Thursday, November 20, 2008


Part of an ongoing series of postings on missing artifacts from Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House complex [as opposed to the hapless passengers of Oceanic Flight 815].

This week: a Martin House martin house.Of the four limestone birdhouses that originally crowned the conservatory of the Martin House complex, two originals have returned to the reconstructed building, thanks to the outstanding, collegial generosity of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Two exacting reproductions were made to complete the set of four. Only then did we hear, on good authority, that there may be another original birdhouse on the estate of Virginia and Donald Lovness - a late Usonian house (1955) in Stillwater, Minnesota - that's up for sale through Sotheby's International Realty.

Sotheby's International Realty photo

Numerous calls and emails to Sotheby's have not yielded the desired substantiation that a Martin birdhouse is on the grounds of this estate. Images in the property listing show three "Sprite" figures from Wright's Midway Gardens (possibly reproductions), but no sign of a birdhouse. The property is still on the market, and we're striving to at least substantiate this artifact lead before it changes hands again.

If you have any additional information about this wayward birdhouse, or if you know anyone in the Minneapolis / St. Paul area who might visit the property to confirm (or deny) this lead, please let us know!

Told Beauty

In case you've been sequestered on a jury or dispatched to Siberia for the past week, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff's excellent feature on Buffalo's architectural treasures, "Saving Buffalo's Untold Beauty," can be read online.

Along with telling the story of Buffalo-as-architectural-museum in a fresh and compelling way, Ouroussoff touches on issues raised by Bruce Fisher's recent Artvoice article
(The President for Cities, cover story for v7n45) when he (Ouroussoff) observes: "At a time when oil prices and oil dependence are forcing us to rethink the wisdom of suburban and exurban living, Buffalo could eventually offer a blueprint for repairing America's other shrinking postindustrial cities." We continue to work on that blueprint, building by building, documenting Buffalo's role as an epicenter for American architecture. Ouroussoff's article should provide a profound boost to the ongoing efforts of many to refine and market this role.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Don't miss the Sunday Times!

This just in: dateline, New York, New York: THIS SUNDAY'S New York Times to feature an extensive article on Buffalo architecture, including the Martin House complex and other Frank Lloyd Wright treasures of Western New York.

When you're done with the crossword, check the Arts and Leisure section for this major article by Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff.

As Billy Fuccillo is want to say: this is HUUUUUGAH, Buffalo, HUGE!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Disappearing City?

The President-elect enters an SUV after a campaign stop. AP photo / Jae C. Hong

Bruce Fisher's thoughtful article in last week's Artvoice (The President for Cities, cover story for v7n45) invoked for me some of Frank Lloyd Wright's late-career visions for urban planning, and inspired speculation about how successful - and sustainable - they might have been if implemented.

Fisher offers an erudite discussion that weaves together the potential of the American Presidency (a sort of "memo to President-elect Obama"), Urban planning (or lack of planning, as the case may be), energy policy (and independence) and suburban sprawl. Wright's radical re-visioning of the built environment of America - the Broadacre City model debuted in the mid-30s and widely exhibited and published for years after - was dependent on personal automobile ownership as the primary means of traversing the decentralized, "disappearing city." Wright's love affair with the car was sparked by his first roadster that terrorized sleepy Oak Park circa 1905, and reinforced by the annual automobile pilgrimage of the Taliesin Fellowship, from Spring Green to Scottsdale (and back again).

Wright's 1929 Cord L29 Phaeton

As Wright observed of his beloved 1929 Cord Phaeton: 'it looked becoming to the houses I design!' Designs in concert with the products of Detroit (which at the moment seem to be stalling...again) wend their way through Wright's later work: Usonian house carports, filling stations, elegant bridges for San Francisco and Pittsburgh, spiral parking ramps (the Kaufmann Garage project) and destinations for the Sunday drive (Automobile Objective for Sugarloaf Mountain, Maryland). In Wright's vision, we would all be driving streamlined cars (in Cherokee red, of course) between integrated spheres of work, play and education.

But did Wright consider long-term issues of fuel supply (mini atomic reactors, like those proposed to power the elevators in the "Mile High" skysc
raper?) or emissions that would eventually change the climate and consequently the American landscape that he held so dear? If implemented on a large scale, would Wright's Broadacre City have brought each of us closer to the office, the market and the theater? Would it have reduced our carbon footprint and headed-off various wars in the Middle East?

No one can fault Wright for not foreseeing the "end of oil," but one has to wonder how fossil fuel-driven transportation across seemingly endless ribbons of concrete figured into his fundamental concepts of organicism and designing in harmony with nature.

Pavilion Party

Last Saturday, Martin House volunteers joined over one hundred of their closest friends for the annual all-volunteer party at the Martin House complex. The highlight of the morning was preview tours of the Eleanor and Wilson Greatbatch Pavilion, the Martin House Visitor Center that is rapidly taking shape. MHRC Executive Director Mary Roberts and Museum Planning Project Coordinator Lesley Neufeld led groups of volunteers through the incredible space of the new building, slated for significant completion by the end of the year.

As the building takes shape, certain spatial and material harmonies come to the fore; some are subtle, others more bold. This photo illustrates how the dramatic horizontal sweep of the pavilion's roof line meshes with that of the Martin House porte cochere. A more subtle harmony lies in the separation between the pavilion's slender, stainless steel columns and its glass curtain wall, echoing the many vertical "rifts" in the Wright buildings. Both of these details are examples of the emerging dialogue between the pavilion and the historic complex.

The view of the west side of the Martin House, pergola, conservatory and carriage house from inside the pavilion is nothing short of breathtaking. Mori's deceptively simple building dramatizes the view of the historic complex; the sense of enclosure on the campus feels complete. The Greatbatch Pavilion is a sensitive consort to the historic structures, one that collaborates with the experience conveyed by Wright rather than competing with it.

Photo courtesy of Bernhard Wagner, fotoGraphix.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

"Spring" Mix

The original cast of "Spring" on the grounds of the Bock Museum

This just in from the Bock Museum at Greenville College, Greenville, IL: the first phase of work to reproduce "Spring," the Richard Bock sculpture originally created for the grounds of the Martin House complex, is now complete!

Artisans from Skylight Studios, Woburn, MA - the same studio that produced the Nike cast now in the Martin conservatory - recently traveled to the Bock Museum to produce preliminary molds from the original sculpture on site. Back at Skylight Studios, these sculptors will work in the coming months on a full-sized clay model in order to fine-tune details not captured by the initial molds. A final mold will then be produced from that positive, with the final cast produced from that mold.

This work should be complete by early 2009, with the new cast of "Spring" ready to unveil in the Spring of next year.

Stay tuned for more details on this ongoing process, and "Think Spring!"

Dorothy Martin posing in front of "Spring"
on her wedding day, 1923

Life is a Tabouret

Furniture acquisitions have been relatively rare for the Martin House, so imagine my delight when we were able to acquire a Stickley tabouret (a small, round table) following my August trip to Florida.

The Craftsman tabouret was owned by Ms. Lora O'Kosky, whose ex-husband is Alexander Martin, son of Darwin R. Martin. The piece passed down through the Martin family and eventually landed in Lora's home in Tallahassee.

Use and location of the piece in the Martin House is uncl
ear, but plausible enough that we decided to add it to the collection. The piece can be traced to Darwin R. Martin's possessions; it's shown in one photo from a series of images taken of the younger Darwin's penthouse at 800 West Ferry (see image at left). Our assumption that it likely came from Darwin D. and Isabelle Martin's estate is based on the fact that they had other Stickley pieces of the same vintage (a tea table and chairs), and that Darwin R. retained a number of Wright-designed and Wright-approved pieces in his own estate. I think the tabouret was most likely used as a plant stand by the Martins, and as such there are a number of logical locations for it in the Martin House. For that matter, it's the kind of small, portable piece that they may have moved about frequently, so it may not have one particular historic "home base."

The majority of our collection acquisitions in recent years have been pieces of art glass, decorative objects or family items related to the Martin House. Furniture from the Martin House is less plentiful (as the Martin collection held by the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites already includes a majority of the original furniture) and thus comes to light in auctions or private collections less frequently.

We'll look forward to restoring this tabouret - made by Wright's Arts and Crafts contemporary just down the road in Eastwood, NY- and to finding a good spot for it in the restored Martin House interior.

Lora's cat will have to find a new spot to nap!