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Restoring three-part harmony to a century-old design Second-floor walls reverting to Wright's Martin House vision

Beholding the nearly restored Darwin Martin House, you would never guess the Roman brick exterior you see today does not conform precisely to Frank Lloyd Wright's century-old blueprint.

Look again. Something is indeed amiss. In three places -- along the Jewett Parkway front and on the east and west sides -- the second-floor walls are pushed out almost to the edges of the deep, broad eaves that are a hallmark of Wright's so-called prairie houses.

The changes were made by the Martin family in 1920 without consulting the architect, in order to let more daylight into a sitting room in front, as well as a rear bedroom. Darwin Martin's vision-impaired wife, Isabel, was no great fan of Wright or his purposely dim interior, which she felt was dreary and difficult to get around in.

Wright must have seen the build-outs during a 1937 visit to Buffalo but evidently kept any objections to himself.

"We don't know if he ever commented on them," said Mary F. Roberts, chief operating officer of Martin House Restoration Corp.

Nevertheless, Wright surely would be pleased to know that the organization intends to put the walls back where they were -- in harmony with the rest of the exterior -- during the $6 million next phase of its $50 million restoration of the complex at Jewett and Summit Avenue.

Bids on five contracts are due Jan. 17. Work is expected to begin in February, with a completion target of January 2008.

To the extent possible, the nonprofit group wants the property to eventually appear as it did on completion in 1907, Roberts said.

The Martins' tinkering "significantly altered the look of the building -- to the trained eye, anyway," Roberts said. "The changes were not so offensive as to be noticeable, but when they're corrected, it will make a lot of sense."

The new construction phase also will include restoration of the broad veranda at the main house's eastern side and rebuilding the four-sided fireplace that divided the foyer and the living room.

The latter, which had a glass mosaic tile surface and a huge hearth that opened onto both rooms, was "really a showpiece" among many distinctive features in the 15,000-square-foot mansion, Roberts said.

A wheelchair entrance, including a lift, will be installed off the kitchen on the west side.

Meanwhile, the fine-tuning of architect Toshiko Mori's plan for the Martin House visitors center is nearly over. "We're waiting for one more answer from the architect," Roberts said. "We hope to have some movement on that as early as possible this year."

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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