Saturday, August 17, 2013


Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Administration Building, Buffalo, NY 1903-1906 (Photo by Clarence Fuermann and Henry Fuermann and Sons, Chicago)

Donald Johnson, an architect and longtime Wright scholar at the University of Adelaide, Australia, has just published On Frank Lloyd Wright’s Concrete Adobe: Irving Gill, Rudolph Schindler and the American Southwest (Ashgate Press, 2013), a study of Hollyhock House and the four concrete block houses that Wright design in Los Angeles in the early 1920s. It contains some surprising new information on an old Buffalo favorite, the Larkin Building.

When Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, Marion Mahony, went off to Australia in 1912, they were initially befriended by George and Florence Taylor, the founders of Building, a building construction magazine that existed in various forms from 1907 to 1972. The powerful, energetic, and conservative Taylors traveled to the United States in 1914 in search of material for their publication. The Taylors spent time in Chicago meeting many of the Prairie School architects familiar to them by way of the Griffins.  Then, on to Buffalo. According to Johnson’s research they found the Larkin Building “bleak-looking” and “mausoleum-like,” “designed by a soulless engineer.” Upon returning to Chicago they finally met Wright who showed them photographs and drawings of the Larkin Building. The Taylors apparently expressed their reservations about the building to which Wright admitted that it did have a

Forbidding aspect…[but] I wished to suggest that the work of the office [i.e. Larkin’s personnel] is a thing apart from the sordid world around it; that the quietness and calm necessary to every office interior should be preserved by giving the building an exterior appearance of “keep out, this is no place for the curious – move on.” [quoted from George Taylor’s There! A Pilgrimage of Pleasure  (Sydney, Building, 1916)*

Florence Taylor was not impressed and wrote:

We have laws [to check] any daring break from public opinion. Convention is often the law of the majority, and the man who would be original enough to dare such a thing as that might dare to break the convention in other things and be dangerous to [from Taylor above]*

Wright (and the Larkin Building) somehow survived the Taylors, at least until the 1950s but after they returned to Australia the Taylors turned against the Griffins, made life very difficult for them there, and ultimately drove them away to India to yet another chapter in their amazing career.

*quoted from Donald Johnson’s book cited above.

Monday, August 12, 2013


The Darwin D. Martin House (from Ausgefuhrte Bauten und Entwurfe von Frank Lloyd Wright (Berlin, 1910)
A committee of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy has been working on Key Works of Modern American Architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright, a serial nomination of ten Wright buildings as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2003. When the ten buildings were chosen I was not on the committee but when I eventually joined I was dismayed to learn, and objected, that the Darwin Martin House was not included, especially considering that the Martin House closely follows the basic plan configuration of Wright's prototype Prairie House, "A Home in a Prairie Town" of 1901 and the whole Martin complex represents five variations on that basic cross-axial scheme. The sole representative of the Prairie House on the World Heritage nomination is the Frederick C. Robie house in Chicago. People who have toured both sites -- one a relatively brief experience, the other easily filling two hours --cannot understand how the Robie House was chosen. A major reason has to do with the portion of the guidelines of the World Heritage Site commission that have to do with Authenticity and Integrity. These are rigorous (and were made even more so in 2007). A portion of the guideline on Authenticity reads:

In relation to authenticity, the reconstruction of archaeological remains or historic buildings or districts is justifiable only in exceptional circumstances. Reconstruction is acceptable only on the basis of complete and detailed documentation and to no extent on conjecture.

As for Integrity here is some of the language:

Integrity is a measure of the wholeness and intactness of the natural and/or cultural heritage and its attributes. Examining the conditions of integrity, therefore requires assessing the extent to which the property:
a) includes all elements necessary to express its outstanding universal value;
b) is of adequate size to ensure the complete representation of the features and processes which convey the property’s significance;
c) suffers from adverse effects of development and/or neglect.
This should be presented in a statement of integrity.
the aesthetic qualities of the property.

The issue with the Martin House lies with the demolition in the 1960s of the pergola, conservatory, and carriage house, and their eventual reconstruction using new materials and painstaking research based upon Wright's drawings, photographs, artifacts and extensive letters. 

The omission of the Martin House remains a sore point in some quarters, particularly in the light of the inclusion on the World Heritage List nomination of the Marin County Civic Center which was built entirely posthumously between 1959 and 1964. Perhaps, one day, the Martin House will be nominated as a World Heritage Site on its own.

Friday, August 9, 2013


On Saturday, August 3, 2013, an art glass panel from the Martin House living room skylight—an object which had been held previously by an anonymous couple from suburban Buffalo—was sold at auction (Schultz Auctioneers of Clarence, New York, Lot 0411) for $80,000 to a local agent working on behalf of a private collector.  The bidding was fast and furious and, within minutes, it was clear that this rare and beautiful piece of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed iridescent glass—an emblem of the Martin House and its significance as a world, class architectural masterpiece—would not be returning home that day to its rightful place of origin.

Marked by the symbolic banging of the gavel, the moment was undeniably poignant; looking back we realize that this auction, much like others that have come before it, neither signals the beginning nor the end of the Martin House story.  Rather, it is on such occasions, that we reflect on our achievements, both past and present, which in sum have led architectural authorities to call the Martin House one of the most ambitious and well-executed restoration efforts of its kind.

Now, more than ever, the Martin House confidently reaffirms the strength and soundness of its board-approved collections policy which clearly guides us through all aspects of the acquisition process.  Simply put, it is our goal whenever possible to identify, locate, and purchase authentic, original Martin House items if it is cost effective, affordable, and if donors are in a position to assist us.  With that said, our policy does not generally allow us to acquire art glass, furnishings, or other decorative elements at prices that exceed the actual cost of replication.  At times, this may result in our inability to successfully bid at auction; it also means, however, that as an organization we are unwilling to participate in the aggressive, over inflation of an object’s perceived market value, particularly if it precludes us from staying true to our core mission: to restore Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House Complex and to preserve, interpret, and promote it well.

The Martin House is extremely grateful to its community of supporters—board, staff, volunteers, and affiliates, as well as private, corporate, and government funders—many of whom have voiced their concerns, offered their advice and counsel, and above all championed our ongoing restoration project.  We thank all of you profoundly.  We are especially proud and deeply appreciative of the Manning Family Foundation who in recent days came forward to assist us by committing a substantial, unrestricted donation on behalf of our art glass restoration efforts.  Donations in support of the restoration at large, or for art glass, in particular are always welcome. 

In his seminal article, “Dismembering Frank Lloyd Wright,” author Donald Hoffmann writes one of the most compelling arguments against the commodification of Wright-designed objects.  “Architecture,” he reminds us, “seems the most substantial of the arts but proves one of the least enduring.”  In the case of Frank Lloyd Wright, “the dismemberment of his buildings, physically and intellectually, into mere fragments…represents nothing so much as a contradiction in terms, a violation of the whole spirit of his art, or its spirit as a whole.” 

We remain encouraged that through continued communication and outreach we may ultimately identify and reunite other displaced original objects back where they belong—inside the Martin House.  By doing so, we hope that other public and private collectors will emerge and join the growing ranks of Martin House heroes—much like New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and individuals such as Nan and Will Clarkson, among others—who have each in their own way contributed to the enrichment of our collections and the project’s overall success.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


Roland Reisley House, Usonia, Pleasantville, NY (1951) (New York Post photo) 

Plan, Reisley House with dining room childrens' wing added in 1955

The story of the creation of Usonia, in Peasantville, New York, has been ably told in Roland Reisley’s book Usonia, New York: Building a Community with Frank Lloyd Wright (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001).  Usonia the community  was the brainchild of David Henken, an architect who served an apprenticeship with Wright in the early 1940s and approached Wright about designing the Westchester County community for 47 families in 1946. Wright designed three of the houses, the rest were designed by Henken and numerous other progressive architects. The Reisley House (1951) was the last of the three by Wright. I had visited and toured the house briefly on two occasions in the past but this time my mission was to ask Roland questions of a phenomenological nature, that is, I was seeking insights of a direct experiential nature, insights that are not only about the visual but those that involve the tactile, the sonic, and the kinesthetic. My project turned out to be quite challenging. Coming from Buffalo where I have had a long exposure to Wright’s local Prairie houses I found the geometries of the Reisley House distracting as we talked but wonderful to experience. The planning grid consists of equilateral triangles 40 inches on each side (as opposed to the square grid of the Martin House). Such a grid offers a 120 degree angle for wide vistas but also narrow 60 degree angles that can be difficult to use. Roland commented that Wright was ingenious at finding locations and uses for such angles. Wright made the triangle the theme of the entire house with roofs, prows, balconies, and a 1955 addition (for the children) all darting off in different directions from its lofty wooded hillside site. As a result everything about the house is experienced on the bias as opposed to the conventional rectangularity that most of us live with. Moving through the house is akin to experiencing a jazz-like rhythm. While negotiating this unconventional geometry everything – fine, horizontal cypress walls and ceilings, panoramic windows, stone masses that glide effortlessly past sheets of glass, cantilevered prow-shaped roofs – conspires to draw one's attention out into the surrounding landscape. Although this is not unusual in Wright's houses the sixty and one hundred and twenty degree angles feel more natural and engaging. 

Reisley dining room, added in 1955
In my brief stay I was fascinated by the complexity of the ceiling and the roof structure for which Roland created a model so that the carpenters could decipher Wright's drawings. (Consider that Wright built over 400  houses and rarely, if ever, repeated the same roof configuration.) 

Roland Reisley's letter to Frank Lloyd Wright with sketch of unfinished roof and his model of the roof structure (Photo from Roland Resiley, Usonia New York: Building a Community with Frank LLoyd Wright, p. 140) 

The living room, seen below in one of Roland's photographs -- a serious photographer, he had Wright include a darkroom in the basement of the house -- warrants close study. The bookshelf at the right has no back and functions as a semi-transparent screen particularly when approached from the master bedroom. A greater transparency occurs as floor-to-ceiling windows and inset doors cross the south end of the living room, pivot 120 degrees at a triangular granite pillar and continue as the door and window wall of the dining room. Nature wraps itself around the house. It is no wonder that Roland Reisley has lived in his home for sixty two years and continues to find beauty in it every day.

Living room, Reisley House (Photograph by Roland Reisley from Roland Resiley, Usonia New York: Building a Community with Frank LLoyd Wright, p. 144

(My thanks to Susana Tejada, Curator of the Martin House Restoration)