Thursday, December 26, 2013


Library of the Darwin D. Martin House (Photo, c1910, courtesy of the University Archives, State University of New York at Buffalo)

As the restoration of the Martin House moves forward it has been necessary to scrutinize amateur photographs like this one (above) in order to recover or simulate the interior of the house as the Martins inhabited it. Murky as it is, this photograph carries some valuable insights: hefty drapes for the large clear window facing Jewett Avenue (probably for privacy); two sets of portieres at the right that would have closed off the library from the adjacent living room (important in a house without walls); an upholstered chair at the far right and a wicker chair to the right of the library table (neither of which appears on Wright's furniture plan); a barrel chair at the left; and the faint outlines of an art glass table lamp against the large window (probably the one in the Martin House collection). The finish on the wooden beams and trim is noticeably glossy; there is evidence of flowering plants right and left. Color, of course, is missing though Wright is known to work exclusively in autumnal colors during the Prairie period. The image below,  an interior rendering of the Thaxter Shaw House in Montreal, never built, is a rare surviving example of  the color in a Wright interior; note the wisteria fireplace. For more on the Thaxter Shaw House see  For more on the Martin House library why not visit?

Living room, Thaxter Shaw House (project) for Montreal, 1906 (Photo: Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation/Avery Library, Columbia University)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


An approximation of Mrs. Wright's car (Image from
Over the past twenty years I have met a number of Frank Lloyd Wright's later, Usonian period, clients, and I've noticed that there are references to Wright's "scampering over their site" prior or during construction. In 1999 at an annual meeting of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy I had lunch with Mark Heyman who was an apprentice to Wright from 1954 to 1959 and he told me this:

One day Mark was in the drafting room at Taliesin West when he heard a commotion and saw Mrs. Wright run by, soon followed by Wright, also running. They disappeared into their quarters. Mark wondered what was up and asked around. It seems that Mrs. Wright didn’t have a car but was driven around by Kay Davidson. Mrs. Wright and Kay couldn’t use Wright’s car (a Mercedes) because he might need it.  Mrs. Wright confronted Wright and he told her and Kay to go buy a car. They did, they bought a Plymouth with big fins and it was painted pink and cream. That was what prompted Wright to run after Mrs. Wright. Mark said he almost never saw the car in use except when Wright was away. He didn’t even know where it was hidden. Somewhere in the desert?

Frank Lloyd Wright's Mercedes 300 Sl (Photo courtesy Cooper Weeks)

On reflection I thought, Wright, running? He would have been close to ninety! He must have been really mad, after all it was a matter of taste.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Darwin D. Martin House south elevation (J. Quinan)
No one would describe the Martin House as simple, but it presents an illusion of material simplicity comprised of Roman brick, cast concrete copings, a tile roof, copper gutters, and art glass windows. In fact the Martin House was constructed of almost every building material available in 1905-6, including common red brick, fifty-seven pieces of Carnegie steel, reinforced concrete floor slabs, structural glass, oak, pine, cypress, various kind of plaster, and magnesite in addition to those materials immediately visible from the exterior. Over the coming weeks we will look at some of the systems that have been retro-fitted into the Martin House in order to preserve the building and transform it from a family home into an historic house museum. These are mostly unseen by the public during tours.

Early in the process of restoration it was decided to install a geothermal heating and cooling system in the house because such a system is economical over time and it is consistent with Wright's prescient use of passive solar design in 1905-6. The Martin House was originally heated by a coal-fired furnace located beneath the carriage house and piped under the pergola to pier clusters within the main house. This was highly inefficient but as Darwin Martin wrote to his brother, William, his houses are impossible to  heat but who cares (or words to that effect). At  the time of construction Darwin Martin was one of the highest paid executives in the United States in the years before the income tax. It is likely that the Martins were not entirely comfortable in the dead of winter but in the summer they could cool the house by opening wide their casement windows.

Diagrammatic rendering of a geothermal system
A modern-day geo-thermal system (diagrammed above) functions as follows: wells are dug or drilled down several hundred feet to a point at which the temperature of the earth is a constant 55 degrees. The wells are then outfitted with pipes that form a loop from a pumping station within the building down to the bottom of each well and back to the pumping station.
The Martin House system is a closed loop system meaning that the ground water never mixes with water in the system; only heat is transferred. Inside the buildings, the geothermal piping is connected to a series of heat pumps.  There will be a total of 14 heat pumps in three buildings when the Martin House restoration and Visitor Center projects are complete. The heat pumps are linked to a conventional system of supply and return air ducts which carry conditioned air to the different parts of the buildings.
 Water or a form of anti-freeze is the medium that is pumped through the system. In the  heat of the summer the medium is sent down to cool to 55 degrees and then returns to the transfer point where it is cooled further as necessary. In the cold of the winter the medium is similarly circulated so that the house can be warmed from 55 degrees up to 65 degrees. These tempered mediums are then used to cool or warm the house seasonally.

The well plan shown below locates 36 geo-thermal wells beneath the east lawn of the Martin House and northwest of the Barton House. Twenty additional wells were dug for the Greatbach Pavilion on the west side of the site.

A site plan of the geo-thermal wells at the Martin House

A geothermal transfer point beneath the Martin House

The Martin House has ample landscape into which the thermal wells were sunk but this process is also being used in dense urban areas as well. (My thanks to Susana Tejada for data on the Martin House)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Darwin D. Martin House detail view of pier cluster casement windows, laylight, and wall sconces.  Biff Henrich / IMG_INK, courtesy Martin House Restoration Corporation.

Biff Henrich's dazzling photograph (above) shows the laylight and its thin art glass border restored last week to one of the Martin House pier clusters for the first time since the 1950s. There are twenty-six art glass pieces in each of the pier clusters.  The pier clusters are wonderfully multifunctional: eight of them provide the internal structural support for the second floor of the Martin house in lieu of conventional walls; they occur in pairs at regular intervals across the first floor in a rhythm that permeates the entire building. Most of them, like the one photographed by Clarence Fuermann in 1907 (below), contain radiators for heating the house, and bookshelves on three sides. The piers support light sconces and the horizontal beams that separate spaces such as the living room and the library and they carried velvet portieres that could be drawn to enclose these spaces on occasion.   Each one is a discrete, complex structural -- a building within the building - entity that provides the Martin House with its unique transparency.

Living room pier cluster, Darwin D. Martin House (Photo,  University Archives, State University of New York at Buffalo, by Clarence Fuermann, Henry Fuermann and Sons)

Elevation, Darwin D. Martin House (J. Quinan)
Illman House, 1904 (project) (The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art |Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Elevations of the Ullman House project of 1904 and the Darwin Martin House also under design in 1904 have many similarities owing to Wright's use of pairs of large and small piers around the periphery of both buildings. The difference, as the plans (below) indicate, is that the Ullman House lacks the internal pier clusters of the Martin House with the result that the living room is a large and perhaps vacuous space that would require substantial structural spans. The relationship of the living  room, dining room and kitchen of the Ullman House  radiating west, north and east of the fireplace core is similar to that of Wright Ward Willits House of 1901. Perhaps the arrangement had some bearing on Ullman's decision not to build and led Wright to create the innovative pier cluster solution for the Martin House.

First floor plan, Ullman House, 1904 ( (The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art |Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

First Floor plan, Ward Willits House, 1901

First  floor plan, Darwin D. Martin House (Drawn by HHL, Architects)

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Mr. and Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright (Photo: The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)
The following article was written by Betty Cass in the Wisconsin State Journal of July 30, 1935 and is reproduced in Randolph C. Hennings' book At Taliesin: Newspaper Columns by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship, 1934-1937 (Southern Illinois University Press, 1992). I reproduce it here because it reflects the centrality of music to Wright and it provides a hint of the charm with which he swayed so many clients over the years.

                                 Madison Days

... Finally, for Saturday, there was the affair of the stringed instruments.

   Just as a late afternoon peace had settled on the household a truck loaded with musical instruments came up the winding driveway to the back courtyard and dumped them beside a lily pool.
   One of the apprentices came running into where Mr. and Mrs. Wright were sitting and cried excitedly, "Oh. Mr. Wright, the truck's just come with your instruments!"
   "What?" Mrs. Wright asked, startled, a faint frown appearing on her brow as she sensed another extravagance of her famous husband.
"What did you say?"
   "Never mind...never mind!" said Mr. Wright and hurried out, pushing the confused apprentice before him.
   But in a few minutes he was back, a beatific (albeit cat-caught-in-the cream) smile on his face, his grey beret pushed jauntily to one side, affecting a gay swagger -- AND strumming on a guitar (or maybe it was a viola) like a wandering minstrel of old serenading his lady love.
   It didn't thaw Mrs. Wright, however. She merely glanced at him disdainfully out of the corners of her black, black eyes and went on with her embroidery.
   Mr. Wright laid the instrument down and went out without a word ... and in a minute he was back with another, striding with a springy step, humming to the little tune he was making -- this time on a violin held like a guitar.
   Mrs. Wright embroidered. Out went Mr. Wright again ... and again ... each time bringing in one of the instruments, each time strumming and humming a gayer, more carefree tune. And Mrs. Wright continued to embroider and remain aloof -- but when he finally came in with the last one, a bass viola larger than he was, a regular Paul Bunyan of an instrument, his twinkling eyes just peeking over the shiny brown side of the giant he was trying to strum, she could remain aloof no longer.
   She laid down her embroidery and laughed until tears ran down her face. And the crisis was over. Taliesin had been completely equipped with stringed instruments and there had been no casualties. But Mr. Wright is sorry now that he did not get a flute, too, while he was about it. It was all so easy, after all.

Saturday, November 30, 2013


The Paul and Jean Hanna House, Stanford, CA, 1938 (J. Quinan)
I first became aware of Paul and Jean Hanna at a conference titled "An American Architecture," held in conjunction with an exhibition mounted by Brian Spencer at the Milwaukee Art Center in 1978. (Attendees included Lloyd Wright, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., Bruce Goff, Herb Greene, Edgar Tafel, and a host of historians)  The Hannas spoke about building their Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in Palo Alto in 1938. Little did I know that ten years later we would be working with the same publisher, Victoria Newhouse, and that we would wind up pursuing the Frank Lloyd Wright-Darwin D. Martin Papers that were auctioned in Los Angeles in 1983. 

The Hanna's interest in Wright did not subside following the completion of their House. They amassed a large library of books on and by Wright and left those, their house, and a substantial archive pertaining to the construction of his house to Stanford University. According to Victoria Newhouse the Hannas submitted a huge manuscript to her Architectural History Foundation that was whittled down to the excellent 148 page book Frank Lloyd Wright's Hanna House: The Clients' Report of 1981. 

Paul sought the Wright-Martin Papers for Stanford's archives when they came up for auction as I did on behalf of the Archives of the University at Buffalo. When the bidding exceeded $50,000 we both dropped out and the papers went to a dealer who eventually sold them to UB and Stanford jointly for $100,000. Paul  and I, Shonnie Finnegan, the UB archivist, and Lorelei Ketter met at the dealer's office in Chicago in 1984, xeroxed the papers and divided them so that UB obtained the original portion that included letters from 1902 to 1915 while Stanford got the original material that extended from 1916 to the 1940s. It worked out well because Paul was interested in having the papers that pertained to the period that he and Jean were building their house whereas we were interested in the portion that pertained to Darwin Martin's relationship with Wright during the design and construction of the Martin House and the Larkin Building.

Despite a transaction made memorable by many months of fund-raising and delicate negotiations via conference calls I never saw the Hanna House until last week when Julie Cain, Program Coordinator for Heritage Services at Stanford, gave me and Sandra a tour. Having taught courses on Wright's work for thirty-seven years and visited many of them I can attest that the house cannot be adequately appreciated from images alone. Compared to the other Usonian houses from 1937-38 the Hanna House is surprisingly spacious both in its lateral reach and a variety of ceiling heights and configurations that extend up to fifteen feet in the entrance hall and in the kitchen. 

This was Wright's first use of a hexagonal planning module (said to have been brought to his attention by apprentice Cornelia Brierly) and he used it in such a way that the overall plan of the house bends 120 degrees along the south elevation filling the living room and dining room with sunlight and providing broad hillcrest vistas.

South elevation. the flat portion of the window wall at the far right slides  to open the original childrens' playroom (now the dining room) to the exterior and its vistas (J. Quinan)

The north side of the house is given over to bedrooms, a "sanctum" or study, and the entrance hall that reaches high to bring in north light.
Entrance hall with opening to the living room at the left (Photo: Ezra Stoller)
Hanna House is a rare commission from Wright's Usonian period that was not supervised by one of his apprentices. Harold Turner, a local Palo Alto builder, went to Taliesin for a few weeks to learn from Wright. The result is an amazing piece of craftwork where entire windows walls respond to the rhythms of the hexagonal module. The house abounds in ingenious accommodations to the hexagon including a  sequence of tall planks  (below, left) angled to the edge of a hexagon that screen the "workspace" (kitchen) from the adjoining dining area. Each board is hinged to a matching plank that can be swung shut to close the kitchen off.
View from the living room toward the children's playroom that was subsequently converted into a dining room. The  hinged planks that screen the kitchen are to the left (Photo by Ezra Stoller)
A detail showing Harold Turner's crafting of Wright's horizontal board and batten wall (J. Quinan)
The Hanna's were not well off when they began this project and Wright drove them to exceed their means to the point of exasperation. Apparently he recognized qualities and sensibilities in them that eventually materialized in extraordinary achievement and recognition in the field of childhood education, and considerable wealth. The Hanna House certainly testifies to all that and more -- the confluence of enormous talents.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Marin County Civic Center (Photo:

Last week, on our way to Napa Valley and the redwoods, Sandra and I stopped at the Marin County Civic Center one of the ten Wright buildings that I wrote about this past summer in the comparative section of "Key Works of Modern American Architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright," a serial nomination of ten buildings that will eventually be inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had been to Marin once before but this visit,coming right after the essay, was special . 
Marin County Civic Center facade with automobile arch (Photo:

Marin County Civic Center was difficult to write about in that it was completed under the supervision of Aaron Green, in 1964, five years after Wright's death and it seemed both odd in certain respects and virtually without comparison as a building type.  At 1460 feet in length the building is composed of two parts of unequal height (three and four stories per the two segments) owing to its adjustment to the hilly terrain. Furthermore it is "bent" at a kind of pivot point marked by a domed library, a pool, and a spire. 

Spire, garden and library rotonda (Photo: J. Quinan)

The building was widely criticized upon completion for the tiers of non-structural segmental arches that screen balconies on the sides of the building and for decorative flourishes (see facade detail above) that were wildly at odds with the rigorous Cartesian geometries of late modernism (as in Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building, for instance). Wright wanted a golden roof that would have handsomely blended the building into the brownish landscape but this was denied by his clients and, following his death, Mrs. Wright made the decision to have the roof painted sky blue.
Entrance area (source unavailable)

The genius of the building lies in its experiential qualities:  Because the site was originally rural and remote Wright conceived the building entirely around automobile access. There are three large segmental arched openings at ground level through which one drives to parking lots beyond and under which it is possible to drop off passengers. These arched openings are truly cavernous but in a way that is humanized, even gendered. Overhead, between the arches,  the building opens up into an elongated three story skylit atrium reminiscent of the Larkin Building's light court but curvilinear and fluid -- not a commercial enterprise but a place for the citizens of Marin County (or anyone) to come for a driver's or marriage license, a court case, or a records search. 
Interior of administration building (photo: J. Quinan)

Unlike the Larkin Building, or the Guggenheim Museum for that matter, here Wright made each of the balcony levels narrower as the floors rise so that people moving about can interact vertically as well as laterally. The scale is entirely human and the colors are a warm buff and Cherokee red with decorative accents in a golden hue.
Garden (photo: J. Quinan)

In a world of pompous classical courthouses and city halls the Marin County Civic Center is easy to be in, more country club than civic monument, and futuristic enough to warrant a role in the  1997 film "Gattaca."

Sunday, November 3, 2013


George Barton House, 1903-4  Dorothy Martin (left) is on the porch, her cousin Laura Barton stands at the doorway)(Photo by Clarence Fuermann)

J.J. Walser House, Austin (Chicago), 1901-2

In the summer of 1994 the Martin House Restoration Corporation purchased the George Barton House from Harvard University. How did this happen? Eric and Eleanor Larrabee originally purchased the Barton House in the late 1960s when Eric was appointed Provost of Arts and Letters at the University of Buffalo under the incoming president Martin Meyerson (for whom the University obtained the nearby Martin House). 

Eleanor Larrabee, who studied architecture at Harvard under Walter Gropius, was employed by the firm of Warner, Burns, Toan and Lunde in Manhattan (architects of the Rockefeller Library at Brown University and the Olin Library at Cornell)  but the Larrabees maintained the Barton House as a  second residence throughout the 1970s and 80s. After Eric passed away in 1990 Eleanor made an annuity arrangement with Harvard that involved ownership of the Barton House. When she died in 1997, following an automobile accident in Manhattan, the Martin House Restoration Corporation was able to purchase the house thanks to three inspired citizens, Robert Wilmers, Robert Rich, and Stanford Lipsey. 

Since the Barton House was uninhabited my wife and I were asked to live there and we did so for a year -- a  rare opportunity for me as a Wright scholar. I gave numerous tours and spent a lot of time just experiencing the house. The Barton House is based upon the J.J. Walser House in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, designed in 1901 by Wright and under construction in 1902 by Elmer E. Andrews, the brother-in-law of William R. Heath another Buffalo client of Wright. One of the interesting aspects of the Barton House is that it represented an opportunity for Wright to re-work a design and enhance it. Nevertheless, the Barton House is a house of walls unlike the pier-constructed principal Martin House designed in 1904 and 1905. 

After considerable scrutiny over time I realized that Wright treated the walls of the Barton House as framed panels much like framed pictures.  The wall surfaces were fields of textured plaster tinted with autumnal colors and glazed with clear varnish. The enframing members consist of three pieces of flat sawn oak, the first, a 5/16" wide and 11/16" deep fillet, is the most prominent. Abutted to it is a 1" wide strip recessed 5/8" in from the fillet, and adjacent to that is a half inch strip that rises 7/16" from the wall surface. This framing panel is itself framed by 2 5/8" door frames and 4" horizontal scale moldings. The elements are simple but the overall effect  is one of taut containment of every surface and every room, something that would change significantly in the Martin House as Wright dispensed with walls in favor of a skeletal construction system if brick piers.

Wall panel on second floor George Barton House

Second floor bedroom George Barton house, detail of wall framing with door frame to the left and scale molding above

Often, especially in the ceiling, the central panel would be of a darker hue than the surface around it so that the panel would float as though detached. In its current state (see pictures below) the Barton House bears a color scheme loosely devised by Eleanor Larrabee after Wright's colors but lightened, owing to the darkness of the house, and painted in flat latex colors with none of the luminosity of Wright's method. These surfaces are due to be restored. I should add that Eleanor Larrabee was a wonderful steward of the house who carefully preserved every piece of shim and every little screw that appeared to be original to the house. As a result the Barton House is among the most pristine of any of Wright's prairie houses anywhere.

Barton House dining room as seen from the living room (Photo by Biff Henrich)

Saturday, October 26, 2013


Light Tower, Taliesin West (J. Quinan)

Squared spiral on Light Tower (J. Quinan)
To direct visitors toward the entrance to Taliesin West Frank Lloyd Wright had his apprentices erect the great desert masonry stele, or slab, from which a squared red wrought iron spiral points the way. 
Hohokam petroglyph at entrance to Taliesin West (J. Quinan)

Legend has it that Wright was inspired by one of the ancient Hohokam petroglyphs that were found in and around the site and were placed as points of reference in the plan, but others see certain 18th century actor prints by Katsukawa Shunsho  (which Wright collected) as a likely source.

Actor Ichimura Uzaemon print by Shunsho (University of New Mexico Collection)
Actor  Ichikawa Danjuro, print by Shunsho

As Mrs. Wright once noted, Wright had extraordinary powers of absorption. Very few of his followers had these powers but among them the Venetian architect, Carlo Scarpa, stands out. Very much his own man, Scarpa greatly admired Wright and remains one of the few who were able to absorb aspects of Wright's work without merely imitating him. At the entrance to the Olivetti store under the arcade of the Piazza San Marco in Venice Scarpa emblazoned the wall with his own version of the squared spiral. Scarpa and Wright met when Wright was in Venice to pursue the Masieri Chapel commission.

Carlo Scarpa, entranceway to Olivetti Store, Venice
Olivetti Store (now a museum) Venice (J. Quinan)

Scarpa and Wright in Venice

Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978)

Friday, October 4, 2013


Fig. 1 Pier in Dining room of Darwin Martin House
One of the traditions in American housing that Frank Lloyd Wright sought to change was the abrupt difference between the exterior -- brick, clapboard, stucco -- and the interior -- wallpaper, wood paneling, or painted plaster. The Darwin Martin house is a particularly good example of the way that Wright made the interior and the exterior continuous. The first image (fig. 1) was taken in the dining room looking outward to the north. The Roman brick pier travels five feet within the interior and then four more feet beyond. In fact the Roman brick exterior of the house is continued throughout the house on the ground floor. 
fig. 2  Front facade of the George Barton House
Wright further enhanced the inside-outside continuity by repeated certain motifs within and without. For instance, on the front  facade of the George Barton House (fig. 2) a Roman brick extrusion serves as a flower box above which there are three windows, a large clear pane flanked by two narrow art glass windows.  Inside the house in the dining room this motif is repeated (fig. 3) in the form of the oak buffet  above which is a large mirror flanked by two art glass doors.
Fig. 3 Buffet in the George Barton House

One of  the unique features of the Martin House  front facade (fig. 4) is a pair of two-story Roman brick columns on either side of two lesser columns all four of which seem to emerge from somewhere below grade behind a low brick cheek wall. In the entrance hall within the house (fig. 5) Wright reiterates the motif with two hefty oak piers that emerge from the basement level behind a low balustrade and rise up to the level of the beam that runs throughout the main floor at the height of 6 feet 5 inches. (This has only become apparent as our architects, Hamilton Houston Lownie, P.C. have reconstructed the entire stair assembly.)
Fig. 4  Front facade Darwin Martin House

Fig. 5 Stairway screen in entrance hall of Darwin Martin House
These reiterated themes bear out Wright's promise to the Martins that he would give them "a domestic symphony."

(photos are by Jack Quinan though he hates to admit it.)