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A STEP IN WRIGHT DIRECTION <br> BLUE SKY MAUSOLEUM UNVEILING IN FOREST LAWN ENHANCES CITY'S HOPES FOR CULTURAL TOURISM

Seventy-six years after it was conceived by Frank Lloyd Wright, Blue Sky Mausoleum formally opened today in Forest Lawn.

The afternoon unveiling brings to life a long-dormant design -- the first of three previously unbuilt Wright structures to be realized in Buffalo -- and sharply raises expectations for the city's embryonic heritage tourism market.

With Blue Sky now finished, the restoration of Wright's Darwin Martin House complex and Graycliff estate nearing completion and a Wright-designed boathouse and filling station almost ready for groundbreaking on the Black Rock Channel and Michigan Avenue, respectively, the day is fast approaching when architecture and history buffs will be drawn to town for extended visits, officials believe.

"Buffalo is achieving a critical mass of architectural attractions -- Wright buildings in particular -- that will bolster our reputation as a cultural tourism destination," said Richard Geiger, president of the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The mausoleum project has created such a stir that one prospective occupant could not wait for the formalities. Though the blue tarp will not be lifted from the tiered white granite structure until late afternoon, the first of the 24 parallel crypts -- each with space for two coffins -- reportedly has sold for a heavenly $300,000.

Though the price might seem steep, "it's a bargain when you compare it to the cost of building a family crypt," said Nancy Turgeon, a Forest Lawn spokeswoman.

Some of the remaining spaces may be bought by Wright buffs who have no intention of spending eternity there but want to add a piece of the Wright legend to their holdings, she added.

Today's dedication, featuring the singing of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" by MusicalFare Theatre's John Fredo, playing Darwin D. Martin, consummates an agreement reached in the late 1920s between Wright and Martin, who was then the young architect's biggest booster.

Martin wanted a family resting place that would differ from the four-walled, flat-roofed family vaults then in style, and Wright was more than happy to go along. He designed a monolithic headstone atop a flight of gently rising concrete and stone terraces, in which the deceased would be entombed facing the heavens.

It was not the architect's first memorial design, but it was the first to "break the box" of conventional design, as Wright had done with the Martin House, commissioned in 1903, observed Fred Whaley, president of the Forest Lawn Group.

Plans for the crypt fell through when the Depression arrived and Martin lost the fortune he had accumulated as an executive of the Larkin mail-order empire. In 2003, the cemetery raised $500,000 to resurrect the project, and Wright's design has been faithfully rendered -- in a different location than the Martin family lot, which was too small.

Like other Wright works, the plan merges a structure intended to serve human needs with a natural vista.

To Wright, the ceiling of the mausoleum was the sky, and the walls were trees and other features of the surrounding landscape, Whaley observed. Because it had no built roof or sides, it had no entrance -- another departure from tradition.

Like the Martin House, the tomb is a pier-and-cantilever construction based on a bilateral axis. Broad granite ledgers containing the crypts -- 12 on each side -- rise gently toward a wide terrace, where a monolith forms the central memorial. Etched in the vertical monolith are Wright's words from 1928: "A burial facing the open sky . . . the whole could not fail of noble effect."

Benches on the terrace, which overlooks a pond along the West Delavan Avenue boundary, invite visitors to rest and reflect.

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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