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Purchase reunites Graycliff estate, caretaker's cottage; Bungalow was part of original estate, though likely not designed by Wright

The Graycliff Conservancy has bought the final parcel needed to complete the summer estate on Lake Erie once owned by Darwin and Isabelle Martin and acquired a new puzzle in the process.

The $135,000 purchase of a three-bedroom bungalow on Old Lakeshore Road that once served as the Martins' caretaker cottage completes the footprint of an estate predominantly designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

But who actually designed the caretaker's cottage -- which incorporates several features of the main Graycliff buildings but is not thought to be a Wright design -- is something Graycliff directors still hope to determine.

"Graycliff has a lot of mysteries to it," said Graycliff Conservancy President Patrick J. Mahoney. "And the caretaker's cottage is still a mystery that we're working on."

The caretaker's cottage was owned for 50 years by James Czora Sr. and his wife, Patricia, who moved in when the oldest of their five children was a baby. The siblings decided to sell the property to the Graycliff Conservancy after their father died two years ago.

"It was Dad's wishes, if my sister and I, or any family member, was not going to live here, he would have liked to have had the estate be whole again and be part of the Graycliff estate again," said Sandra Czora-Blizniak, one of Czora's five children. "It was the right thing to do."

Much of the 1934 house is still in its original condition -- including a cypress and brick fireplace that uses the same materials as a fireplace in what is now named the Isabelle R. Martin House.

The house also still has its original maple floor, window frames made of cypress and exterior stucco that, though painted a different color, mimics the Wright-designed buildings on the estate.

The Graycliff Conservancy, a nonprofit organization, is in line for a $40,000 capital grant from Erie County for the purchase and has borrowed the rest of the purchase price.

Letters and other documents lead Mahoney and others to believe that the caretaker's cottage was designed by the house's builder, George Ingersoll. Mahoney hopes to find blueprints or other documents that might confirm who designed the building hidden somewhere in the house -- a typical practice at the time.

The Graycliff Conservancy already has solved the mystery of what happened to the original Wright designs for the caretaker's cottage. They turned up in the papers of landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman.

"Darwin Martin had given those plans to Ellen Biddle Shipman while she was here two days before the stock market crash," Mahoney said.

Czora-Blizniak said she and her four siblings -- Doug, Brian and James Czora and Denise Flitton -- grew up in the house never knowing its connection to the Graycliff estate next door. Throughout their youth, the main estate was owned by the Piarist Fathers, who bought it in 1951. The Martins had sold the caretaker's cottage four years earlier to a private owner.

"We had no clue growing up how important this house was," Flitton said. "It wasn't the Graycliff Conservancy when we were growing up. It was the Piarist Fathers, and that's what we knew when we were growing up. They were like our family."

Mahoney said the Graycliff Conservancy plans to use the house as a residence -- whether for a caretaker or a scholar. There also are plans to provide public access through tours and other events, he said.

"It's still conceivable that we could find out that Frank Lloyd Wright designed this building," Mahoney said. "But I'd be surprised."

email: djgee@buffnews.com