photo)
4. Heath House window alongside the birdwalk at Taliesin (photo: JQ)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Jewett Refrigerators: Looking for Leads

Do you or someone you know own a refrigerator from the turn of the last century manufactured by  
The Jewett Refrigerator Company?   

The Jewett Refrigerator Company, logo, 1904

In our quest to accurately replicate two original ice boxes, we seek extant Jewett refrigerators that are similar to the units once held by the Martin House—whether they are working or not.  Our primary goal is to locate hardware, specifically latches and hinges, found on surviving large-scale models from the early 1900s—the kind, for example, that might have been used on historic Jewett refrigerators installed in such places as grand residences, restaurants, taverns, or possibly even meat packing houses.  

We’re counting on you—if you have any leads, please contact Stephen Oubre, Cabinetmaker, at the Martin House, Or feel free to post your comments directly on this blog.  Thank you!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Writing a Novel is Like Building a House: T.C. Boyle Visits the Martin House Complex

The Martin House was delighted to welcome novelist T.C. Boyle and his family for a tour of the complex during a recent visit to Buffalo.  Boyle is the author of twenty-three books of fiction, including the PEN/Faulkner Prize for best novel of the year (World's End, 1988); the PEN/Malamud Prize in the short story (T.C. Boyle Stories, 1999); and the Prix Médicis Étranger for best foreign novel in France (The Tortilla Curtain, 1997).

Novelist T.C. Boyle (right) with Martin House Curator Susana Tejada (left)

Boyle lives in a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1909--the George C. Stewart House--located on the California coastal town of Montecito, a community just outside Santa Barbara.  "What is is like to live there?  It's pretty illuminating," states Boyle, "we'll never get tired of it."  The property is the architect's first California commission, his sole example of the Prairie style west of the Rockies, and a source of inspiration for Boyle's novel, The Women (2009)--a fictionalized story of Wright's life as told through the perspective of the four very different women who loved him.

At a reading that took place on February 12, 2009, at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington D.C., Boyle noted that "writing a novel--building a novel--is sort of like building a house." To listen to T.C. Boyle deliver an excerpt from The Women, or to hear his musings on such topics as "Writing and Architecture," "Living in a Frank Lloyd Wright House," and "Visiting Taliesin," click on the recordings on this section of the NPR website:

Monday, December 10, 2012


MANNY KIRCHHEIMER (from Low Budget Legends)

The distinguished documentary filmmaker, Manny Kirchheimer ( "Claw," 1968; "Stations of the Elevated," 1980; "Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan," 2004) jumped at the opportunity to show his work at Hallwalls recently, in part because he is a great fan of Frank Lloyd Wright and wanted to see the Martin House which he last saw about ten years ago. His enthusiasm dates back to 1956 when, after numerous calls to Wright's apartment in the Plaza Hotel, the twenty-six year old filmmaker obtained an hour long interview with the eighty-eight year old architect about the possibility of filming the construction of the Guggenheim Museum. Alas, the film never materialized but Manny was so elated by Wright's accessibility and keen interest in the details of the project that he went home and immediately wrote up the entire event. This piece of history richly deserves publication. The question is, where?

Correction: The correct name of the author of "Taliesin Diary: Year with Frank Lloyd Wright" is Priscilla J. Henken (December 3, 2012 blog)

Monday, December 3, 2012


Ron McCrea's Building Taliesin

One of the pleasures of being a Frank Lloyd Wright scholar is the periodic appearance of something of real insight amidst the annual deluge of picture books and hagiographica. Ron McCrea's Building Taliesin: Frank Lloyd Wright's Home of Love and Loss (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2012) and Priscilla J. Henken's Taliesin Diary: A Year with Frank Lloyd Wright (W.W. Norton & Company, 2012) are filled with visual and written revelations.  McCrea concerns himself with Wright's relationship with Mamah Borthwick Cheney from their decision to abandon their respective families and go off to Europe late in 1909 to her tragic death in 1914. That story has been told many times, but what distinguishes McCrea's book are revelations about the construction of the first Taliesin in 1911, illustrated in numerous previously unknown photographs from three collections -- the Utah State Historical Society, the University of Utah Library, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. Most of the photographs in Utah collections were taken by Taylor Woolley, the draftsman who accompanied Wright to Fiesole, Italy, in 1910 to work with Lloyd Wright and his father on the production of the Wasmuth Portfolio (Ausgefuhrte Bauten und Entwurfe von Frank Lloyd Wright). Woolley eventually established his own office in Salt Lake City, became the State Architect of Utah, and passed away in 1965 leaving this cache of photographs to posterity. McCrea draws heavily upon Woolley's photographs as well as some by Wright himself, and those of the distinguished Chicago architectural photographer, Clarence Fuermann, who photographed the Martin House in 1907. Since the first Taliesin was destroyed by fire in 1914, McCrea's book provides a superabundance of invaluable images including some taken right after the fire.

Priscilla V. Henken's Taliesin Diary

Priscilla J. Henken offers quite a different, insider view of life at the third Taliesin (begun after a fire in 1925). Mrs. Henken, a New York City school teacher, accompanied her husband, David, to Wisconsin when he joined Wright's Taliesin Fellowship in 1942.  The diary she maintained over the duration of their stay chronicles the rigorous day-to-day life of the Fellowship during World War II. Very much an outsider at the start, she learned to cook for everyone when her turn came (one meal for the Wrights, another for everyone else), spent entire days weaving, canning pumpkins and making apple sauce,  mastering the recorder, and was eventually asked to assist with the drafting of Wright buildings, including the Arch Oboler House. A person of considerable sophistication, erudition and writing skills, she tells of gaining the respect of Wright, and of the intense interpersonal relationships between members the Fellowship. She is able to convey a sense of what it was like to be there. Eventually, in the 1950s, David Henken engaged Wright in the creation of "Usonia" in Pleasantville, New York, a cooperative community of thirty families who agreed to build on circular plots of land populated by houses designed by Wright, Henken, Aaron Resnick, Ulrich Franzen, and others. 

Film buffs will be interested in the list of 46 films that Wright had shown at Taliesin during the year that Priscilla Henken was there. (This was a practice that Wright continued from the founding of the Fellowship in the early 1930s until his death in 1959)  Directors such as Orson Welles, Preston Sturgis, and Alfred Hitchcock, share the stage with Sergei Eisenstein and numerous other Russian directors, at the request, no doubt, of Mrs. Wright (née Olga Ivanovna Lazovich) who was born in Montenegro and educated in Russia.