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‘Tree of Life' window returns to Martin House

Another original piece of Frank Lloyd Wright artwork is coming home to the Darwin Martin House on Jewett Parkway.

The Martin House Restoration Corp. has reacquired one of the 75 original "Tree of Life" windows designed by Wright for the Martin House. The window, which had been in New York University's Grey Art Gallery, is now in storage and will be reinstalled just before the Martin House's restoration is completed in October 2011.

The window arrived May 26, after it was purchased from the permanent collection of the Grey Art Gallery. The price was not released.

This marks the first time any museum has deaccessioned a piece of Darwin Martin House art glass designed by Wright.

The addition will mean that the corporation possesses 196 of the 394 original pieces of art glass from the five buildings of the Darwin Martin House complex. The term "art glass" also encompasses skylights, wall sconces, light fixtures and glass doors designed by Wright for the Martin House.

Eric Jackson-Forsberg, the Martin House Restoration Corp.'s curator, said the initial contact with the Grey Gallery was made at least seven years ago.

The corporation plans to commission reproductions of "Tree of Life" windows to complete the restoration of the house — but only as a last resort.

"We don't want to reproduce any pieces if there's any hope of getting the originals back," said Jackson-Forsberg. "It's kind of a tough call sometimes."

According to Jackson-Forsberg, "Tree of Life" windows are among the more common pieces of Martin House art glass found in public collections. Thirteen of the windows are scattered around the country, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corning Museum of Glass and the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va.

The Martin House Restoration Corp. currently has 33 "Tree of Life" pieces, leaving 29 unaccounted for. According to Jackson-Forsberg, a little more than half of the 260 pieces of art glass originally installed inside the Darwin Martin House have yet to be reacquired or reproduced.

Most of the art glass pieces not owned by the Martin House were lost during the 1940s and 1950s when Darwin R. Martin, son of Darwin D. Martin and executor of his estate, privately sold and traded Wright pieces to various dealers.

"This was an ideal situation for a work of art that was taken from its original context to be put back into the restoration efforts," said Lynn Gumpert, director of the Grey Art Gallery.

Gumpert noted that works of decorative art, such as the "Tree of Life" window, is not a strength of the gallery, which holds a permanent collection of 4,800 works. The window was the only Wright piece owned by the gallery.

While declining to reveal the price, the Martin House corporation did say it was far less than the market value for the piece, which could easily top $100,000. Gumpert wouldn't comment on the price either, except to say that the gallery followed transactional guidelines as set out by the American Association of Museums.

Although the "Tree of Life" is one of the more well-known art glass designs by Wright, Jackson-Forsberg said that neither Wright nor Martin gave the design that name. Evidence suggests the popular term originates from the mid-1960s, after Martin and Wright had died.

"Since then, it has stuck," said Jackson-Forsberg. "No one can stop calling them that."

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