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POLITICS, DIPLOMACY KEY FACTORS IN REVIVAL OF MARTIN HOUSE

BUFFALO'S FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT masterpiece will come to life because of two men.

One is George Pataki, who finally understood the political advantages of a 95-year-old building.

The other is John Courtin, who put his law career on hold because he was tired of seeing our national treasure remain buried.

There are others who should take a bow when the ribbon gets cut three years from now. But if not for Pataki and Courtin, this thing could have dragged on well into the next millennium.

Pataki will include $2.5 million in his state budget this week to help restore the Darwin D. Martin House, the Wright masterpiece in North Buffalo. It's a turning point. The money buys a lot of pipes and plaster and opens the door to private money.

"People wondered if this project would ever get done," said Courtin. "With this money, everybody knows it will happen."

Wright is America's genius architect. The Martin House is among his top three sites east of the Mississippi, along with New York's Guggenheim Museum and Pennsylvania's Fallingwater, the house that straddles a waterfall. The Martin site is special because there's more to it than a great Wright prairie house. It's a collection of six structures, Wright's first chance to make art on a large canvas. He created a masterpiece.

When it's restored to the way it looked in 1905, it will draw people from around the world and add an aesthetic stamp to our Bills-and-blizzards national image.

What happened is that Wright's legacy and Pataki's political aspirations converged.

It's no secret Pataki is looking at a presidential run in 2000. Having a Wright restoration on the resume plays well with the preservation crowd. They may not outnumber football fans, but Wright is a household name in upscale living rooms across the land. Pataki just bought political capital in all of them.

A note Jim Thompson recently dropped Pataki lighted the light. Thompson, the former governor of Illinois, championed Wright's Dana-Thomas House in Springfield. Restored with state money 10 years ago, the place annually draws 50,000 visitors. Thompson -- now a high-powered, globe-trotting corporate lawyer -- told Pataki that people still stop him on the street in various cities to thank him.

Beyond that, Pataki is into his second term. He's thinking about his legacy. If he hangs around another four years, the project -- which will be a state parks site -- will be done before he leaves office.

Everybody pushing the project exhaled when news of the $2.5 million came. With Wall Street still pumping, the state has extra bucks for optional projects such as this. But if it didn't happen now, and the stock market went south, the well could have run dry.

Pataki did the Wright thing, but it was Courtin who kept the heat on.

A year ago, he was special counsel at Hodgson Russ, a big downtown law firm, and sat on the Martin House board of directors. He headed the search committee looking for a full-time director, a problem that had haunted the project for years. When the chosen candidate backed out, the board turned to Courtin. He loved the house and Wright and knew -- as a former fund-raiser at Georgetown University -- how to get buckets of money out of people. He gave up the day job.

"It kind of screwed up my career path," Courtin said with a laugh, "but I felt it was something the community needed to get done. If I hadn't stepped in, I think I always would've felt badly about it."

It was Courtin who contacted Thompson, suggesting he write Pataki. It was Courtin who met with Pataki's staff in Albany last month, bearing a small replica of the Martin House's famous "Tree of Life" window as a gift. It's the kind of small but significant gesture that greases the political skids. Courtin lined up local CEOs to get in the governor's ear and came up with a national fund-raising plan.

"Courtin was the key," said one board member. "The rest of us were doing what we could, but we all have full-time jobs."

The payoff came this week.

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