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On a mission to restore glass-mosaic fireplace at Martin House

One of the most dramatic entrances Frank Lloyd Wright ever designed was brought back to life with the $50 million restoration of the Darwin D. Martin House on Jewett Parkway: a spectacular view of Nike, the winged victory of Samothrace.

Open the front door and a long 180 feet away, down an entryway, through a brick columned pergola, through a plant-filled conservatory, there she stands, all 9 feet 3 inches of classic Greek sculpture on a 3-foot base.

But visitors to Martin’s house in the early 20th century had something equally spectacular right before them: one of only three glass mosaic fireplaces Wright ever put in one of his homes.

Fifteen thousand pieces of glass tile drenched in gold depicted a wisteria in full bloom. Its rugged brown trunks intertwined as they climbed the mantel with green shimmering leaves cascading into an explosion of nearly pure-gold blossoms.

And the fireplace didn’t just end in the entryway. It wrapped around into the home’s living room, a four-sided mosaic with glass tile on every surface, 150 square feet in all, of gold-infused tile.

Why gold?

“For the glitter,” said Theodore L. Lownie, the restoration architect for the Martin House. “Frank Lloyd Wright loved gold, he loved it. Who else would put gold leaf in mortar? He loved all the glitter, the reflection of it, because his homes were so dark. It reflected the light.”

Both Nike and the fireplace, however, were lost because of the 17-year abandonment of the Martin House. Isabelle Martin left the home vacant in 1937, two years after her husband’s death and it remained empty and unheated until 1954 when local architect Sebastian Tauriello bought it.

Nike was lost in the 1962 demolition of the pergola, conservatory and carriage house and construction of three apartment buildings. And the glass-mosaic fireplace was most likely ruined by a leaky chimney flashing. The leak allowed in water, and the glass tiles tumbled from the freeze-thaw cycle of nearly two decades without heat in the house.

Now, thanks to the Martin House restoration, Nike is back with the reconstruction of the pergola, conservatory and carriage house.

But restoring the fireplace has long been a challenge for Lownie and Martin House executive director Mary Roberts.

The two have had a half-dozen artisans from around the world give the fireplace restoration a try over the years, all of them failing, some of them miserably.

Still, they kept searching, and finally last year, Roberts saw something that stopped her in her tracks. She was on a tour of Chicago landmarks with Martin House colleagues when she entered a room in the Richard E. Driehaus Museum.

“That’s our fireplace!” Roberts said as she looked at a similar but slightly different mosaic pattern. She found a staff member who told her the fireplace had been created by the firm of Giannini and Hilgart, the same as the Martin House’s, and had been restored by Ettore Christopher Botti of Evanston, Ill.

And so began the latest attempt at re-creating the Martin House fireplace, and in the view of Lownie and Roberts, the one with the best chance of success.

Chris Botti – he has the same name as his cousin, the famous trumpet player – is an old-world artisan whose Botti Studio of Architectural Arts dates to the late 16th century in Agripoli, Italy, and 145 years in this country.

Botti’s studio has restored stained glass in a dozen cathedrals, hundreds of churches and synagogues and undertook the painstaking work of restoring the largest Tiffany dome in the world at the Chicago Public Library. He re-created a 10-ton lay light ceiling in the Plaza Hotel’s Palm Court Room and is currently working on the restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

Besides the Giannini fireplace in the Driehaus Museum, Botti also restored a similar glass-tiled hearth in architect George Maher’s Edmund Blinn house (now the Women’s City Club in Pasadena). And he has a fully restored Giannini tiled fireplace in his own basement.

Both Roberts and Lownie were surprised that despite all their searching, they had not come across Botti’s work on glass mosaics before.

“He goes from one big project to another,” Lownie said. “He doesn’t do a lot of advertising. It’s mainly by word of mouth.”

Botti has been to the Martin House twice and met there earlier this year with Lownie and fellow architect Jamie Robideau.

“We will use the exact same technique as Giannini,” said Botti.

“Except Gianinni didn’t tell anyone how he did it,” Lownie said.

“We don’t either,” laughed Botti. “We’ve done it before. If I told you how we do it, we’d have a line out the door of other companies wanting to do it.”

What Botti will say is that gold, in the form of gold leaf, will be applied to the design in a glaze in varying amounts – he calls it chiaroscuro – and that will be fired in a kiln.

Like the others before him, Botti has had to present sample pieces of the surrounding field tile, wisteria branches, leaves and blossoms.

“Botti has given us samples, the best samples anyone has given us to date,” Lownie said. “The leaf needs a little work, the gold is a little flaky. We’ve given him a conditional approval based on what he’s done.”

What the team lacks are the exact colors of the finished work. All they have are black-and- white photographs, a few pieces swept into the ash pit, a sample kit Giannini sent the Martins, and the other Giannini fireplaces that remain.

One of those is in Saginaw, Mich., in the former Clarence Hill home, a grand Queen Anne mansion saved from demolition by local preservationists. It has a Giannini fireplace likely added during an early 20th remodeling.”

“The house is wonderful, the fireplace is sublime,” said Tom Trombley, deputy director of the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History. It recently sold the Hill House to a private buyer who is restoring it.

Botti is asking Buffalo residents if anyone has photos of the Martin fireplace so he can match the colors.

“If anybody has any photographs of the fireplace, it would help us, it would fill in the blanks,” he said. “It’s like we’re reinventing a crime scene. That’s the process of conservation. The point we are at right now is discovery.”

Lyn Laman of Grand Island, who chaperones Martin House tours, remembers visiting the vacant house as a youngster when her architect father would come to look at the house.

Laman, now 84, said about half the tiles were still on the fireplace in the 1940s, with a little bit more gone on each visit.

She said the finished fireplace will once again awe visitors.

“They sparkled,” she said of the glass tiles.

Wright and Martin sparred over the fireplace lacking a back. Martin called it a wigwam. And when Wright told him it was the latest thing in fireplaces, Martin said the latest thing in fireplaces would be his young son, who would use it as a shortcut.

Wright stuck to his principles. “Wigwam stands pat,” he wrote Martin. And so it did.

Once he won that battle, though, Wright discarded his initial drawing and called in his friend Orlando Giannini to design the glass mosaic. And Giannini outdid himself.

Or should we say Blanche Ostertag did. Ostertag, a Chicago artist, worked with Giannini and Fritz Hilgart on several glass mosaic fireplace designs and this is one of three she probably designed for Wright. Martin House curator Susana Tejada says Wright often collaborated with others, and there is little doubt Ostertag designed almost identical but smaller fireplaces for Wright’s Joseph Husser House in Chicago (demolished in 1926) and the Ennis House in Los Angeles.

Botti’s work in Buffalo is already paid for, with an initial grant from the East Hill Foundation and additional funding from the Margaret Wendt Foundation.

Both Lownie and Roberts view the fireplace as the crowning touch of the Martin House complex restoration, which began in 1997 with the installation of terra cotta roof tiles handmade in France.

“This will be another feather in the cap, another jewel in the crown,” said Roberts.

Lownie looked back over the painstaking work of the entire project, from finding the hand-cut tiles in France, to finding a small kiln in Ohio to make the signature Roman bricks and finally, rebuilding the lost structures.

“That was the cake,” Lownie said of all the previous work. “But the fireplace? That’s the frosting.”