Friday, June 26, 2009

The Art Glass Chronicles: Dining Room Buffet Windows, Part I

As research and preparation for Phase V of the Martin House restoration (interiors) ramps-up, many docents and visitors alike are curious about the existing, three-panel "frieze" of art glass above the original location of the dining room buffet (to be reconstructed). Are they original to the house (that is, to 1907)? If not, will they be removed in the course of Phase V? If so, what will become of them?

To attempt to address these questions, one must comb through the Martin-Wright correspondence from 1904 to 1906. There, a convoluted narrative begins to emerge, and the amount of ink dedicated to the saga of these three relatively minor "notes" in Wright's "domestic symphony" is surprising:

Beginning in October, 1904, Darwin Martin complains to Frank Lloyd Wright that "...we haven't a scratch of a pen or pencil to show us where these windows over sideboard come." Nine months pass, and Martin is compelled again to nudge Wright on the issue, asking "When will you do - what? About the three lights over the sideboard?...shall we fill them with plate and let it go at that?"

That same month (July 1905), Wright finally responds to these questions with a jaunty assertion that "The cartoon for windows over sideboard is finished - very pretty!" Here, unless he is stretching the truth to placate his client (it wouldn't be the first time, or the last), we can assume that Wright - or a member of his Oak Park studio - has sketched a basic concept for the buffet panels.

Two months later, another piece of the puzzle turns up when Isabel Roberts (Wright's office manager) writes to Martin: "Linden Glass Co. are aware that Giannini and Hilgart are to make the Dining Room windows." This letter indicates Wright's intention that Giannini and Hilgart, the contractors for the wisteria fireplace mosaic, should also execute the buffet panels. Some ambiguity lingers around Roberts use of the work "make." Does this mean design and fabricate, or just fabricate? To this point, the available evidence in the letters most clearly suggests that the panels were designed by Wright (or a member of his studio), to be executed by Giannini and Hilgart.

In October, 1905, Wright follows up on Roberts letter with an apparent progress report on Giannini's work: "Giannini is making good progress with the mantel and glass windows, I have turned in to look at it once or twice." But later that same month, Martin says that he is "creditably" (sic) informed that...he (Giannini) has not yet begun on the windows," and asserts that he (Martin) will be forced to "glaze the windows with plain glass" to prepare the space for the family's impending occupancy. On November 2, just a few weeks before the Martins move into the house, Wright makes another promise: "The window is however as I told you all cut and pieces partly glazed. It will come along surely within days."

Next week: the thrilling lack of conclusion!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Litt's Buffalo Travelogue

Don't miss Steven Litt's inspiring Cleveland Plain Dealer article on the art-and-architecture-based revival of Western New York.

Litt deftly weaves together his impressions of a number of Buffalo cultural landmarks around the common threads of inspired patronage and modernism in art and architecture, referencing the Martin House restoration's atonement for the loss of the Larkin building, the Albright-Knox's progressive promotion of mid-twentieth century modernism, and the Burchfield Penney's celebration of Ohio native Charles Burchfield.

Thank you Cleveland!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Green Swath Through Wright's "Incongruous Mantrap"

Wright once described New York City as "A vast prison with glass fronts, incongruous mantrap of momentous dimension." Given his love / hate relationship with the city, one has to wonder what Wright would think of the newly-opened High Line Park on Manhattan's west side. The park is the result of an innovative concept that pushes the envelope of adaptive reuse: recycling a section of unsightly, rusting elevated train platform into a beautifully landscaped park for the enjoyment of New Yorkers. The High Line project was designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the New York based firm known for other cutting-edge projects such as the "Blur" building and Boston Institute of Contemporary Art. Their website offers one of the coolest applications of navigational animation that I've seen.

Contemplating the High Line project, I feel sure that Wright would be smiling quietly to himself. Though he might be dismayed at some of the details of this design, I think he would appreciate the spirit of the project: to create an elevated green space in the midst of the concrete-and-glass canyons of Manhattan, a deliberate insertion of nature that counters the "incongruous mantrap" of New York's density.

"Spring" in the News

Tom Buckham of the Buffalo News reports on the debut of "Spring:" "Spring returns in replica to Darwin Martin House." (Martin House docents, please note: we do not think that Bock was commissioned to do four seasons for the Martin complex).

Also see Elena Cala Buscarino's article on Buffalo Rising (photo: Buffalo Rising). There is no truth to the rumors that Mary Roberts and I are now married...

Thanks to all who attended the FLW Birthday bash / "Spring" unveiling!

Friday, June 5, 2009


Being an ongoing series of postings on missing artifacts from Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House complex [not the hapless passengers of Oceanic Flight 815].

This week: "Morris" chairs:

As part of the tout ensemble of furnishings for the Martin House, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a series of easy chairs for the living room and library. Darwin Martin began referring to the design as a "Morris" chair, likening it to a form of early recliner popularized by William Morris (and subsequently Gustav Stickley). The chairs were presumably oak framed, with broad, flat arms and loose cushion seats and backs.

The Martin "Morris" chairs are sparsely documented in the letters, photos and drawings related to the Martin House and, more importantly, none remain in the Martin furnishings collections at the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites collection facility at Pee
ble's Island. The chair design appears in one of Wright's presentation drawings for the living room furniture, and in a few of the Fuermann photos of the living room (though only parts of the chairs are visible in the photos). The evidence indicates that there were at least two, and as many as four, of these chairs produced for the living room an library.

The operation of these chairs is an open question. Did they recline? Darwin Martin refers to them as "Morris" chairs, and a reclining back (utilizing a simple system of stops, not an internal mechanism like modern recliners) is the most characteristic feature of such a chair. However, at the time Martin may have made this association based on the presentation drawing and little else. Later, Martin asks of Wright, "Do you wish to send us any instructions regarding the Morris Chairs (sic) in view of our elimination of the Morris feature" (DDM to FLW, letter of 17 April, 1906), suggesting that the Martins desired to forgo the reclining feature. Wright replies, "I think the 'Morris' chair without the Morris (I don't know where you get the idea that this was a Morris chair anyway) is bum, but if you want it why have it" (FLW to DDM, letter of 18 April, 1906), suggesting that the Martins were requesting the elimination of nothing more than a misunderstanding.

The ultimate question lingering around these chairs is: what became of them? Like so many furnishings and fixtures from the Martin House, they may be in private collections or warehouses somewhere in the wide world. But, with no leads on the whereabouts of even one of these chairs, the MHRC intends to commission reproductions (based on the available evidence and a few educated guesses) to furnish the Martin House once interior restoration is complete.

Of course, if you happen to be sitting in one of these chairs as you read this, we'd love to hear from you...