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No need to rebuild? the Larkin Building

The idea has recently been advanced in this column that it would be great for Buffalo to rebuild Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Administration Building on Seneca Street. The writer notes that "anything Wright is a hot ticket item in the United States," and muses about excavating a filled-in basement level that never existed. As the author of "Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Building: Myth and Fact" and a founding member of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, a national body that works to preserve Wright's remaining buildings, I would like to go on record against such a project and against any further erection of Wright's lost or unbuilt work. Here are my reasons:

First there is the issue of cost. A serious reconstruction effort such as has been under way at the Darwin D. Martin House since 1994 would cost at least $100 million and probably much more. Anything less than perfection, a mere pastiche of the original, would be an embarrassment to the city. Consider how such a building would function if it were to be built. Presumably it would be identified as a museum of some kind, though it would be singularly unsuited to such a purpose.

The Larkin Administration Building was designed to satisfy the highly specific needs of a soap and mail order business now long defunct. Four tiers of balconies surrounding its light court housed secretaries answering and filing 5,000 customer letters a day. Closed off from the noise, smell and dirt of scores of railroad trains, soap vats, slaughter houses, breweries and metal industries, it once hummed with purposeful activity. Would anyone seriously want to fund the reproduction of 1,800 steel and cast iron desks and chairs weighing 700 pounds each? If not, how interesting would the empty light court be to visitors even it if were meticulously reproduced? The principal motives behind the idea of reconstructing the Larkin Building are sentimentality (something Wright abhorred) and a collective guilt over the wanton destruction of the original. These are not the sources of visionary thinking.

Second, such a reconstruction would also be wholly inauthentic, just as the other recently built ersatz Wright structures in Buffalo lack authenticity owing to contemporary building codes, the unavailability of materials, inappropriate siting and the distortion of Wright's characteristically diminutive scale. So it would not really be a Wright building.

What such a reconstruction would do, however, is to further dilute the integrity of what Wright has left to Buffalo and that of our world-renowned buildings by Adler and Sullivan, H.H. Richardson, Eliel Saarinen and Daniel Burnham, to say nothing of the historic fabric of the city constructed by a host of excellent local architects over the past 180 years. Even now tours are being conducted that sweep together and blur the distinction between what is authentic and what is not, a Disneyfication that only lowers public standards and cheapens the city's history. History is, after all, inherently authentic. It can't be remade or undone.

Upon hearing of the destruction of the Larkin Building in 1950 Wright is reported to have said, "Well, it has taken the place in the thought of the world," that is, he acknowledged the historical significance of the building and moved on, as we should.

Jack Quinan is a distinguished service professor at the University at Buffalo and senior curator of the Darwin D. Martin House.