National Treasure: The Darwin Martin House Renewed

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

When Frank Lloyd Wright inscribed a copy of his autobiography to Darwin and Isabelle Martin in 1932, he did so with a dramatic flourish, sending their way the sort of praise he usually only lavished on his own  work:” To Darwin D. Martin and his wife—hero and heroine of this tale—with esteem, affection and gratitude from their architect – Frank Lloyd Wright.”

The inscription juxtaposes wonderfully with a note written to Sebastian Tauriello, the Buffalo architect who bought the nearly 20-year abandoned Darwin Martin House on Jewett Parkway in 1954. The home had been sacked by vandals, neighborhood children, and by the son of the original owner Darwin D. Martin, Darwin R. Martin.

Tauriello thought having a copy of the original plans of the home might help him in the almost insurmountable task of bringing new life to the home that Wright called “The Opus.”  He wrote to the by-then aged Martin, who no doubt knew of the condition of the home, and the massive efforts about to be undertaken to breathe new life into his worn masterpiece. Wright’s response was frosty at best:

Dear “Tauriello”: Hope you treat the opus according to its merits. When we return to Wisconsin May first I will look up the plans and send you a set of prints with a bill for the prints.

Uncertain of what a bill from an eccentric Frank Lloyd Wright might be, the Tauriello family proceeded without the plans.       

As “the opus” sat in a state of disrepair, rotting, several individuals and organizations made attempts to salvage and save the house from the time it was abandoned by the Martin family in 1937. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra tried, unsuccessfully, to raise funds to buy the home. The City, which bought the home for $394.53, did so when it was auctioned for taxes in 1946.

In 1952, the city swapped properties with Patrick Dwyer. The city wanted to build a school on land Dwyer had owned elsewhere in the city, and Dwyer immediately started plans to raze the entire Martin complex, including the main home, to make way for an apartment building. Neighborhood outcry, more concerned about property values than the possibility of losing an architectural treasure, quickly ended those plans.

Driving along Jewett Parkway one day, Sebastian Tauriello became interested in the Martin House after seeing the “For Sale” sign planted in the yard by Dwyer. The successful Buffalo architect, who lived with his family on Amherst Street, was well aware that the home was built as the finest, most complete example of Wright’s Prairie Style. But by 1954, it was a decrepit eyesore that that been sold for taxes eight years earlier, and was known as a place for adventuresome neighborhood kids to climb inside and find “stuff” (albeit Frank Lloyd Wright designed “stuff”) to smash and break.

The home itself was assessed at $0, because of the severe damage the structure had endured. The property was assessed at $22,000, and that’s what the Tauriello family paid for the house, pergola, conservatory, and garage in April 1954.

Mortgages of $35,000 were taken out to begin the process of turning the crumbling edifice into a home. The sprawling main house was divided into a living space for the Tauriello family, an office for his architecture business, and two other apartments.

One of the apartments was occupied by 1930s Buffalo radio star and later WBEN-TV Station Manager George Torge for virtually the entire time the family owned the home.

Darwin Martin House, 1965. The sign reads “Jewett Gardens.”

In order to afford the massive undertaking, the Tauriello family had, from the beginning, planned to sell most of the two acres of land that came with the house. These plans were realized in 1960, when Tauriello had the severely damaged pergola, conservatory and garage demolished to make the land desirable to buyers. Unlike the attempts almost a decade earlier to build apartment buildings on the property, neighbors seemed accepting of plans given the tremendous amount of work that had been poured into the property.

Three apartment buildings were constructed in the backyard of the Martin House, two stories high, holding a total of 20 units. Dubbed The Jewett Gardens, the construction isolated the three remaining structures of the original Martin complex: The Martin House, the Barton House, and the Gardener’s Cottage.

Sebastian & Ruth Tauriello and family saw through renovations to the Martin House to shore it up, and make it a home befitting their own tastes. Their efforts almost certainly saved a neighborhood landmark from continued decay and worse. Sebastian Tauriello died in 1965, and in 1967, UB President Martin Meyerson had the University purchase the home as the President’s Residence. The UB School of Architecture endeavored to make sure that Buffalo and the world knew what a treasure stood at the corner of Jewett Parkway and Summit Avenue, made much easier with the growing appreciation of Frank Lloyd Wright, and particularly his Prairie style.

View of apartments from Woodward Avenue. Built 1960, torn down 2003.  Note also the Parkside purchased Streng Olds in the driveway. Bernard Wagner photo.

Eventually, the home no longer fit in SUNY plans, and, in 1980, neighbors were worried as UB was about to hand the home over to the state for disposition. The PCA was very concerned that the house remain in public hands and that it be available for tours.

That concern grew into an effort that had the house designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1986. Martin House Curator John O’Hern told the Buffalo News at the time of the designation, “This brings attention to the fact that the building has national significance, and not just local significance. Sometimes we need to be reminded by somebody outside our area about what we have.”

John C. Courtin, a longtime Jewett Avenue resident, served many years as the liaison between the Parkside Community Association and the group coordinating restoration efforts at the Darwin Martin House starting in the 1980s. He also played a vital role in the massive renovation and restoration that’s taken place at the complex through the 1990s and 2000s.

The Darwin Martin House Restoration Corporation was officially founded, and a cooperation agreement signed between the group, SUNY Buffalo, and the State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation on March 26, 1993 at the Martin House.

Three phases of complete restoration have taken place. Surrounding lands and homes have been purchased and returned to the way they were in 1907. In a reversal of history, the three large apartment complexes constructed on the grounds in the 1960s were demolished, in order to make way for the rebuild of the Wright designed pergola, conservatory, and carriage house; just as the decrepit 60 year old remnants of the Wright Originals were condemned to make way for the apartment structures.

Governor George Pataki and Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer were among the dignitaries in attendance as the ribbon was cut on the restored buildings on October 4, 2006. The ribbon was cut by Eric Lloyd Wright and Darwin Martin Foster, the grandsons of the architect and the patron.

In 2009, a new visitors’ center, The Greatbatch Pavilion, was opened to the public. The $5 million glass enclosed structure was designed by Toshiko Mori.

The three homes on the Darwin Martin House Complex are only the beginning of the Frank Lloyd Wright/Martin influence in the neighborhood. Martin’s first home in Parkside was a Victorian built a block away from the famous complex on Summit Avenue. Wright designed a home for another Larkin Soap Executive, Walter Davidson, on Tillinghast Place. The home above, on the corner of Willowlawn and Crescent, was built for Mrs. Bagnell, the music teacher of the Martin Children. Frank Lloyd Wright actually visited with her, but she was shocked by the price involved. So Emerson Dell, a Wright trainee, designed her home of much more modest materials in the Prairie style.

While the world-renown Wright structures that are a part of the Martin Complex have been in the spotlight and gained worldwide attention for decades, Parkside is also the home of another Wright home that has gone under a transformation in recent years.

The Walter V. Davidson House, at 57 Tillinghast Place, was purchased by businessman Russ Maxwell in 2006. He hoped to open the home as an upscale, rentable-by-the night bed-and-breakfast-without-the-breakfast setup, but neighbors verbosely opposed the plan.

None the less, the home has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in much needed TLC, paint, and landscaping, and has been opened often for various occasions and events, including the Parkside Tour of Homes. 

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

The full text of the book is now online. 

The original 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. 

©2009, 2021 Buffalo Stories LLC, staffannouncer.com, and Steve Cichon

 

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon writes about Buffalo’s pop culture history. His stories of Buffalo's past have appeared more than 1600 times in The Buffalo News. He's a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. Since the earliest days of the internet, Cichon's been creating content celebrating the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The 25-year veteran of Buffalo radio and television has written five books and curates The Buffalo Stories Archives-- hundreds of thousands of books, images, and audio/visual media which tell the stories of who we are in Western New York.