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JUST LIKE ILLINOIS, PATAKI SHOULD DO THE WRIGHT THING

HIS NAME IS BIG JIM THOMPSON, and he used to be governor of Illinois.

He wrote a note to Gov. Pataki the other day.

It said, basically: Don't mess around with Frank Lloyd Wright.

Pataki has a wonderful opportunity to do right by Buffalo's and America's genius architect. He can put money in his budget proposal in January to jump-start the restoration of the Darwin Martin complex, Wright's five-building masterpiece in North Buffalo.

Or he can, as he did last year, ignore it. Which means that the repair keeps moving with the swiftness of an overloaded Great Lakes freighter.

By any measure -- economic, aesthetic, cultural -- the Martin House should have been done yesterday. It's a civic slam-dunk, an international image-enhancer and a guaranteed tourist draw.

Nobody knows that better than Thompson.

In the early '80s, Wright's Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Ill., was about to be sold for parts. Then-Gov. Thompson browbeat the State Legislature into buying the house for $1 million.

"It was a tough sell," Thompson, now a high-powered Chicago lawyer, said by phone last week. "The state was in the worst recession in 50 years."

Critics said people wouldn't come to see a building. To find out, the house was opened to visitors one Christmas week. Lines stretched around the block.

Thompson subsequently extracted an additional $7 million to fix the house and buy back lamps, glass and furniture that had been sold.

The project paid off like shares of Microsoft.

The house, opened in 1991, celebrated its millionth visitor last summer. Most of them come from out-of-state.

"It's proven its value," said Thompson. "You can make the economic-development argument (for restoration). But to me, the real issue was having something special in your state that generation after generation can take pride in."

The state owns the Martin complex. When restored, it would be among the top three Wright sites east of Mississippi, with the Guggenheim Museum and Fallingwater, the house built into a Pennsylvania waterfall. Martin House director John Courtin says he can raise half the $23 million needed privately -- if Albany ponies up the $3 million to finish repair of the main house.

And then the world -- or, at least, a well-off, highbrow niche of it -- comes to Buffalo.

State legislators say the one person best able to do (and get credit for) the Wright thing is Pataki.

If he shows us the money next month, the Democrats -- led by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver -- won't take political advantage.

"If the governor puts it in his budget, we won't use it as leverage to push some projects we want," said Democratic Assemblyman Paul Tokasz of Cheektowaga. "That's from my conversations with (Silver)."

With Wall Street's recovery again padding Albany's bottom line, a mere $3 million (in a $71 billion budget) is a light lift for a mother lode.

That's what Thompson told Pataki, one Republican to another.

"I urged (Pataki) to take a look at it in my note," said Thompson. "It's a treasure for your state; it's hard to see why you'd let it sit there. The Dana-Thomas House was extremely worthwhile for us."

Pataki won't be governor forever. He can add a Wright masterpiece to his legacy, or he can leave it to somebody else.

A different governor, in a different state, faced the same decision a while back.

It has been seven years since Jim Thompson was governor of Illinois. A lot of people remember him for one thing.

"People still stop me on the street in Chicago," he said. "They say, 'Thanks for saving the Dana-Thomas House.' "

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