Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Frank Lloyd Wright
Darwin D. Martin 

On January 2 this year I posted a blog that included this statement:

  "I had a client once -- Darwin D. Martin -- he made the Larkin Company what it was when it was something; behind him on the table in the dining room was a big dictionary. After I had built the house, I was building other buildings and I used to dine there often, and this thing would come up and Mr. Martin would go over to that dictionary two or three times during a meal -- finding out. And he was a self-educated man; never went to college, didn't have much schooling: he was "the boy from Missouri [Valley]" that Elbert Hubbard wrote a piece about once. But his tireless, ceaseless curiosity concerning everything! And he became a remarkably educated man. He was a Christian Scientist, so far a religion went -- which was kind of a bar across his path -- but still he got somewhere; he was a religious man, and he was the man who had me do the Larkin building. So, the dictionary act is a thing I have inherited; I don't do it often enough. Every morning, we should have this dictionary behind here, because we are going to need it..." 

I was mystified and wrote, Tantalizing ! Who is this man? What more does he have to say in the rest of the manuscript? and went on to speculate that it could have been Paul Mueller the supervisor of construction of the Larkin Building. 
But several readers replied that they thought it had to be Wright himself and they were correct. A copy of the manuscript 
fragment was sent to me in 2005 by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, the director of the Archives of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to which the text should be credited except that in the interim the archives have been transferred to the Avery Architecture and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University where I suspect the rest of the manuscript can be found. It is indeed Wright and it indicates that several years after Martin's death Wright remembered, admired, and learned from the businessman he called his "best friend." 

(Thanks goes to Matt Guerin)

Monday, July 22, 2013


Ye Olde Landmark Inn, Bouckville, New York (J. Quinan)

19th century photograph of the Landmark building

Our first stop on the way to Roland Reisley's house in Usonia (in Pleasantville) New York was Ye Olde Landmark Inn on route 20 in Bouckville, Madison County, New York. Darwin Martin was born in Bouckville in 1865 where his father, Hiram, kept his cobbler shop in this cobblestone building until 1867. He then moved the family to a farm in Clayville, a village south of Utica. So Darwin, having left at age two, wouldn't have had a sense of the place though he would have passed it over the years as he traveled to Clayville  from Buffalo to visit his mother's grave. 

19th century photograph of Bouckville school children and teachers
The inn dining room had a number of framed vintage photographs of the building and one of the local children in front of their school. My pictures are pretty bad because I shot them through the glass but I was hoping to recognize one of the older Martin children -- Frank, Alpheus, Delta, or William -- from similarities to the photographs in the Martin Family Papers in the Archives of the University at Buffalo. Not without  magnifying glass, however (next time). Such is the life of a historian I guess.

Ye Olde Landmark Inn, east elevation (J. Quinan)
Detail of east facade of Ye Olde Landmark Building (J.Quinan)

The building is interesting, however, in an idiosyncratic way. Cobblestone construction is common in western New York (especially on route 104) and so are octagon houses thanks to inventor-author-phrenologist from Fishkill, Orson Squire Fowler. In fact there is a cobblestone octagon house (see below) a few miles east of the Landmark Inn. What makes the Landmark building odd is that it has four sides arranged to face the crossroad  (the Chenango canal ran by here too) but it is splayed open in such a way that four more sides wouldn't close in to form an octagon. Some of the upper windows are peculiar as well making the building a good example of folk architecture. It's a long way to Reisley's but we'll get there.
Cobblestone octagon House, Madison, New York (J. Quinan)

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Roland and Ronny Reisley and Frank Lloyd Wright c1951 (Photo: Artnetnews4)

I'm off for a few days to visit Roland Reisley at his home in Pleasantville, New York. Roland and Ronny built the house in 1951 but with the arrival of children Wright was asked to return five years later to enlarge it. Roland writes in Usonia, New York: Building a Community with Frank Lloyd Wright (New York, 2001): 

Frank Lloyd Wright's towering stature as an architect brought much interest in his colorful life and personality. Distorted facts and embellished anecdotes have contributed to a widely accepted, disparaging characterization of Wright as totally self serving, disinterested in his clients' functional needs and budget, and careless about the performance of his designs. Unfortunately that view has interfered with understanding the significance of Wright's work. I am personally acquainted with many of Wright's clients. Those who built with him recount entirely positive experiences, while many who did  not build have complaints.

And Ronny had this to say:

He was always warm and responsive to me. I resent it when some historians say that Wright's clients were dominated by his personality. I was 'dominated' by the work, the artistry -- not personality. It is fair to note Wright's concentration, his focus on whatever he was doing. In conversation he listened and spoke with interest.

My own interest in the Reisley House concerns the experiential -- questions of sound, the tactile, and the kinesthetic. More on this when I get back next week.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Roland and Ronny Reisley House, Pleasantvilly, N.Y., 1951 and 1956

Monday, July 8, 2013


Foundations of the Martin House conservatory, garage and stable (Photo: University Archives, State University of New York at Buffalo)

During the many years that I have been involved with the Martin House I have only heard sporadic and sketchy bits of information about Wright’s monthly visits to Buffalo from Chicago to supervise the construction of the Martin House over a period of three years. Darwin Martin’s “Memorandum” book records most of the visits by date but the entries say little else. There are a few letters in the Wright-Martin Papers at the UB Archives that refer to Wright debarking from a train downtown and going to an upholstery shop, and there is a rumor that he would sometimes stay in the garage behind the house (now demolished) that stood alongside the Barton House. I’ve heard that Wright would arrive in Buffalo early in the morning after an all night train ride from Chicago and go right to the site where he would inspect the work and either tie notes to certain problems or take a sledge hammer to them all before the carpenters and masons arrived. I don’t know where this originated; it may be  apocryphal. At any rate in looking at Leonard K. Eaton’s book “Two Chicago Architects and Their Clients: Frank Lloyd Wright and Howard Van Doren Shaw,” (MIT Press, 1969) I came upon this account of the construction of the E.E. Boynton House in Rochester (1907-1909) that undoubtedly parallels Wright’s mode of supervision in Buffalo a few years earlier. Eaton writes:

Additional light is thrown on Wright’s early practice by George T. Swan, son of George L. Swan of Swan and Gorseline, the firm which built the house. He frankly states that the contractors expected trouble with Wright but discovered to their surprise and delight that reasonably amicable relations with him were possible so long as they adhered exactly to his specifications and instructions. “He made no great trial for the contractors,” says Swan, “but he gave the workmen fits. I was too young to have  known Mr. Wright but I heard a great deal about him from my father.  He became, in time, a kind of legend in our house.” A year was required to build the Boynton house and during this period Wright would often pop into town without anyone expecting him. Workmen would leave the job at night without seeing the architect on the property, and find him there when they returned for work in the morning. “He might come into town on a train that arrived at midnight,” relates Mr. Swan. “He wouldn’t put up at a hotel. He would hire a hack and go directly to the Boynton house and stay there the remainder of the night.  He would never leave the house during his stay in Rochester, which might continue two or three days. He was on the job day and night, though, of course, no workmen were there at night He once made one of his unexpected visits during a spell of miserable weather. It was cold and rainy. As yet there was no roof on the house. Wright had workmen throw up a sort of lean-to, a few two-by-fours with a tarpaulin flung over it, and he remained in this during the night. He seemed to feel that when he was here he had to live uninterruptedly, with his work.”