When I first moved to the Parkside neighborhood, my wife and I lived across from the Gardener’s Cottage on Woodward Avenue and got to know our neighbors there. How cool was that? Getting to socialize in a delightful little house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the gardener employed by Darwin D. Martin, the executive who led the once mighty Larkin Soap Co.
Unfortunately, the nearby Martin House itself was depressing. It was a tired hulk of a building, its great bones barely showing, the backyard cheapened by three ugly, two-story apartment buildings, thrown up after the open-air pergola, a once-lush conservatory and the carriage house with its quirky 115 corners had all been torn down in 1962.
The nearby Barton House designed by Wright for Martin’s sister Delta and her husband, George, was in much better shape, restored lovingly by architect Eleanor Larrabee and her husband, Eric. But all connections with the complex that Martin had once planned for his family had been removed.
Like the city itself at the time, the Martin house was a shabby reminder of the grandeur Buffalo once enjoyed. The Queen City of the Lakes, the eighth-largest city in the country in 1900, where the nation’s best architects fought to compete, where Frederick Law Olmsted laid out his first park system, had become a dowager in a tattered gown.
Now when I walk down Jewett Parkway for the weekly two-hour tours I lead at the Martin House, I almost have to pinch myself to realize what’s in front of me. I walk past cars with out-of-state plates – last week, it was Virginia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Tennessee – and into the glass-walled Greatbatch Visitors Pavilion designed by Toshiko Mori, where I greet the 20 or so people I’ll lead on my tour.
They are architectural tourists who travel the country to see buildings designed by Wright. And through those huge panes of glass, they see one of the flamboyant architect’s finest designs, the house that Wright once called his domestic symphony, his opus, restored and rebuilt in loving detail.
Our visitors are impressed with what the Martin House Restoration Corp. has done, especially when they learn the history of the house: how it was abandoned by Isabelle Martin in 1937 after Darwin died, virtually broke after the stock market crash; how it sat empty for 17 years until local architect Sebastian Tauriello bought the house; how he was unable to save the rear of the property and sold it to developers who demolished three Wright structures and put up those wretched apartments.
These visitors, soon to number 40,000 a year, eat in our restaurants, stay in our hotels and visit architectural treasures like Graycliff, the summer home Wright designed for the Martins on Lake Erie. They look at two other Wright homes built for Larkin executives, they visit the boat house on the Black Rock Channel that Wright designed for the University of Wisconsin, the Wright mausoleum at Forest Lawn, the new Wright-designed gas station at the Pierce Arrow Museum, Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building downtown and the psychiatric hospital designed by Henry Hobson Richardson under restoration.
They like what they see. They tell us they never realized Buffalo is so beautiful. We who live here always knew it. The old girl just needed a little tender loving care.