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Martin House awes Wright's photographer

Pedro E. Guererro spent 20 years as Frank Lloyd Wright's personal photographer, chronicling the American architectural master's works from Taliesin West in Arizona through the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Still, Guererro said he wasn't prepared for the sight of the reconstructed and restored Martin House Complex when he toured the Parkside site Monday.

"Marvelous, absolutely spellbinding. It's breathtaking it's so beautiful," Guererro said. "I came here 20 years ago, and it was an absolute ruin, there was no one around. Now, it's almost like new. It's a complete masterpiece."

Jack Quinan, a leading Wright scholar and University at Buffalo art historian, was on hand to greet Guererro and pay homage to his critical role in chronicling Wright's career.

"[Guererro] was there for all those 20 years of historic moments -- the Guggenheim, Taliesin West, the Dana Thomas House," he said.

Guererro turns 94 next week but seems like a man 15 years younger. Dressed in khaki pants, brown work shoes, a gray work shirt and Navajo string tie, he walked the grounds with the help of a cane alongside his wife, Dixie Legler Guererro, a Wright historian, admiring the structures businessman Darwin Martin commissioned in the 20th century.

Guererro's nearly 20-year role as Wright's photographer began in 1940, when the novice photographer showed up at Taliesin West, Wright's winter home in Scottsdale, Ariz. Guererro had grown up in Arizona and spent the previous two years studying photography in Los Angeles.

"Mr. Wright was waving at guests who were leaving, and when he gave me his attention, he said, 'Who are you?' I said, 'My name is Pedro Guererro, and I'm a photographer.' I had never made a nickel with photography, and never even introduced myself as that, and he said, 'I would be happy to see what you can do,' and I showed him probably the worst samples anybody could show," Guererro laughed.

"He was very nice about it. He looked at me and smiled, once in a while he cackled a little bit, a couple of times he was astounded, and he said, 'What are you doing now?' I said I was looking for a job, and he said, 'Would you like to work for us?' This was 15 minutes after we met."

Guererro said he was taken by Taliesin West.

"I must say I had never seen anything like it before, but because I had gone to art school, I didn't accept it as architecture at all, but as sculpture. So I photographed it as sculpture, and it pleased him a lot. From that day forward, he opened every door I came to," Guererro said.

Guererro was 23 when they met; Wright was 73. He said he often takes issue with how the architect is portrayed.

"Everything I read annoys me because they don't say anything positive about Mr. Wright. He was generous, he was funny, he was playful, and I couldn't think of a better friend than Frank Lloyd Wright," he said.

The two never talked about architecture, Guererro said.

"I think what he liked about me is that I was full of small talk, and he was so tired of this ponderous stuff he had to face that he could sit there and talk small talk with me forever," Guererro said.

The photographer said he was only reprimanded once by Wright, for a composition Wright correctly said was something the photographer made for himself and not him.

"He never had to tell me anything again. I knew he wanted me to be his photographer, and I got around to believing I was like a violinist playing a tune he had created. If I pleased him, then I was successful," Guererro said.

Guererro's work for Wright led him to a career taking photographs for architectural and mass-market magazines, but he would take time two to three times a year to proudly take pictures for the man he called a "sophisticated craftsman."

When they last saw each other in February 1959, two months before Wright's death, Guererro was asked by Wright to photograph Taliesin West from a helicopter. Wright declined his suggestion that they go up together.

"So I said, 'What was the worse thing that could happen, [that] the helicopter could come down, you and I would be killed and tomorrow the paper would say, Pedro E. Guererro and friend die in 'copter crash?,' " Guererro said.

"He said, 'Get out of here, get out of here,' and that was the last time I ever saw him."

Before Guererro saw the Martin House Complex, he toured Graycliff with Pat Mahoney, president of Graycliff Conservancy.

"I'm looking forward to seeing Graycliff finished, but it's really quite fascinating," he said.

The architecture in Buffalo, overall, came somewhat as a revelation, Guererro said, citing the Guaranty Building and Richardson Olmsted Complex in particular. But it was the Martin House Complex that gave him the greatest satisfaction.

"Fallingwater is different, but this is a really, solid on-the-ground design by an evolving genius," he said. "I'm surprised he got away with it."