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AS FRONT PARK MOVES CENTER STAGE, REMEMBER THE LARKIN BUILDING

When wrecking crews in early 1950 tore down the Larkin Building on Buffalo's Seneca Street, an unrivaled masterpiece of American architecture was destroyed. Today only a ragged brick pier survives.

Now, at last, Buffalo is awake to the meaning of Frank Lloyd Wright and understands its good fortune in having some of his works here. A dedicated corps of volunteers is at work raising money and supervising restoration of Wright's Darwin Martin House and the adjoining complex. Others are at work to save the Darwin Martin summer cottage on Lake Erie. City planners are building Frank Lloyd Wright tourism into their plans for creating a new image and a new tourist identity for Buffalo.

But it could have all been even better if only the Larkin Building had been saved.

The structures that remain are wonderful treasures, but the Larkin Building is a much more famous Frank Lloyd Wright work. It was so strikingly original and influential when it was built around 1905 that architects and art historians still study, venerate and imitate it, even though there's nothing to look at anymore but photographs and sketches. The Frank Lloyd Wright tours that Buffalo will eventually be marketing might well have double the national and international draw if the bus could stop at the Larkin Building.

Wright designed it for the 1,600 executives, clerks and corresponding secretaries of the Larkin Co., a flourishing mail-order business that is a fascinating Buffalo story in its own right. The building pioneered the modern skyscraper. It had an atrium -- something most office buildings were catching up to in the 1980s. It featured an early form of air conditioning. Every detail was planned as part of an artistic whole. Even the desk chairs were unique Wright designs.

The Larkin Company faltered, and Wright's building deteriorated and finally fell to the city for back taxes. Offers to buy came in during 1947 and 1948, but the city held out for $225,000, the assessed value. There were no takers at that price. The building was sold for $5,000 and demolished with the promise of new construction that could be taxed. Nothing was ever built. The lot is still vacant.

It is important to remember the Larkin Building in 1998 as the community plans the future of another architectural landmark, Front Park.

Frederick Law Olmsted is emerging into wide national interest and understanding later than Frank Lloyd Wright did, but, in the end, he could be just as important to historians, art lovers and tourists. Like Wright, he designed with great attention to detail. An Olmsted park was more than just a stretch of lawn. Every vista, the placement of every tree, was planned.

Olmsted designed Front Park in 1871 and the public loved it, but a big chunk of it was lost long ago to the current Peace Bridge plaza. Now, as planning gets under way in earnest for a new bridge plaza, the park has its best chance in decades to make at least a partial comeback.

Unless the bridge plaza moves, there will not be a full restoration of the much-loved Olmsted "Front," with its long promenade overlooking Lake Erie and the Niagara River. But the park is likely to get at least some land back. And the Buffalo Niagara Partnership has hired a landscape planning consultant to rethink plaza design in ways that consciously incorporate Front Park, making it part of a "gateway" to the United States and to Buffalo.

It is important that the consultants working on road configurations and landscape, as well as the officials who will ultimately make the decisions about what happens to the plaza and park, understand the significance of what they are working with at Front Park. It's essential to understand the potential of the Olmsted park system for a Buffalo pitching itself in the future as a treasure trove of architectural heritage. Nationally, interest in Frederick Law Olmsted is on the way up.

The worst scenario would be that a new plan takes the easy route to solving traffic problems by encroaching further on Front Park.

But, fortunately, the Partnership's consultants are being encouraged to think creatively and accommodate all the interests, including park preservation, in the concepts they devise.

This is a time for the public to be alert. The new plaza design will be intricately connected to the fate of a Buffalo treasure. The direction it takes is critical.

As it unfolds, the ghost of the Larkin Building hovers in the distance.