Built between 1903 and 1905, the Darwin D. Martin House complex is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most celebrated residential designs. With six constituent pieces—the Darwin Martin House, the George Barton House, a pergola, conservatory, carriage house, and gardener’s cottage—the complex occupies a corner site in the prestigious Parkside East neighborhood of Buffalo. Though known to be important works, the structures were not always cared for: They either endured long periods of neglect, or, in the case of the pergola, conservatory and carriage house, were altogether demolished.
In 1992, nearby residents formed the Martin House Restoration Corporation (MHRC) in an effort to reclaim this important piece of the city’s architectural history. Now, 17 years later, they are seeing light at the end of the tunnel, with the property entering its final phase of restoration work, and with the finishing touches being applied to a new Toshiko Mori-designed visitor center. Officially called the Eleanor and Wilson Greatbatch Pavilion, the visitor center opens to the public on March 18.
Mori, a New York architect and the former chair of Harvard’s architecture department, says the Darwin Martin House is one of the three most significant residences designed by Wright, the others being the Robie House in Chicago and Fallingwater in Pennsylvania. “Each time I go there, I discover something different and complex,” she says of the Buffalo dwelling. “The details are exquisite.”
Her commission was to design a 7,775-square-foot pavilion that would contain exhibition and educational spaces. Although the pavilion sits on an adjacent site that falls outside the historical boundary, it is, nevertheless, visually connected to the original structure. Mori approached the design by clearly establishing separateness from Wright’s building, while picking up essential cues from his design. “This was one of the most difficult projects I have done,” she confesses. “How do you build so close to Frank Lloyd Wright?”
The pavilion engages in what Mori calls a “double-reading.” Referring to Wright’s original structures, she says that “the pavilion had to be read separately so that it didn’t try to compete with Wright, but it should also be read as participating in a compound of six elements.”
One of the pavilion’s four sides is a concrete wall that was cast using a form that suggests masonry units with the same dimensions as Wright’s elongated custom bricks. Therefore, the wall features the same pattern found on Wright’s surface, tracing a memory of Wright without overtly mimicking it. Mori used glass on the other sides, providing unencumbered views of the property.
The pavilion’s module reflects the columnar spacing of Wright’s pergola, while the reverse hip roof recalls Wright’s trademark flat roof overhangs. But in no way can the new building be confused with the old. “Toshiko’s pavilion is entirely deferential, but also completely contemporary,” says MHRC Executive Director Mary Roberts.
Meanwhile, next door, the Martin House itself is undergoing the fifth and final phase of a major restoration overseen by Hamilton Houston Lownie Architects, based in Buffalo. Having reconstructed demolished elements, along with restoring all exteriors, work is now under way on interiors, furniture, and the landscape. The MHRC hopes to complete the project by 2011, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation will hold its annual conference in Buffalo. The MHRC has raised $39 million of the estimated $50 million that it will eventually need to complete the project.
“Generally speaking, the economic downturn has made fundraising more difficult, and we are finding that, too,” explains Roberts. “We have a leg-up, though, since we are already three-fourths done, and since the importance of these cultural sites provides evidence as compelling economic investments.”
Despite current economic conditions, she remains entirely optimistic, understanding the significance of what they have accomplished so far. “The project has been embraced at all levels—individual, corporate and public,” adds Roberts. “In many ways, Buffalo can serve as an example to other post-industrial cities across the U.S. that may be dealing with similar issues.” Indeed, Mori notes that one of the most impressive elements of the project was the way citizens banded together to protect the Darwin Martin complex. “They didn’t wait for anything,” she says. “They did it all on their own.”