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From the outside in, Graycliff restoration shifts focus After exterior work, sun porch with view of lake is new priority

Over the last decade, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings on the historic Graycliff Estate in Derby have undergone a massive exterior restoration, and the focus has now shifted.

With the outside of the three buildings now fully restored, the Graycliff Conservancy is concentrating on the worn-out interior of the Isabelle R. Martin House.

That restoration got under way last month, with the current focus on the family sun porch -- a first-floor room that boasts what might be the best view of Lake Erie. The Hooper Family Foundation is funding the entire project.

"We think it's a worthy project that deserves to be preserved as part of the fabric of Western New York," said the foundation's W. Stanley Hooper. "We are very excited that the restoration of the sun porch is coming to fruition right on schedule."

Built between 1926 and 1931, Graycliff was elaborately designed by Wright as a summer home for Isabelle Martin, whose husband, Darwin D. Martin, was a Larkin Co. executive.

In 1997, the Graycliff Conservancy was founded to purchase the estate from a group of Catholic priests who used it as a school for almost 50 years, also building several additions onto the original structure. Since then, the Conservancy has been working diligently to preserve and restore what is considered a Wright masterpiece.

"This is an exceptionally dynamic year for Graycliff," Patrick J. Mahoney, president of the Conservancy, said in a statement. "With two major restoration projects under way, which are planned in anticipation of the national conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation slated for Buffalo in late October, and the conference itself, we are excited about the strides the Conservancy has made in restoration efforts and eager to share them with the public."

The sun porch restoration will include stucco ceilings and walls, rubber flooring to match the 1928 original, restoration of lighting fixtures and the installation of a state-of-the-art fire-suppression system that employs misting.

Every year, Graycliff attracts more than 10,000 worldwide visitors to "The Jewel on the Lake."

Famed for its light and airy architecture, Graycliff was named for its location on a bluff overlooking the lake. Landscape restoration of Graycliff's 8 acres also will begin this year.

"Everything [Wright] thought about during his design was just astounding," said Reine I. Hauser, executive director of the conservancy. "He was always trying to blur the distinction between inside and outside. You just feel so relaxed here."

Graycliff is an example of organic architecture, intended to portray the many features of the surrounding landscape. The house is built of mostly Tichenor limestone, which was hauled up from the shores of the lake. The subtle diamond shapes that Wright carried out throughout the estate, from windows to recessed lighting, are meant to resemble the jagged qualities of the limestone.

Graycliff also features sunken gardens and cantilevered terraces, architectural mimicry of the lake itself and its towering shoreline cliffs. Wright even calculated the angle of the summer home to align perfectly with the sunset so the rooms are filled with an ambient glow nightly.

Jerry and Carol Wahlenmayer, retired teachers from Orchard Park, have volunteered at Graycliff for more than 12 years.

Carol Wahlenmayer said that once she and her husband laid eyes on Graycliff, they were hooked. Or, as Hauser calls it, "bit by the Graycliff bug." "I'm really surprised at how many people take the tour who didn't know there was a Frank Lloyd Wright treasure hidden here," Carol Wahlenmayer said, doing some cleaning while her husband conducted a tour.

For Hooper and Hauser, this project is just the next step in recapturing Wright's architectural legacy and bringing Graycliff that much closer to full restoration at an estimated cost of $7.2 million.

"I believe in it," Hooper said as he sat gazing out at the lake. "I believe in Western New York and its art and culture. It's just wonderful."

email: emazzu@buffnews.com