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.” 


Bill Bowen said...

Fascinating. I had heard this particular anecdote before regarding Wright's visits to the Boynton House site. We should remember: the architect's marriage to Catherine Tobin Wright was well into the throes of its disintegration during this period. I'm sure the Master must've especially thrown himself into his work at this time. And I have this weird fantasy image--stimulated by the above story--of Wright sitting perhaps cross-legged, Buddha-like in a lotus position, in his lean-to alone at the Boynton site, late at night with a storm raging, with occasional bursts of lightening illuminating his wild hair and signature form swaddled within his trademark cape.

Bill Bowen said...

The Boynton house in Rochester is one of my absolute favorite of Wright's Prairie houses. It is also, interestingly, the easternmost of the Master's domestic work of that period. New owners have recently given the Boynton House a much needed, full restoration--and I applaud them! The cantilevered, gently pitched roofs brilliantly and sharply explode out! Wright's use of his "light screens" in this instance is at once restrained, yet highly abstract. The dining room stands as one of the architect's greatest "gesamkunstwerks"--as he extends his art glass motif right from the built-in buffet, or sideboard, around the room and up into the sublime clerestory windows. Toward the end of his Prairie period, this house certainly expresses the apotheosis of Wright's natural development of the Prairie house.