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THE GIANTS RISE AGAIN

They have been abandoned, defaced, even burned.

Each has been threatened with demolition by neglect.

And still, Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building, Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House and the H.H. Richardson complex - Buffalo's mightiest remaining monuments to its glory days of turn-of-the-century architecture - have refused to succumb.

Each is on the brink of shining again - and adding luster to a city that calls them its own. That resurrection, some predict, will be a boon to Buffalo's cultural tourism and an engine for economic growth.

"I think the architecture and historical assets that Buffalo has is one of the real strong selling points for the city now and into the future," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. She has an office in the Guaranty Building, and in July wrote Gov. George E. Pataki urging him to find a funding source for stabilizing the Richardson complex.

"I think cultural and historic tourism will be one of the roots to Buffalo's renaissance," Clinton said.

Nationally renowned architect William Pedersen is relieved the three structures are no longer in danger of being relegated to the dustbin of Buffalo's past - a fate suffered by Wright's Larkin Administration Building in 1950.

"In general, the architecture in Buffalo at the turn of the century, and the examples which are left, rank with any in the country," said Pedersen, the designer of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport and a partner with Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates in New York. "Clearly these buildings are excellent examples of the work of some of the finest architects America has ever produced, and they are from their finest periods."

Ribbon-cutting ceremonies are planned for two of the three buildings - the Guaranty on Tuesday, the Darwin Martin House in April 2005. And Pataki has promised plans soon for the reuse of the Richardson complex. Preservation-minded citizens who have played a leading role in breathing new life into these structures expect future changes to gratify tourists, architecture fans, Wright enthusiasts and others.

The state of Buffalo's "big three" architectural gems looks like this:

The Wright way

Inside the Darwin Martin House - the Prairie-style home designed by Wright, the country's most celebrated architect - there's little evidence to suggest full-scale restoration is under way. Art glass windows, gilded mortar and white oak compete with peeling plaster, worn carpeting and bare rooms, giving little indication of what the five-structure house was, or will soon become.

Tourists must use their imaginations as they gaze around the stripped quarters and then peer into scattered black-and-white photographs that reveal how the house looked shortly after being built. Still, the house draws about 8,000 visitors annually.

They can also study a model of the complex to glimpse into summer 2005. That's when virtually every painstaking detail required of a restored property listed on the National Register of Historic Places is expected to have been met.

On view to the public will be a substantially redone Martin House and smaller Barton House; new replicas of Wright's destroyed 100-foot-long covered pergola, glass-roofed conservatory and carriage house; a new Garden Pavilion visitors center; and restored gardens, according to John C. Courtin, executive director of the Martin House Restoration Corp.

He expects everything to be completed in 2006, the 100th anniversary of the home's completion. The original furnishings now in the custody of a state-of-the-art storage facility in Peebles will also have returned. The only exception will be ongoing efforts to reclaim lost items that disappeared when the building was left vacant between 1938, a few years after Martin's death, and 1954.

The key to handling the expected crowds, Courtin said, will be the glassed-in, partially submerged Garden Pavilion - to be located where a remaining apartment building is still to be demolished.

Courtin says several Wright homes top 100,000 visitors annually, including 145,000 at Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa. He believes 80,000 visitors a year is a reasonable expectation for the Martin House after the restoration is completed and a marketing campaign has begun.

To accommodate so many people, reservations with date and tour time will be required, and visitors will be shuttled from the Buffalo Zoo parking lot.

Christopher Chadbourne and Associates, a Boston exhibition design firm, has been hired to help plan how the Wright and Darwin Martin House stories will be told in the Garden Pavilion and on the walking tour.

To finance the work, the 10-year-old Darwin Martin Restoration Corp. is in the homestretch of reaching its $23 million fund-raising goal. It must raise a final $2.5 million by March to take advantage of a challenge grant of $1.25 million offered by M&T Bank Chairman Robert G. Wilmers.

Courtin - who leads a staff of six and more than 300 volunteers - says once the restoration is complete, this acclaimed work of Wright's will allow viewers to fully appreciate its significance.

"This was Wright's first work outside his home region, and the first step in many ways to making him a national architect," said Courtin. "Here, in one complete complex, these five structures interwoven with landscape, and done at one time as a whole work, is what sets it apart from virtually any other work he ever did."

Martin House curator Jack Quinan, an art history professor at the University at Buffalo, says people should brace themselves for how exciting a fully restored Martin House will look. Quinan attended the opening for Wright's restored Meyer May House in Grand Rapids, Mich., several years ago, but the memory of what he saw is still vivid.

"When I walked in there it just took my breath away. . . . Everything in the house is all Wright, and it all works together," he said. "You can't believe what you see in that environment.

"I'm really optimistic the Darwin Martin House is going to be just as breathtaking."

Guaranteed future

Alaska. Italy. Even the Philippines.

Those are some of the faraway entries in the visitors book in the Guaranty Building, which Louis Sullivan, known as the "Father of the Skyscraper," finished in 1896.

It's little wonder, said Timothy Tielman, executive director of the newly formed Campaign for History, Architecture & Culture. "The Guaranty is one of the greatest landmarks in American architecture," Tielman said. "It is also your international ticket. It's the building in Buffalo that people studying architecture in Paris or Budapest or Prague are going to know about."

Pedersen agreed: "Certainly Sullivan's building is as fine an example of a high-rise building as you can find. The clarity of that building is extraordinary."

The 152-foot, terra cotta-clad Guaranty Building was acquired by the Hodgson Russ law firm Oct. 31 after its previous owner went into bankruptcy. Ending up there was only the latest of many slights the building has weathered.

There was an ill-considered "modernization" project in the 1950s that added a fiberglass exterior to the lower floors and a dropped ceiling in the lobby, and later, harmful sandblasting. In 1974, a fire damaged upper floors, leading the building to be sold at auction. In 1977, the building's out-of-town owners were planning to demolish it. That led to efforts by preservationists to save and restore the building.

Hodgson Russ was a tenant then, and provided legal help for the effort. When the building became available, the firm - seeking to consolidate office space - made a decision to purchase it. Dianne Bennett, the firm's chairwoman, says the goal is to occupy all 13 of its floors by 2007.

"I think many of us feel that this building gives us an opportunity to distinguish ourselves not just in Buffalo, but nationally and internationally," said Bennett.

The firm sees its role as ensuring the Guaranty is well-maintained, Bennett said. Scaffolding present in recent weeks is being used to perform just that - basic maintenance. The building, she and preservation groups agree, is in very good condition.

Still to be determined is how to properly honor the building, Bennett said.

"Are we going to do something lavish on the first floor? Not so lavish? Somebody has suggested holding an international design competition for figuring out how to deal with the first floor. Should the first floor be a conference room? Should we have space set aside for a museum?"

These questions will be answered in due time, said Bennett. So will the details on instituting regular, formal tours of the building, something that does not happen now. A recent visit offered testament to the interior's marble mosaics, elaborate stairwell ironwork, stained-glass skylight and ornamental elevators.

To Tielman, seeing the Guaranty secured with local ownership that plans to properly maintain the building is a godsend.

"A house or building gets into trouble when a loving owner leaves the scene. If you're involved with a building, you want a sympathetic owner with staying power. Hodgson Russ cares about the building - and has been here almost 200 years," he said.

Waiting for Pataki

Francis Kowsky came to Buffalo in 1970 to teach art history at Buffalo State College, where the cavernous H.H. Richardson complex - with its striking twin towers - has remained a fixture outside his office window. "I've been in awe of that building ever since," he said.

Architecturally, Kowsky said, it's hard to overestimate its significance.

"It's the first significant commission of H.H. Richardson, who was America's most important 19th century Victorian architect. With this building he worked out his mature style of architecture that became nationally influential and had many imitators, and which came to be called Richardsonian Romanesque," said Kowsky, a recognized Richardson expert.

Located on the grounds of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, the complex opened in 1880 as the Buffalo State Asylum of the Insane. Richardson's first major work, it has been largely dormant since 1974, when deinstitutionalization became the accepted way to deal with mental illness.

Still, the main building has - in some places, remarkably - withstood years of neglect. A recent walk through the administration building - with its 15-foot-tall walls, and large windows that allow in floods of light - suggests it would not take much to get it back in operation.

That is much less the case along the building's wings and connecting ways, where water has come through or is seeping in from the walls and floor.

New York State has long allowed the building to fall into disrepair. But in October, Pataki told The Buffalo News he would provide the $7 million that a study he commissioned had recently concluded was needed for stabilization. Pataki also said he would soon announce a plan in which the Richardson buildings would be restored as a "flagship" of Buffalo State College. He mentioned the possibility of consolidating a new Olmsted school with the college. And he promised a "dramatic concept" that from an educational and preservation standpoint would rival the planned downtown bioinformatics center in importance.

A decision last month by a state judge ordering the state to come up with a plan to repair and maintain the Richardson complex also leant further momentum to the building's reuse.

"We have very good reason to be hopeful for (the Richardson complex's) future," said Kowsky.

A well-kept secret

Clinton says she looks forward to a time when Buffalo and its treasure trove of historic holdings - including the Richardson complex - are better identified in the public's mind.

"We just can't afford to keep it secret," she said. "We have to keep putting out front what is special about Buffalo, and the Richardson complex is one of those real special assets."

Richard Lippes, president of the Preservation Coalition of Erie County, believes the health and promotion of the Richardson complex, the Guaranty Building and the Darwin Martin House will be essential in promoting Buffalo's mixture of architectural and cultural attractions, and will bring economic strength to the city.

"Without them, it would be like having a mall without an anchor tenant," Lippes said. "These are the anchor tenants of our cultural tourism."

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com