Buffalo in the 1900s: Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘freak mansion’

By Steve Cichon

Tens of millions of dollars into a decade-long renovation, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House is among the crown jewels in Buffalo’s resurgence in architectural tourism.

The house that Wright built: the Darwin Martin House on Jewett Parkway.

Wright called the home his “opus” and considered it one of his great designs, but as it was being built in 1905, not everyone in Buffalo felt that way. Those feelings were reflected in the pages of The Buffalo Courier, which referred to the place as the “Martin freak mansion” in one story and then as “the freak house of the twentieth century” in another.

Buffalo Stories archives

The text of an article about the Martin House from the Courier’s Real Estate page follows.

Buffalo Courier, 1905. (Buffalo Stories archives)


The freak house of the twentieth century on this continent is now being built at Jewett and Summit avenues, Parkside. It will be built entirely of angles. Except for two arched fireplaces, there will not be a curve anywhere, from the walls that form the shell of the house to the spindles that help form the banisters of the stairways.

But in this house of successively multiplying series of sharp angles will be about as comfortable a home as can be made on earth. It will be lighted by its own electric plant. It will be heated by its own hot water plant. All the water supply will be filtered. The hot water supply will always run hot immediately because it will be “on circulation.” A passage 10 feet long underneath a pergola will connect the house with the stable. The passage will also be utilized as a bowling alley.

It may prove to be a house of puzzles to the undiscerning visitor. No steps will be seen by the coming guest, although there will be two sets in the front portion of the house, to say nothing of two more sets leading to a broad veranda. And when the guest gets inside the house he’ll have a hard time finding a way to the second story. There will be one stairway for the use of the family and its guests. But it will start unobtrusively from a spot that has 33 reproductions. So there will be only one chance in 34 of finding the stairway. As the architect expresses it, “we mortify our staircases”— they are a means to an end and never a feature.

The owner of this house is Darwin D. Martin. The architect is Frank Lloyd Wright of Chicago. He is trying to found a simple style of American architecture.

The house is being built on a lot having 200 feet on Jewett Avenue and 300 feet on Summit Avenue. It faces on Jewett. The house will be 155 feet wide, while its deepest dimension will be 88 feet. It will be only 30 feet high. It will have a deep basement and two stories. Above the base of white concrete the walls are of brick faced with slender Roman vitreous brick running in this from tan to orange. The face brick is laid with half-inch sunken joints, thus serving to bring the beauty of the coloring into greater relief “like corded silk.” These walls will run up to a low hover hip roof of red tile with cornices 5 1/2 feet beyond the face of the building. The outline of the building will be broken up by many angles, always perfectly balanced by angles on the other side.

Every point in the building inside and out will be balanced by some other point.

A broad veranda on the east side of the house is balanced by a large porte cochere on the west side. The projection from the front wall of the building made by the extension of the library is balanced by a similar projection of the dining room from the rear wall.

A pergola 80 feet long and 10 feet wide will connect the house with a conservatory in the rear lot. This building is 18 feet wide by 60 feet and 15 feet high. To the left or west of the conservatory is the stable, which is practically finished. Both conservatory and stable are faced with the Roman brick and contain series of balanced angles of their own. All the buildings will be fireproof.

The outside steps of the house will be concealed by piers of the face brick topped by concrete coping on which will be placed stone vases four feet across. Although the top of the basement windows will be three feet above the level of the ground they, too, will be hidden. A series of terraces will effectually bar them from outside observation. Yet they will shed a profusion of light into that section of the building.

The house and its connected buildings will have an artistic setting.

The interior of the house will have a simple elegance more costly than ornate embellishments and will be carried out on the same principles as the exterior. The cost of the building is estimated at $150,000.


The Buffalo You Should Know: How we lost the Larkin Administration Building

By Steve Cichon

At the turn of the century, The Buffalo-based Larkin Company was one of the nation’s largest retailers, first selling soap, and eventually a range of items — second only to Sears & Roebuck — from its catalogs that reached 1.5 million homes.

Drawing of the company complex from a Larkin publication, 1925 (Buffalo Stories archives)

The money being sent into the Larkin complex near Seneca and Swan streets was unprecedented. It was enough that $4 million didn’t seem too steep when executives, impressed with Larkin Secretary Darwin D. Martin’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home, asked Wright to design a new administration building for the company. The structure, the cost of which would be close to $100 million in 2016 dollars, was completed in 1906.

From a postcard (Buffalo Stories archives)

At the time, the office space was the latest in modern design. It was lauded by those who appreciated art and architecture around the world, and pointed to as an example of the country’s “coming of age” in design innovation. When an exhibition showcasing three centuries of American architecture moved from New York’s Museum of Modern Art to the Albright (now Albright-Knox) Art Gallery in Buffalo in 1938, Buffalo’s Larkin Administration Building was one of the stars.

“It has received considerable praise for the boldness with which the architect cut with tradition in order to bring light into hitherto gloomy interiors,” said one review. Wright took credit for designing the country’s first metal office furniture for the structure.

The design also made it a pleasant place to work, with a mix of natural and artificial light, waterfalls, and a pipe organ all meant to make the day’s toil a bit less burdensome for the everyday Joe working there. It was the jewel in the Larkin crown for 30 years.

In a gross simplification, through the Depression business dwindled for the Larkin Company. The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed headquarters building, where incoming mail-order cash was once loaded into quickly filled bushel baskets for easy carrying, was renovated into a Larkin storefront in 1939 when the mail-order business died out.

Larkin Co. collectibles were shown in a 2004 exhibit at the Larkin at Exchange Building. These Larkin Co. products were part of a collection from Gail Belliveau of Willington, Conn. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

Announcements of the building’s conversion mix awe of Wright’s “sensational” and “outstanding” structure, while also bragging of the “modernizing” of the interior — stripping it of most of Wright’s design.

Larkin stumbled into the war years. In 1940, Larkin and subsidiaries were $38,000 in arrears to the City of Buffalo for taxes and looking to make payment plans. Three years later, cash-strapped Larkin sold its headquarters building to a Pennsylvania real estate investor, who had hoped to turn a profit with possible federal government interest in the building.

The hopes of that out-of-state investor were never realized, and the City of Buffalo seized the building for back taxes.

As one of the few open spaces in the city that could accommodate such an enterprise, in 1946 it was hoped that the building might become Buffalo’s new Veteran’s Administration headquarters, but the current Bailey Avenue structure was built instead.

Once that plan fell through, the City Council discussed an offer to buy the building — which was assessed at $237,000 — for $26,000. City Comptroller George Wanamaker said the offer was too low, and asked that he be allowed to advertise the building nationally and locally.

The council approved $6,000 to advertise the building, although Council Majority Leader George Evans called it “gambling with the taxpayers’ money,” saying that every real estate person in Buffalo knows the building is available.

In January 1947, large ads were taken out in a total of seven papers in New York and Chicago, as well as The Buffalo Evening News and the Courier-Express.

Buffalo Stories archives

Three months after the advertising blitz, there were plenty of inquiries, but no bids. Wanamaker also tried to market the 92,000-square foot building to someone who might convert it to housing, but city engineers eventually determined that the site wasn’t appropriate for housing. The state was offered the building as a record storage facility, but the offer was declined.

Based apparently more on the structuring of the contract than the money, the Common Council rejected a second offer, this one $25,000, in Jun, 1947.

During a time when The Buffalo Evening News and the Courier-Express rarely agreed on any editorial stance, both papers took up one official’s calling the Wright masterpiece “a white elephant.”

Admitting that the building seemed to have no commercial appeal, Mayor Bernard Dowd offered it to the county, which was looking for space to house some offices. He said the building had “attractive features” for municipal work, but it never came to be.

Nearly a year passed before another offer was received. It was again for $26,000, and it was again rejected as too low. A month later, however, a $500 option to buy the building for that amount was accepted. Whether the councilmen who voted to accept the offer knew who the actual bidder was or not is unclear, but published reports named Chestor, Inc., a local real estate company, as the buyer on behalf of an undisclosed client.

It was eventually unveiled that the bidder was Magnus Benzing, manager of the Magnus Beck Brewery. While he wouldn’t unveil his plans, he did say they weren’t brewing or housing related. Benzing eventually declined his option, and the building sat empty.

An informational marker on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building stands at Swan and Seymour streets. (Buffalo News file photo)

During the spring of 1949, Ellicott District Councilman Joseph Dudzick — famous as the inspiration for the gin mill owner in his son Tom’s “Over the Tavern” plays — proposed the Larkin Administration Building be transformed into a recreation center.

“This once-beautiful structure that attracted visitors from all over the world has become an eyesore and a tax-devouring white elephant,” said ‘Big Joe’ Dudzick. “Practically everybody who has looked at it with the intention of using the building for business purposes has declared it beyond repair for practical business use. There is no wisdom in allowing the building to deteriorate further until it becomes a pile of crumbling brick, especially when it can be put to good use in building the bodies, minds and character of the city’s youth.”

“We’ve got a community blight on our hands,” said Dudzick, “But it can be transformed into a worthwhile medium to combat juvenile delinquency.”

It was another idea to save the building which never made it past the proposal stage.

On Sept. 13, 1949, the Common Council voted to sell Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building — once the most modern office building in the world — for the sum of $5,000, with the knowledge that it was another unknown bidder’s intention to demolish the building and then replace it with a new structure to add back to the tax rolls.

Immediate reaction to the sale to Buffalo’s Western Trading Company was positive. The term “white elephant” and a relieved sigh of “finis” were thrown around, as it was clear the city wanted to be rid of the burden of this building.

Unlike his predecessor Wanamaker, new City Comptroller Edward Neider had been doing his best to “dispose of” the property and bring it back to the city tax rolls since he’d “inherited it” upon assuming the office.

“I believe the city has made the best possible disposition in accepting an offer of purchase for $5,000,” the comptroller said. Outside City Hall, however, the impeding demolition was panned by architects and architecture historians everywhere, including on the pages of New York City newspapers.

In this photo from 2006, a wall stands at Swan and Seymour streets marking the location of the Larkin Administration Building. The Seneca Industrial Complex on Seneca Street looms in the background. (Buffalo News file photo)

While vandals had begun the work of demolishing the building, stripping it of nearly every light fixture, doorknob and plumbing line, the solidly built steel framed and poured-concrete girded building took an agonizing six months and six figures to demolish.

Larkin historian Jerome Puma writes that pieces of “the building that was meant to last forever” do live on, however humbly. Chunks of stone and brick from the building were used to backfill the Ohio Basin, and the 24-inch steel floor beams made by Bethlehem Steel were last known to be holding the earth in place above a West Virginia coal mine.

After the world-famous structure was cleared away, Western Trading petitioned Buffalo’s Common Council for a variance to move the truck terminal they had planned for the site, saying in part that the newly opened up land would just be too valuable as a parking lot for the rest of the Larkin complex. The council agreed, and the space remains a parking lot to this day.

Darwin Martin brings avant-garde architecture to Parkside

By Steve Cichon

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.