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‘An education space like none other’ in one of Buffalo’s architectural treasures

Once upon a time, kindergarten classes were held in the basement of the Darwin D. Martin House.

While the Martins used the basement for entertaining, Isabelle Martin and other women in their Jewett Parkway neighborhood educated children in the basement.

The basement was designed to mirror the primary living space on the first floor, down to the rich woodwork and pigment-washed walls. But like the rest of the North Buffalo campus that Frank Lloyd Wright designed, the basement was in rough shape when restoration of the architectural masterpiece began almost two decades ago.

“It was a wreck,” said Mary F. Roberts, executive director of Martin House Restoration Corp. “The cabinets were ripped out. People had used it and abused it.”

Today, the basement looks as it did in 1907, with the added benefit of modern technology.

Funded by $515,000 in grants from proceeds of the biennial Decorators’ Show House, the restored space will be used to carry on educational programs as the Junior League/Buffalo News Education Center.

“This is an education space like none other,” said Gina M. Neureuther, director of education and programs.

Education programs have been presented by the Martin House for approximately a decade, growing from a few hundred people in the beginning to approximately 3,000 last year. While restoration projects were underway, educational sessions moved from the basement to elsewhere on the campus, including bedrooms of the main house and the Greatbatch Pavilion.

Programs have focused primarily on children in grades five through 12, from school classes to scouting groups.

“We have photography classes that come in … we had a drawing class,” Neureuther said.

In a yearlong project, students at a local charter school developed a Spanish-language tour for incoming fifth-graders.

The grants that paid for restoring the education space represent proceeds from two Decorators’ Show Houses: in 2005, at Century House, and in 2009, at E.B. Green’s Wallace Estate. The Show House is co-sponsored by the Junior League of Buffalo and The Buffalo News.

“It’s the largest amount of money that we have ever given to one single project,” said Colleen M. Seminara, president of Junior League of Buffalo.

The organization typically fields dozens of applications from nonprofit cultural and human service organizations vying for those funds. “We don’t have a bent toward one or the other; it just depends on the quality of the application that comes through,” she said.

But there’s also a long-standing special relationship between the Junior League and the Martin House. Many Junior League volunteers have been involved with the Martin House, and Isabelle Martin served as the organization’s president in the late 1930s, according to Seminara.

Education programs at the Martin House are expected to expand as the focus shifts from restorations to operations at the campus.

“This is one way we think we can give back to the community for its investment in the Martin House,” Roberts said.

“Everybody thinks it’s just about architecture, but it’s so much more. The buildings and how Wright outfitted them inside and outside … lend themselves to teachable moments in so many subjects.”

Carol Horton, vice president of marketing and public relations for The Buffalo News, agrees.

“Part of the Martin legacy was all about lifetime education for all people. It makes perfect sense, with The Buffalo News also educating the public for a lifetime through all of our coverage,” Horton said.

“We really think that the Western New York community will benefit from the programming that’s going to come out of the space.”

email: jhabuda@buffnews.com