Better Homes and Gardens in Buffalo, NY circa 1904

James Lipton, incurable Francophile and host of Bravo’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio”, has made familiar to American audiences the questionnaire of Bernard Pivot.  Question #8 reads, “What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?”  The answers of the guests, most of whom are actors, are intriguing.  They have been all over the place.

I have thought a lot about how I would answer that question.  Sometime in Junior High School we all took a test that looked not at aptitude, but on likes and dislikes.  The intent was to point students toward work that they would find satisfying.  My instruction was to be a “Greenhouse worker”.  That actually was not far off of the mark.  My father had a couple of greenhouses in which he started plants like tomatoes and peppers for his own use and for sale.  As a kid I liked working in them and I used to go and sit in the greenhouse.  I loved the smell of the moist soil, the humid heat – especially in early Spring – and the quiet.  The greenhouse was peaceful.

That is not the direction that I took.  I discovered early in school that I loved science classes and learned subjects like biology and chemistry fairly easily.  Math was another story.  So, I decided against Engineering and majored in Biology.  From there I jumped to Medicine and, true to my love of science, became a pathologist.

My second choice in careers, though, would have incorporated my love of art and design, graphics, and geometry.  My second choice would have been Architecture.  Over the years I became involved in planning laboratories in hospitals where I worked.  Architects who specialize in planning hospitals know to involve employees in the design of the spaces where they will work.  I discovered that being an architect requires a lot of sessions in conference, drawing up plans, revising plans, using multiple plats to ensure that none of the details are overlooked.

One major hospital project (in which I was not involved) went to construction and, when the employees moved in, it was discovered that the contractors had not gotten the plan for telephone lines.  There was neither wiring nor telephone jacks in the whole hospital.  Architects, I found, don’t spend their careers dreaming up daring designs.  Rather, they spend their lives attending to details.  Still, I look at the skyline in major cities and think, “Someone designed that beautiful structure.”

The last several months have included trips to Buffalo, New York where our daughter is going through a divorce and custody fight.  Visitations by our granddaughter’s father have been part of the process and, looking for something to entertain us and take our minds off of all of the nastiness, we went on a tour of the Darwin D. Martin house.  You can take a virtual tour Here.

Darwin Martin was a principal officer and what would now be called the Chief Financial Officer for The Larkin Soap Company, a large manufacturing company in Buffalo, New York that eventually sold china, groceries, dry goods and furniture.  Martin became quite wealthy and decided to have a home built by a young architect who had been involved in building one of the commercial buildings for his company.  Frank Lloyd Wright was by this time a close friend and agreed to build a home and suggested a piece of property that he felt would be advantageous. 

The house was built in what has become known as the Prairie House tradition created by Wright.  The land chosen is something of a mystery.  It was in an area of existing homes, mostly built in the popular Victorian styles of the day.  “Victorian” encompasses a number of Styles such as Queen Anne and Italianate.

The Prairie house broke away from styles like Neoclassical and Gilded Age in a number of ways.  The façade, first of all, was one that reflected the horizontal expanse of the plains.  The horizontal was emphasized in every detail, and the vertical either deemphasized or erased altogether.  In the Darwin Martin house this extends even to the masonry in the foundation.  Buff brick was laid with the grout scraped back in the horizontal while the vertical grout was left flush with the brick.  Although the house had a second floor it did not have the soaring feel emphasized in most multilevel homes; rather it felt close to the ground and expansive.

Rear of Darwin Martin House. ( Note grout treatment in brick walls)

Also, the exterior of the house did not reflect the design of the interior.  Doorways were not the dominant feature of a home.  In fact, in the Darwin Martin house they are hard to pick out from a distance.  The windows did not reflect the placement of rooms.  This allowed Wright to create a gallery of windows stretching across the face of the house.

Pergola to left.  Window gallery on second floor does not match interior room arrangement.  Note massive chimneys.  The flue is in there somewhere.

The most striking feature of the Martin house is only visible from the interior and no interior photographs were allowed during the tour.  From the entry way of the house there is a view through the rear of the home, down the long open pergola into the conservatory.  Although the conservatory is situated at a lower level than the home, there is a statue of Nike of Samothrace illuminated by a skylight and visible from the vestibule of the house.

For me, the most interesting aspects of the home were in the construction.  The house is built on a pier and steel beam principle.  There are no load-bearing walls.  This sort of construction is usually seen in skyscrapers.  The pier and beam support allowed Wright to place walls where he wanted, and allowed for great overhangs of the roof through counter levering the load.  The piers were hidden well and used as transits for heating ducts with the exterior being used as small libraries.  Wood was used extensively in the interior.

Front of home.  Note depth of eaves made possible by pier and beam.  Note the hidden rain gutters.

Wright did not like kitchens, but the kitchen in the Martin house is one of the largest he designed in a home.  Because kitchens were staffed by servants then they were not a central focus in a home as they are now.

Darwin Martin, a millionaire, lost everything during the depression and died a pauper.  His wife, unable to sell the house, walked out leaving the doors standing open.  Consequently, there was a great deal of weather related damage to the house.  Some of the portions of the home had to be torn down and rebuilt during renovation.  Others had extensive interior damage.  The flooring on the main level was tile.  Neighborhood children roller skated in the house after it was abandoned.

There was other damage that was related not to neglect but to design.  For Wright it seems that function followed form in many cases.  The gutters are hidden by full length catchment basins.  Fortunately, the home was not surrounded by trees.  It is hard to imagine cleaning the leaves out of the recessed gutters.  On the other hand, there were clean lines.  Downspouts consisted of a pipe that returned from the gutter under the soffits where they ended. Water then fell into a basin located at ground level.  Remember that Buffalo is way north.  The water froze in the basins, breaking the terra cotta pipe and creating a real mess.  The open pergola had no water drainage system and the huge snowfalls in Buffalo filled the walkway blocking passage.  In order to overcome this problem, a passageway was built underground to the conservatory.  This allowed access to the conservatory, but did nothing to take care of the snow melt in the spring.

The rebuilt conservatory is faithful in every detail to the original work.  It was built to fulfill the family’s request for a greenhouse.  I love greenhouses, but the conservatory is much more, part greenhouse, part meditation chamber, and entirely a thing of beauty.  It was the first thing built.  First because it would never have been built had it been last.

When the Martins got an estimate from Frank Lloyd Wright for cost of construction the estimate was $35, 000.  It actually cost $179,000 as I recall.  Mr. Wright was notorious for this kind of cost overrun.  Begun in 1904 the house was incomplete when the Martins moved in. 

The grounds today are mostly lawn with some shrubbery about the house.  The original landscaping was provided by Frederick Law Olmsted.  Olmsted, you may recall, was the landscape designer for the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

Olmsted also designed the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens.  The gardens feature a tri-domed glass, wood, and steel conservatory designed by Lord and Burnham. The conservatory is not just a greenhouse; it is a work of art.  The greenhouses are repository for plants from ecosystems varying from desert to tropical rain forest.

An amazing variety of cacti and succulents


Bird of Paradise

Orchids, orchids, orchids.

I have lots of photos of beautiful flowers that will remain anonymous.  If I had one complaint about the botanical gardens it would be that many of the plants had no label.

So, I got to see fine examples of what might have been the careers that I chose; horticulture and architecture.

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Comment by Alan Nothnagle on September 30, 2012 at 5:45am
Beautiful! Buffalo is a treasure chest of fantastic architecture (this is partially due to the city's poor economy, which has tended to preserve its earlier structures), and I lived there for two years, practically next-door to the Darwin Martin house. As I recall, it wasn't open to the public back then, so thanks for the pics and the link to the virtual tour!

A few weeks ago, on a visit to the Midwest, my girlfriend and I had the opportunity to visit the wonderful hotel that FL Wright built in Mason City, Iowa, and took a detour of the Porter house, a far more modest home he built for a local doctor. We fell in love with both. I think architects made a huge and tragic mistake when they bypassed FLW's style in favor of the Bauhaus, International Style, post-modernism, and everything that has come since.
Comment by Rodney Roe on September 30, 2012 at 6:36am

Alan Nothnagle, thanks for your comment.  Your assessment of the influence of the poor economy of Buffalo on preservation of older architecture is interesting and something I hadn't considered.  We, also, went to the Anchor Bar while we there simply because it is the home of Buffalo Wings.  An interesting place that was worth going to once.

I'm sorry we didn't know about Mason City when we lived in Iowa.  Bauhaus is interesting to me only as a method of reinventing existing architecture. 

Comment by Rodney Roe on September 30, 2012 at 6:40am

I forgot to mention that the Darwin Martin house is open for tours.  Sort of pricey.  We took the cheaper tour.  For twice the money you get to see the bedrooms upstairs.  Renovation is still in progress.  When completed the house will be turned over to the state of New York.

Comment by Christine Geery on October 2, 2012 at 8:32am

Love this. These photos are amazing. Inserting some humor here...Mark Twain said, "To commit suicide in Buffalo is redundant."  I have an Aunt and Uncle who live in Orchard Park near Buffalo, so I never saw the beauty of this city. Next time I go I will make a point of it.

Comment by Rodney Roe on October 2, 2012 at 10:30am

Christine, Mark Twain had a point.  I could go into a long list of reasons why I wouldn't want to live in Buffalo (or suburbs).  The secret is to look beyond the obvious for hidden beauty.  Beauty is everywhere.  For example, I didn't insert a picture of the parking lot outside the greenhouse.  It was just a parking lot.  What lay above that was the kind of sky you only see in table flat regions near water.  The sky was intensely blue with huge white cumulus clouds.  I love the mountains where I live but we never get those skies.

Comment by Christine Geery on October 2, 2012 at 10:53am

Point well taken. I,too see beauty wherever I go.

Comment by Joan H on October 3, 2012 at 4:14am

This is a fascinating post in many ways. I still think about what I want to be someday...

The architecture is wonderful. 

Comment by koshersalaami on October 3, 2012 at 5:00am

It sounds like Wright would have been maddening to work with, not taking the Buffalo weather into account and those cost overruns. But he had a great aesthetic.

Comment by Rodney Roe on October 3, 2012 at 8:27am

Joan H.  "The Path Not Taken" might make a good word yoga, or challenge of some kind.  I often wonder what the unrealized dreams of others are/were.

Koshersalaami, I agree.  Many of the failures that occurred in Wright's structures came about because his design was ahead of the technology to support it.  And a 10% overrun is one thing, but 500%? 

Comment by Ardee WNC on October 3, 2012 at 9:36am

I spent 1 year in architecture school, loving buildings, but ultimately hating the long and compromised process of creating them. During that year, I became a FLW acolyte, and re-drew plans of some of his well-known houses. The interesting thing is, they are more fun as plans than as buildings. Like the house designed in the shape of a musical note and the house (I think the Arnold house) drawn completely in hexagonal units, so you can do the entire plan with a 30/60/90 triangle. I think he enjoyed the drawing stage more than the building.

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