The light really is better in here. So is the lake breeze, which enters through huge French doors, then circulates within the narrow room as it meets a fixed window on the opposite wall in a perfect example of low-tech air-conditioning.
But about that light: It’s better because windows and doors are everywhere, creating a transparent room that affords views right through the building to that beautiful backyard full of Lake Erie.
“That was revolutionary for a 1926 design,” says Reine Hauser, Executive Director of Graycliff Conservancy, caretakers of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed summer home for Buffalo mover-and-shaker Darwin D. Martin perched on a cliff a 25-minute drive away in Derby, N.Y. “The scholars who have been coming back, they’re just agog.”
They’re agog because, in 1926, Germany’s Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had only sketched transparent buildings on paper (his Barcelona Pavilion was built in 1929), and Alvar Aalto was a year away from becoming a Modernist.
Yes, Wright was ahead of his time, but his design owes significantly to Mr. Martin’s wife, Isabelle, who was legally blind by the 1920s. After over two decades of daily life in the massive, shadowy Prairie Style home Wright had created for the family on Buffalo’s Jewitt Parkway, Mrs. Martin was ready to see the light, literally, so Mr. Martin gave her the reins as client.
The result was a bright, airy complex that consisted of the long main house with see-through living and dining rooms on the first floor, and a bulkier, stuccoed second storey cantilevered over top. Family bedrooms were on the second floor, as were those of the servants in typical Martin-style democracy. Their daughter, Dorothy, son-in-law James Foster, and two grandchildren occupied a second house, built originally for the chauffeur. Also on site was a small pond fronting the porte-cochere and a Wright-designed tennis court.
Predating Fallingwater and its famous jutting balconies by almost a decade, the main house sported four cantilevered balconies, while the smaller Foster house had two. Notable features of the main house included the enormous “walk-in” fireplace that stacked burning logs vertically (meant to mimic Mrs. Martin’s beloved Adirondack cottages) and the “View Room” that blurred the boundaries of inside and out with a massive corner window and indoors planters made from the same locally-sourced fieldstone used on the exterior.
Already in semi-retirement when constructed, the Martin family didn’t enjoy the home for long. After taking occupancy in 1928 and then requesting alterations the next year, Mr. Martin suffered a stroke and died in 1935 because of the stress of the stock market crash and faltering economy. Isabelle continued to summer at Graycliff until 1943 and passed away in 1945.
In 1951, the home was sold to the Piarist Fathers, a group of Hungarian Catholic priests who, unwittingly, covered the home with so many additions – a chapel that obscured the main façade was the largest – it was largely forgotten by subsequent generations of Western New Yorkers.
“I had no idea that it was here, and I am not alone,” says executive director Ms. Hauser, who remembers Graycliff wasn’t even mentioned during a course she took decades ago on Buffalo-area buildings by FLW, Louis Sullivan and H.H. Richardson. Furthermore, the few scholars who did visit the site in the 1970s and 80s wrote it off as a “lost” Wright.
That would change in 1997 when the remaining – and now elderly – Fathers listed the complex for sale at $450,000. When it was determined that all Wright buildings were still intact, and that the threat from condo developers was very real, the Graycliff Conservancy was born, and the patient priests waited until a deposit and mortgage was secured in 1999.
“I call them both angels and devils,” says Ms. Hauser of the Fathers with a chuckle; devils for the cover-ups, deferred maintenance and overgrown landscaping, and angels because they never tore anything down or threw anything away. For instance, during removal of partition walls in the garage (the Fathers needed many bedrooms), crews noticed one with diamond-shaped windows. This turned out to be the original garage doors – a diamond motif occurs throughout the complex – which were then refinished and reinstalled after yet another non-original building was removed. Surveys of the rest of the house uncovered missing hardware, windows, and a thought-to-be-lost table leg.
Far outweighing these small early successes are the massive structural and restoration projects completed over the past five years: new drainage systems; studwork (much was rotted, leaving only the stucco walls to support the building); balcony cantilever rehabilitation; installation of hand-dyed cedar shingle roofs; window restoration; and a stone-by-stone rebuild of the massive chimneys.
“It doesn’t really look like it, but we’re 75 to 80 per cent done,” finishes Ms. Hauser, adding that a “historic furnishings report” is being prepared and full landscape restoration is imminent.
Even in its semi-furnished and mostly-finished state, Graycliff is a must-see, and items donated back by the Martin grandchildren – now octogenarians – further enhance public tours. A wonderful example of Wright’s “Organic architecture,” this jewel on the lake is also a shining example of a happy collaboration between architect and client.
For Graycliff tour information, visit graycliffestate.org
The Architourist checks in at the Darwin Martin complex in Buffalo.