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A friendship that produced a Buffalo architectural legacy

Sep 27, 2016

The Martin House hosts many special events and will be the site of a party this fall for charter residents of Canterbury Woods Gates Circle.

Behind the construction of the Martin House complex lies the story of a friendship between two men that left a wonderful architectural legacy.

Darwin D. Martin was born in 1865 in Bouckville, N.Y. The youngest of five children, he had a rough childhood. After losing his mother at age 6, Martin and his brother were separated from the family and forced to fend for themselves. At age 13, Martin moved to Buffalo and got a job as an office boy at the Larkin Company, a small soap manufacturer. Ambitious and innovative, Martin streamlined the company’s business operations and worked his way up to become corporate secretary of the company at age 25. By the early 1900s, the company had grown into a mail-order giant that rivaled Sears & Roebuck.

When the company decided to build new headquarters, Martin’s brother William recommended that Darwin check out Wright as its architect. In 1902, Martin invited Wright to visit Buffalo to discuss designs for the administration building. The two men, only two years apart in age, held similar views and were linked by their creativity, imaginations and energy. They hit it off, and Martin persuaded his boss to hire Wright to design a five-story, red brick office complex. The complex, Wright’s first major commercial project, was completed in 1906.

Martin was a wealthy man in his own right by then, and he commissioned Wright to build a home for his sister and her husband on Summit Avenue. The George Barton house, became the first structure in the family complex. A few years later, Martin had Wright design a larger home for his own family at 125 Jewett Parkway. A pergola connected the main house to a conservatory, carriage house and stables. The buildings were integrated into an overall cohesive design for the complex, completed in 1907. A gardener’s cottage was added in 1909. Landscaping helped tie the composition together.

Martin, his wife Isabelle and their two children lived in the house for more than 20 years. While Martin remained prosperous, Wright’s fortunes waned and he suffered personal tragedies. But Martin helped his friend survive troubled times by lending him money, and he was the largest contributor to Wright’s Taliesin project. Through his influence, Wright was hired to build homes for two more Larkin executives. Martin also hired Wright to design Graycliff, a summer home for his family on a bluff above Lake Erie 20 miles south of Buffalo. Graycliff was completed in 1927.

The stock-market crash of 1929 and Great Depression devastated the Martin family fortune and struck a fatal blow to the Larkin Company. Martin suffered a series of strokes, and in 1935, he died at age 70 at the Martin House.

Fallingwater, one of Wright’s most famous private residences, was completed in 1937 near Pittsburgh, Pa. He went on to design more than 400 structures before his death in 1959.

The Martin House sat vacant from 1937 to 1954, and the city of Buffalo claimed it for back taxes in 1946. Between 1954 and 1992 the complex had several owners, including the State University of New York at Buffalo, which used it as the president’s residence. The pergola, conservatory and carriage house were demolished in 1962. In 1975, the Martin House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and in 1986 was listed as a National Historic Landmark.

By the late 1980s, the buildings had suffered considerable decline, but thanks to the efforts of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the complex was recognized as a national treasure. The Martin House Restoration Corporation was formed in 1992 to raise funds and supervise restoration efforts, and acquired the Barton and Martin houses. Four phases of renovations have been completed, including reconstruction of the demolished outbuildings and extensive interior and exterior work A fifth phase of renovations began in 2010 and continues today. When Phase V is completed, the Martin house will be restored to its 1907 configuration. Interior wood trim, plaster and paint finishes will be restored; original art glass pieces will be reinstalled; and original furnishings held by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation will be returned to the house.

Although the Larkin Company complex was demolished, the Martin House complex and Graycliff still stand as testimony to Wright and Martin’s friendship and collaboration. Graycliff was purchased in 1999 by the Graycliff Conservancy, which continues to restore and maintain it. The two other homes Wright designed for Larkin executives Walter V. Davidson and William R. Heath, are still occupied as private residences. Wright also designed two structures that were only recently built: a filling station, completed in 2014 as an exhibit at the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum; and a boathouse originally designed in 1910 and operated as a tourist site and working boathouse by the Westside Rowing Club.

The Martin family’s burial plot in Forest Lawn Cemetery contains a final tribute to Wright and Martin. Wright designed Blue Sky Mausoleum for the Martin family in 1928, but it was never built while either man was alive. The cemetery constructed the memorial in accordance with Wright’s plans in 2004 as a tribute to their relationship and the architectural heritage it produced.

The residents of Canterbury Woods Gates Circle will be able to enjoy visits to the Martin house, which stands just to the northwest of nearby Delaware Park. Situated near the charming, architecturally rich Elmwood Village district, Canterbury Woods Gates Circle is now under construction. A discriminating group of people who will call this innovative continuing care retirement community home will have a convenient base from which to access Buffalo’s many cultural sites and vibrant entertainment scene. For more information, please call 716-929-5811 or contact us here.

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