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100 Things every WNYer should do at least once: Visit Graycliff

The secret is out about the city home Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Darwin Martin, the director of the Larkin Company. Even Mick Jagger visited the elegant North Buffalo landmark when he was in town.

But what about Darwin Martin’s summer home?

Graycliff, on the shores of Lake Erie, is our dark-horse Wright masterpiece. With its emphasis on water and nature, it foreshadows Pennsylvania’s Fallingwater, which Wright built for the Kaufmann department store family. Open year-round, Graycliff is still under restoration. Perhaps because of that, it’s still kind of secret, and sleepy.

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From Buffalo, you head over the Skyway and then down Route 5 through hamlets with fanciful names like Cloverbank and Locksley Park. Turn right at South Creek Road, follow the signs and – ahhh.

Arriving, you sense the peace that Graycliff must have offered the workaholic Martin and his family. The house is long and low. With its rows of windows, you can see right through it. The lake is in the back, and in front, water spills into a pond. As docent Maureen Meyers said: “Wright wants to make it look as if Lake Erie were flowing through the house.” (It is perfectly normal to talk about the master as if he is still among us.)

A Monday morning tour drew eight or nine visitors, all from out of town. Several were from New York City. One was a docent for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They were alert and knowledgeable.

Someone asked about the house’s initial budget. “Good question,” said our docent, Maureen Meyers. She said it began at $7,000 and hit $50,000 before the place was done.

“My shower cost that much,” cracked one smart-mouthed New Yorker.

Meyers, a retired teacher, entertainingly explained everything from the Jewett refrigerator to the anachronistic-looking tiles in the sunroom. Amazingly, the tiles were historically accurate. (“I’m going to tear out all my marble and replace it with vinyl,” jived the mouthy New Yorker.)

Wright masterminded every detail, down to the flowers in the garden. He saw indoors and outdoors as one. When Martin’s wife, Isabelle, argued that her bedroom was too small, Wright told her it included the outside, too. Ceilings were low on purpose. Meyers said: “Wright feels they encourage conversation, relaxation and napping.”

Soft breezes wafted in, and the soothing sound of waves. Lulled by the hazy day, even the New Yorkers grew quiet.

As we adjourned to the gift shop, Meyers shared a childhood memory.

“My grandfather worked for the Larkin company. He worked in the warehouse,” she said. “We had a summer cottage in Angola. And when we drove there, we’d pass Graycliff. And my grandfather would say, ‘There’s the summer house of the best boss who ever lived.’”

The praise for Martin was bittersweet. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the Buffalo millionaire lost everything. After he died of a stroke in 1935, Isabelle returned to Graycliff for several summers. But Wright did not design his houses with easy maintenance in mind, and the family had to sell it.

What luck that it survived the decades, and what a legacy dear Darwin Martin left us. A visit to Graycliff is like a mini-vacation. It’s not to be missed.

Mick Jagger will have to come back.

email: mkunz@buffnews.com