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MARTIN HOUSE SHUT AFTER WEEKEND THEFT OF RARE WRIGHT CHAIR

A rare Frank Lloyd Wright-designed chair has been stolen from the Darwin Martin House on Jewett Parkway in Buffalo, prompting officials to close the house to the public until security can be beefed up.

The chair is valued at between $60,000 and $70,000.

Bruno Freschi, dean of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, said Sunday that the weekend theft has forced the issue of improved security.

"We believe this (incident) has something to do with the tours, so effective immediately I've ordered the house closed to the public and canceled all the tours for the month of January," Freschi said.

He called the decision to close the house regrettable but necessary to reduce the risk of additional thefts of valuables.

"There will be an entirely new security system and an improved procedure for screening visitors. The house has to be upgraded to museum standards," Freschi added.

UB security officials told The Buffalo News that the oak barrel arm chair was discovered missing from the house at 125 Jewett Parkway about 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

Officials said guides preparing for an afternoon tour of the Wright-designed home noticed the chair missing from the living room.

There were no signs of forced entry, leading officials to speculate that someone hid in the home after the Saturday tour concluded and later left with the 40-pound chair.

A tour guide said the person could have hidden in the house until the security guard and caretaker left and then departed with the chair through a rear self-locking door.

A security alarm reportedly went off at the home about 5 p.m. Saturday, but all doors were found locked and secure when UB officers responded.

The chair was designed and constructed shortly after the turn of the century. The surprisingly comfortable, curved-back chair is one of an original set of six.

One matching chair remains in the reception area of the house, while two others were sold by Christie's auction house in New York City for $220,000 in June 1989.

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery owns one of the chairs, and the sixth is privately owned.

Freschi said a description of the chair was immediately given to an international security network in the event anyone tries to sell or trade it. However, he admitted that the chances are slim that the chair will resurface.

"The person who took it knows what they have and knows it's readily identifiable. So if it's in someone's home for their personal use, it probably won't be found," Freschi said.

This marks the second theft this year from the house. In April, UB officials said a small footstool, believed to be an original furnishing of the house, was taken. To date, authorities have no leads on its whereabouts.

As in the chair theft, there were no signs of a break-in, and there was speculation that it was taken while the structure was open for a public tour.

Susan A. McCartney, president of the Preservation Coalition of Erie County, called the theft a terrible loss to the house and the community.

But she questioned the wisdom of closing the house to the public, even for a limited time.

"Other museums have pieces stolen or paintings vandalized and they don't close for even an hour. Can you imagine the Louvre or the Albright-Knox closing for a month while they tighten security?" she asked.

Ms. McCartney also noted that at a time when it is hoped that a major campaign will be waged to pay for restoring the landmark, it may not be wise to shut out the public.

"It's one of the greatest architectural treasures in the state and, in fact, it's owned by the taxpayers. It's not appropriate to shut the doors," she said.

John Conlin, of the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier, questioned why security wasn't beefed up after last spring's footstool theft.

"I would have thought the precautions would have already been taken. Now we've lost a world-class piece of furniture, and it's a double loss because we're losing public access on top of it," Conlin said.

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