Darwin Martin brings avant-garde architecture to Parkside

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

In 1902, the corner of Summit Avenue and Jewett Parkway saw construction begin on what was to become Parkside’s most famous landmark, as the complex of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for his great patron Darwin Martin began to rise from the earth.

A prominent figure in the organization of the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, and eventually tabbed by President Wilson for a National Defense post during the First World War, Darwin Martin moved to Parkside in 1897. He built his first house about a block north of the home now known as the “Darwin Martin House,” at 151 Summit Avenue.

An executive at the nationally popular and successful Larkin Soap Company, Martin was a millionaire by the turn of the century, and decided to build a home commensurate with his family’s lifestyle and their place in Buffalo Society. Having come from a broken home and spending his youth working in a host of odd jobs, Martin also hoped to provide room on his new sprawling estate for his extended family, including his brothers and sisters.

After flying to Chicago to meet with the young Frank Lloyd Wright, Martin commissioned him to build his sister a home. The Barton House, built for Martin’s sister Delta and her husband, George Barton, was the first of several buildings erected on the Martin Complex in 1902. She was the only Martin sibling to take him up on his offer of a home in Parkside.

An early view of the Darwin Martin house, from before 1911.

The complex, complete with the main home, the Barton House, a Gardener’s Cottage, a carriage house, a pergola, a conservatory, a stable, and a porte-cochere, was Wright’s most expansive prairie style project, and one of the largest home complexes he ever built.

The home’s “Tree of Life” windows are instantly recognizable the world ’round.By 1906, the main house– The Darwin Martin House– was ready for move-in by the family. It’s low, horizontal-lined Prairie style design was (and is) certainly a contrast with the more traditional home styles in the neighborhood.

While many scholars have often looked to the architectural masterpiece as Wright’s finest example in the Prairie style, the biggest endorsement came from Wright himself. Plans for the Martin House long hung in on his office wall, described by the architect as “a well-nigh perfect composition.”

Wright also designed a home for another Larkin Executive in Parkside. In 1908, the Walter V. Davidson home was built at 57 Tillinghast Place.

Martin would also have Wright design his lakeshore summer home, Graycliff, in Derby, in 1927. It was also almost entirely on Martin’s word that Wright was retained to build the Larkin Headquarters on Seneca Street.

The pioneering office building was torn down in 1950. Eventually, over a lifetime of patronage, Martin was either directly or indirectly responsible for the commission of at least 15 Wright buildings. When Darwin Martin lay dying in 1935, Wright wrote to Martin’s wife Isabel that their friendship was a “blessed relationship to treasure and travel on.”

©2009 Buffalo Stories LLC, staffannouncer.com, and Steve Cichon

This page is an excerpt from
The Complete History of Parkside
by Steve Cichon

The 174-page book is available along with Steve’s other books online at The Buffalo Stories Bookstore and from fine booksellers around Western New York. 

Published by

Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. The operator of Buffalo Stories Tours writes about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo special at blog.buffalostories.com and daily at buffalonews.com/history. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and spent 20 years working in Buffalo radio and TV, climbing his way to news director at WBEN Radio. Since then, he's been an adjunct professor and produced PBS documentaries. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.