Thursday, December 26, 2013


Library of the Darwin D. Martin House (Photo, c1910, courtesy of the University Archives, State University of New York at Buffalo)

As the restoration of the Martin House moves forward it has been necessary to scrutinize amateur photographs like this one (above) in order to recover or simulate the interior of the house as the Martins inhabited it. Murky as it is, this photograph carries some valuable insights: hefty drapes for the large clear window facing Jewett Avenue (probably for privacy); two sets of portieres at the right that would have closed off the library from the adjacent living room (important in a house without walls); an upholstered chair at the far right and a wicker chair to the right of the library table (neither of which appears on Wright's furniture plan); a barrel chair at the left; and the faint outlines of an art glass table lamp against the large window (probably the one in the Martin House collection). The finish on the wooden beams and trim is noticeably glossy; there is evidence of flowering plants right and left. Color, of course, is missing though Wright is known to work exclusively in autumnal colors during the Prairie period. The image below,  an interior rendering of the Thaxter Shaw House in Montreal, never built, is a rare surviving example of  the color in a Wright interior; note the wisteria fireplace. For more on the Thaxter Shaw House see  For more on the Martin House library why not visit?

Living room, Thaxter Shaw House (project) for Montreal, 1906 (Photo: Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation/Avery Library, Columbia University)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


An approximation of Mrs. Wright's car (Image from
Over the past twenty years I have met a number of Frank Lloyd Wright's later, Usonian period, clients, and I've noticed that there are references to Wright's "scampering over their site" prior or during construction. In 1999 at an annual meeting of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy I had lunch with Mark Heyman who was an apprentice to Wright from 1954 to 1959 and he told me this:

One day Mark was in the drafting room at Taliesin West when he heard a commotion and saw Mrs. Wright run by, soon followed by Wright, also running. They disappeared into their quarters. Mark wondered what was up and asked around. It seems that Mrs. Wright didn’t have a car but was driven around by Kay Davidson. Mrs. Wright and Kay couldn’t use Wright’s car (a Mercedes) because he might need it.  Mrs. Wright confronted Wright and he told her and Kay to go buy a car. They did, they bought a Plymouth with big fins and it was painted pink and cream. That was what prompted Wright to run after Mrs. Wright. Mark said he almost never saw the car in use except when Wright was away. He didn’t even know where it was hidden. Somewhere in the desert?

Frank Lloyd Wright's Mercedes 300 Sl (Photo courtesy Cooper Weeks)

On reflection I thought, Wright, running? He would have been close to ninety! He must have been really mad, after all it was a matter of taste.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Darwin D. Martin House south elevation (J. Quinan)
No one would describe the Martin House as simple, but it presents an illusion of material simplicity comprised of Roman brick, cast concrete copings, a tile roof, copper gutters, and art glass windows. In fact the Martin House was constructed of almost every building material available in 1905-6, including common red brick, fifty-seven pieces of Carnegie steel, reinforced concrete floor slabs, structural glass, oak, pine, cypress, various kind of plaster, and magnesite in addition to those materials immediately visible from the exterior. Over the coming weeks we will look at some of the systems that have been retro-fitted into the Martin House in order to preserve the building and transform it from a family home into an historic house museum. These are mostly unseen by the public during tours.

Early in the process of restoration it was decided to install a geothermal heating and cooling system in the house because such a system is economical over time and it is consistent with Wright's prescient use of passive solar design in 1905-6. The Martin House was originally heated by a coal-fired furnace located beneath the carriage house and piped under the pergola to pier clusters within the main house. This was highly inefficient but as Darwin Martin wrote to his brother, William, his houses are impossible to  heat but who cares (or words to that effect). At  the time of construction Darwin Martin was one of the highest paid executives in the United States in the years before the income tax. It is likely that the Martins were not entirely comfortable in the dead of winter but in the summer they could cool the house by opening wide their casement windows.

Diagrammatic rendering of a geothermal system
A modern-day geo-thermal system (diagrammed above) functions as follows: wells are dug or drilled down several hundred feet to a point at which the temperature of the earth is a constant 55 degrees. The wells are then outfitted with pipes that form a loop from a pumping station within the building down to the bottom of each well and back to the pumping station.
The Martin House system is a closed loop system meaning that the ground water never mixes with water in the system; only heat is transferred. Inside the buildings, the geothermal piping is connected to a series of heat pumps.  There will be a total of 14 heat pumps in three buildings when the Martin House restoration and Visitor Center projects are complete. The heat pumps are linked to a conventional system of supply and return air ducts which carry conditioned air to the different parts of the buildings.
 Water or a form of anti-freeze is the medium that is pumped through the system. In the  heat of the summer the medium is sent down to cool to 55 degrees and then returns to the transfer point where it is cooled further as necessary. In the cold of the winter the medium is similarly circulated so that the house can be warmed from 55 degrees up to 65 degrees. These tempered mediums are then used to cool or warm the house seasonally.

The well plan shown below locates 36 geo-thermal wells beneath the east lawn of the Martin House and northwest of the Barton House. Twenty additional wells were dug for the Greatbach Pavilion on the west side of the site.

A site plan of the geo-thermal wells at the Martin House

A geothermal transfer point beneath the Martin House

The Martin House has ample landscape into which the thermal wells were sunk but this process is also being used in dense urban areas as well. (My thanks to Susana Tejada for data on the Martin House)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Darwin D. Martin House detail view of pier cluster casement windows, laylight, and wall sconces.  Biff Henrich / IMG_INK, courtesy Martin House Restoration Corporation.

Biff Henrich's dazzling photograph (above) shows the laylight and its thin art glass border restored last week to one of the Martin House pier clusters for the first time since the 1950s. There are twenty-six art glass pieces in each of the pier clusters.  The pier clusters are wonderfully multifunctional: eight of them provide the internal structural support for the second floor of the Martin house in lieu of conventional walls; they occur in pairs at regular intervals across the first floor in a rhythm that permeates the entire building. Most of them, like the one photographed by Clarence Fuermann in 1907 (below), contain radiators for heating the house, and bookshelves on three sides. The piers support light sconces and the horizontal beams that separate spaces such as the living room and the library and they carried velvet portieres that could be drawn to enclose these spaces on occasion.   Each one is a discrete, complex structural -- a building within the building - entity that provides the Martin House with its unique transparency.

Living room pier cluster, Darwin D. Martin House (Photo,  University Archives, State University of New York at Buffalo, by Clarence Fuermann, Henry Fuermann and Sons)

Elevation, Darwin D. Martin House (J. Quinan)
Illman House, 1904 (project) (The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art |Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Elevations of the Ullman House project of 1904 and the Darwin Martin House also under design in 1904 have many similarities owing to Wright's use of pairs of large and small piers around the periphery of both buildings. The difference, as the plans (below) indicate, is that the Ullman House lacks the internal pier clusters of the Martin House with the result that the living room is a large and perhaps vacuous space that would require substantial structural spans. The relationship of the living  room, dining room and kitchen of the Ullman House  radiating west, north and east of the fireplace core is similar to that of Wright Ward Willits House of 1901. Perhaps the arrangement had some bearing on Ullman's decision not to build and led Wright to create the innovative pier cluster solution for the Martin House.

First floor plan, Ullman House, 1904 ( (The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art |Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

First Floor plan, Ward Willits House, 1901

First  floor plan, Darwin D. Martin House (Drawn by HHL, Architects)

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Mr. and Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright (Photo: The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)
The following article was written by Betty Cass in the Wisconsin State Journal of July 30, 1935 and is reproduced in Randolph C. Hennings' book At Taliesin: Newspaper Columns by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship, 1934-1937 (Southern Illinois University Press, 1992). I reproduce it here because it reflects the centrality of music to Wright and it provides a hint of the charm with which he swayed so many clients over the years.

                                 Madison Days

... Finally, for Saturday, there was the affair of the stringed instruments.

   Just as a late afternoon peace had settled on the household a truck loaded with musical instruments came up the winding driveway to the back courtyard and dumped them beside a lily pool.
   One of the apprentices came running into where Mr. and Mrs. Wright were sitting and cried excitedly, "Oh. Mr. Wright, the truck's just come with your instruments!"
   "What?" Mrs. Wright asked, startled, a faint frown appearing on her brow as she sensed another extravagance of her famous husband.
"What did you say?"
   "Never mind...never mind!" said Mr. Wright and hurried out, pushing the confused apprentice before him.
   But in a few minutes he was back, a beatific (albeit cat-caught-in-the cream) smile on his face, his grey beret pushed jauntily to one side, affecting a gay swagger -- AND strumming on a guitar (or maybe it was a viola) like a wandering minstrel of old serenading his lady love.
   It didn't thaw Mrs. Wright, however. She merely glanced at him disdainfully out of the corners of her black, black eyes and went on with her embroidery.
   Mr. Wright laid the instrument down and went out without a word ... and in a minute he was back with another, striding with a springy step, humming to the little tune he was making -- this time on a violin held like a guitar.
   Mrs. Wright embroidered. Out went Mr. Wright again ... and again ... each time bringing in one of the instruments, each time strumming and humming a gayer, more carefree tune. And Mrs. Wright continued to embroider and remain aloof -- but when he finally came in with the last one, a bass viola larger than he was, a regular Paul Bunyan of an instrument, his twinkling eyes just peeking over the shiny brown side of the giant he was trying to strum, she could remain aloof no longer.
   She laid down her embroidery and laughed until tears ran down her face. And the crisis was over. Taliesin had been completely equipped with stringed instruments and there had been no casualties. But Mr. Wright is sorry now that he did not get a flute, too, while he was about it. It was all so easy, after all.