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FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT <br> JUST WHO WAS FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT -- AND WHY SHOULD WE CARE?

For a guy who moved on to the great drawing board in the sky nearly 40 years ago, Frank Lloyd Wright still seems to be causing an awful lot of fuss these days.

Most people in Western New York know the name, the general reputation as a revered architect and the hard-fought battle still being waged for restoration of the few houses he designed here when he was starting out on what was to become a long and celebrated career.

But in Buffalo -- where he never lived and seldom set foot, where one of his greatest masterpieces went largely unappreciated, was later abandoned and, ultimately, fell unceremoniously to the wrecker's ball a half-century ago -- it seems difficult to find civic enthusiasm beyond the small circles of Wright scholars, preservationists, architecture buffs and people with a hobby interest in his buildings.

It seems that in Buffalo, even a luminary like Frank Lloyd Wright has to keep proving himself over and over again. No matter that Wright is universally regarded as the most creative American architect ever, no matter that he is revered throughout Europe and Asia, no matter that respected commentators like Robert Campbell -- the Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic and, coincidentally, a Buffalo native -- call Wright the greatest artist of any kind this country has ever produced. In Buffalo, the argument for coming up with the cash to save Wright's remaining local masterpiece always getsreduced to the annoying lowest common economic denominator: If we restore it, X number of tourists will flock here to see it, pumping Y millions into local motels and taverns while they visit.

If anyone merits a loftier argument than that, Wright does. If any place on earth should have an unquestioned understanding of why Wright is important, it is Buffalo -- the city that already lost an even more valuable creation of his when the spectacular Larkin office building on Seneca Street -- a building so important that the national Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy uses its image as its logo -- was demolished for lack of interest way back in 1950.

But if some people in Buffalo still don't seem to get why Wright matters, maybe it's because he picked the wrong field in which to excel. The trouble with architecture is that its magic plays out in three dimensions, so in order to really understand what's special about it, you have to experience it in person.

Especially Wright's architecture. What gets all those tourists who visit other Wright sites so excited are all his spatial tricks: indoor rooms that flow into outdoor spaces, tiny hallways that explode into wide-open expanses and take a visitor's breath away, stuff like that. Wright was a wizard at that; he manipulated space the way Michelangelo worked over hunks of marble. Books, pictures and impassioned arguments from zealots just don't do it justice; it has to be seen to be believed.

The houses that make up the Darwin Martin estate on Jewett Parkway near Delaware Park were designed and built in the first few years of the 20th century, so they're just shy of celebrating their 100th anniversary. Yet, considering how badly the estate has been treated for most of its existence, the houses probably have a brighter future now, strangely, than at any time since they were first built.

At last, Buffalo has reached the point where the big questions hanging over its most valuable work of art are all about how to save it, not whether to do it.

There is, of course, still a Catch 22 for local Wright advocates trying to raise the $20-some million it will take to save the Martin estate: More people won't really be able to figure out what's so special about Wright until they can get into the Martin House and experience what is so glorious about it in person. And nobody will get to experience the glory of the Martin House until those millions for the restoration work somehow turn up.

Until then, questions of why Wright should matter to anyone anymore can only be answered incompletely. Not that Wright's personality and legacy don't offer plenty of evidence for why so many people still think Wright is worth fussing over so long after he departed from our midst.

Wright the celebrity

From early designs like those Buffalo houses just after the turn of the century right up to his spiraling Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which wasn't completed until six months after Wright died in 1959 at the age of 89, Wright's architectural style changed constantly. All of it had one thing in common, though: It was always ahead of its time.

But then, so was Wright himself. In a way, it's a pity he was born in 1869 because Wright was really meant for the media age. Had he been around today, there's little doubt he'd be a regular on the TV talk shows. It wouldn't be a surprise to find him hosting one, in fact.

And certainly no one would have to ask why he's important. Wright would tell them.

As it was, Wright lived a tabloid existence: In 1909, at the end of the phase of his career that included his Larkin design and Buffalo houses, he left his wife and five kids in Oak Park, Ill., the Chicago suburb where he first made a name for himself, took up with the wife of one of his former clients, who was later murdered by a deranged servant, eventually divorced the first wife, met and separated from a second wife, spent time in jail, and married yet again.

His career fluctuated wildly, from great success to long stretches when he couldn't buy a commission and back again.

He liked to walk around in a porkpie hat, cape and cane, and he rarely missed an opportunity to enhance his own legend.

Pedro Guerero, Wright's personal photographer for the last 20 years of his life, wrote recently about a time that Wright stopped for breakfast one morning at a New York diner, just after he had appeared on the "Today" show:

"He ordered and ate the 85-cent special and then discovered, on reaching into his pocket, that he had no money. Consternation was followed by the waitress and then the manager, who, recognizing Mr. Wright, offered to parole him on his own recognizance if he would simply sign the back of the check, which he did.

"Later that morning, Mr. Wright returned and asked to see the manager.

"I believe I owe you 85 cents."

"Oh, no, Mr. Wright, my treat."

"No, no, right is right."

"But I insist."

"No, bring me the check.'"

"The manager reluctantly handed Mr. Wright the sales slip, and Mr. Wright gave him 85 cents.'"

"If it's my autograph you want, 85 cents isn't the going rate. I hear it brings at least $5 now."

Wright the quotable

Wright's ego, in fact, is the stuff of legend. But it certainly makes for memorable quotes. "Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility," he once said. "I chose the former and have seen no reason to change."

And so the lore is filled with stones and pronouncements that reveal much about himself and his view of other architects.

On one visit to "Graycliff," the summer home Wright designed for Darwin Martin in the late 1920s on the lake in Derby, Wright reportedly was unhappy when be saw how Mrs. Martin had arranged the living-room furniture. So he simply got up and rearranged the chairs to face out the window, toward Lake Erie.

In another infamous story, Wright got a call from the Johnson Wax magnate for whom he designed a Wisconsin home named "Wingspread." When an angry Johnson complained that he was entertaining a house full of guests and the roof was leaking right on the dining-room table, Wright was unfazed. "Why don't you move the table?" he replied.

After a visit to South America with Eliel Saarinen, the famous Finnish architect who designed Buffalo's Kleinhans Music Hall, Wright said, "All I learned from Eliel Saarinen was how to make out an expense account." Commenting on a new design by Le Corbusier, the Swiss architect who was one of the towering figures of modern architecture, he scoffed, "Well, now that he's finished one building, he'll go write four books about it."

And during a visit to Buffalo a few years ago to view the Martin House, renowned architect Fay Jones, a friend and student of Wright, spoke of his first meeting with Wright in 1949, when Jones -- then a young Arkansas architecture student -- drove to Houston to see Wright receive the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects, the profession's highest honor:

"They were giving a big party for him at a new hotel that had just opened," Jones recalled. "He actually came up to me -- I guess he saw my fright -- and said, 'My name is Frank Lloyd Wright. I'm an architect.'

"I said: 'Oh, I know who you are, Mr. Wright. My name is Fay Jones.'

" 'Jones? Why, I grew up with the Joneses,' he told me, so that got me in good with him right away."

The new hotel had been in Life magazine and all the papers, Jones said. Its builder brought much of Hollywood in for the grand opening. And with celebrities all around, Wright was not about to pass up an opportunity to perform. So, using Jones as a kind of prop, Wright set out on a self-guided tour of the new hotel.

"So we walked into the lobby; here's John Wayne and Dorothy Lamour and Pat O'Brien. For Mr. Wright, it was just as if these were just a bunch of people, no recognition at all," said Jones.

"He was walking along, and he would point his cane up to some cove that had a circular cutout, and he'd say, 'Now, you see, young man, this is the effect of venereal disease on architecture.' For 20 or 30 minutes he was walking around, kind of giving a critique of this building, and I'd look back and here would be Robert Mitchum or Robert Ryan going, 'What'd he say?' And word would be passed back, and you'd hear them laugh. He was like a pied piper with all these movie stars following him around, and he was giving them no recognition."

Four years later, Jones was an apprentice architect working at Wright's Taliesin Studio in Wisconsin when somehow Houston came up in conversation.

"I said, 'Mr. Wright, you're not going to remember this, but the night before you got the Gold Medal in Houston in 1949, they had a party for you in a new hotel . . .' Jones recalled.

"And he slapped me and said: 'You're the one, aren't you? I knew there was something familiar about you.'"

" 'That,' Wright recalled for Jones, 'was the night of all those movie stars.' "

Wright the creative genius

Ultimately, though, the stories -- entertaining though they may be -- don't explain why Wright should matter to anyone. The architecture does.

It's fashionable for scholars in the art world these days to dismiss what they call the "myth" of artistic genius. But then you walk into a building like the Guggenheim Museum, or Fallingwater -- the vacation home Wright designed atop a waterfall in backwoods Pennsylvania -- or a singular creation like the Darwin Martin House, and it isn't just a building you're experiencing. You're blown away by the sheer creative brilliance of the creator.

That's what Campbell, the Boston Globe writer, means when he argues that Wright should be considered not merely the greatest American architect but the greatest American artist of all time. This country has never produced a painter to equal Picasso, a sculptor to match Michelangelo or a composer to top Beethoven. Wright alone deserves to be listed in that league. He was -- and is -- important because his gift was a unique combination of vision and skill that didn't exist before he came along, and it hasn't been duplicated by anyone else since he departed.

That's why Wright matters even now to all those tourists who make all those pilgrimages in search of his buildings around the country.

And he should matter to people here, in particular, because what he created here is unique to Buffalo. Wright's remaining Buffalo masterwork is not only irreplaceable, it's unmovable. The Museum of Modern Art can always sell its most famous Picassos and Van Goghs; Beethoven's Ninth can be performed anywhere someone is able to round up a hundred musicians, a conductor and a choir; but Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House has to exist in Buffalo, or it won't exist at all.

CARL HERKO, who wrote 92-95, is studying archetectural history at Tufts University.