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Team of experts is refurbishing woodwork in Darwin Martin House

Before Darwin D. Martin and his family could move into the new Prairie Style home Frank Lloyd Wright designed for them on Jewett Parkway, one last important step had to take place.

While Martin fretted to Wright that his house would not be ready for an already announced house warming for friends and co-workers from the Larkin Soap Co., a team of finish carpenters arrived here in 1905 from Milwaukee’s Matthew Brothers Manufacturing Co.

When they were done, 45,000 linear feet of rift-sawn white oak trim – 8½ miles laid end to end – had been glued and nailed in place. The wood trim was now part of the Martin House ceilings and walls, all according to a radical new open-space building plan for the Martins that Wright called his opus, his domestic symphony.

The wood trim framed the art-glass windows Wright designed, matched the furniture he also designed, led the eye to the horizontal planes Wright developed in the home and contributed to what Wright called his gesamtkunstwerk, German for a total work of art.


GALLERY: Seven miles of woodwork at the Darwin Martin House


Now, more than a century later, another group of trim carpenters, cabinetmakers and expert woodworkers, some of the best in Buffalo, are back on the job.

They’ve been called rock stars of their trade by visitors on the Martin House tours.

The craftsmen shrug off the praise and say it’s just another job. But they know better. They know a job like this comes along once in a lifetime, if ever, and they take pride in showing a visitor their work.

The woodworkers marvel at how their counterparts in the early 1900s had to work without power tools. They’re amazed at the complexity of Wright’s moldings, all of them joined together with tongue and groove, just like the furniture Wright designed for the Martins.

John Hulley, a woodworker for 40 years who owns Hulley Woodworking, put the dream team together. The nine craftsmen range in age from 40 to 60 and they’ve worked for some of the best woodworkers in the industry, including Kittinger Furniture Co. in Buffalo. Two of the Martin House cabinetmakers have been recruited for the finish work.

Hulley probably knows the wood in the Martin House better than Wright did himself. He and his crew have removed every stick of wood trim from the house. Hulley made a drawing of each piece, mapped its location, examined it to see if it could be saved or scrapped, and then either refinished or remade it. And then his workers put it back.

And even the scraps go into a pile to be used for patching.

“We were able to use 95 to 98 percent of what was removed,” Hulley said. “We’re doing everything as original as possible. Except the glue. We’re using modern glue instead of hide glue or animal glue.”

Theodore Lownie, a founding partner of the architectural firm Hamilton, Houston and Lownie, has been the Martin House restoration architect for more than two decades.

Lownie specializes in historic preservation – he’s also been the architect at Kleinhan’s Music Hall – and said he’s never run across an architectural design as detailed as Wright’s.

“I can’t imagine doing something that’s as complex as this,” Lownie said, looking at Wright’s woodworking drawings at the firm’s Allentown office. “Even thinking of the detail. That’s the part of his mind I’ve never completely understood. How does he visualize exactly how big this should be, how big that should be? That’s all his sense of proportion. And it’s in minute detail.”

But what Wright drew and what ended up in the Martin House were often different, as Lownie and his project manager and architectural partner, Jamie Robideau, quickly found out.

“We did our preliminary drawings based on Wright’s drawings,” Robideau said. “And it didn’t take John (Hulley) long after he got involved to say your drawings are wrong. That’s not the way it actually went together.”

“Which is understandable,” Robideau explained. “Between the time Wright and his team drew it and when it was actually installed, certain modifications were made. So John was looking at the actual artifacts where we were looking at the drawings.”

Hulley started at the Martin House in 2006 after being called in as a specialist to help with the woodwork on the art-glass veranda doors – the wood was rotted from all the snow that piled up during the 17 years the house was abandoned after the Martins left.

Hulley so impressed the architects with his restoration that Robideau asked him to list the steps he took. Hulley won the bid for restoration of the woodwork in the Martin House’s lower level and then spent seven months at Hulley’s shop repairing and remaking wood trim for the first floor.

The Martin House closed for tours in January while the crew set up a wood shop on the veranda – the same porch where Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones lunched after their concert in Buffalo last year.

The house, minus its furniture now on display at the Burchfield Penney Art Center during the restoration, reopened for tours in February while the crew worked on the east side of the house. This month the crew moves to the west side of the first floor. That work should be done in September.

Mary Roberts, executive director at the Martin House, said fundraising efforts are underway so Hulley’s crew can start on the second floor woodwork as soon as they’re done with the first floor.

One of the first things people ask me when they find out I’m working on the Martin House is why it costs so much,” Hulley said.

“It would be a lot cheaper just to make everything new,” Hulley said at his woodworking shop in Kenmore, a converted hardware store filled with late 19th and early 20th century cast-iron wood working machines rebuilt by Hulley. “But this is a historic preservation project.”

Hulley points to a half-foot stack of architectural drawings he’s made of the 110 different types of molding profiles that Wright designed for the Martins. Hulley and his crew point out wood trim in the basement that will never be seen by the public but had to be meticulously finished anyway.

Although Hulley has preserved almost all of what he removed from the house, there was plenty – almost 26,000 lineal feet, or 5-plus miles – that had to be remade because it was lost to demolition or removed earlier. Like Matthew Bros. did earlier, all the trim pieces were made in the shop, in this case by Royalton Molding and Millwork in Lockport.

All this meticulous work is why the first-floor restoration project, part of the $50 million Martin House restoration, is costing $2.3 million. The work also includes restoration of the 15,000-piece glass mosaic fireplace.

The cost is a far cry from the days when Matthew Bros. trim finishers made $2 a day, a good wage back then.

It’s so expensive now because the Martin House is a national historic landmark and strict preservation rules apply to any of the work done.

“I know it’s not what you pay for any house, anywhere,” Roberts said of the total project cost. “And the reality is the investments being made here are not being made in a house, they’re being made in a work of art.

“If we were a museum, and we bought a $50 million painting because we had the money for it, no one would question it,” Roberts added. “You have an irreplaceable work of art that we’ve basically invested in to save it for future generations.”

Marketing studies have shown the Martin House will spin off $17 million in money to the community – hotels, restaurants, shops – even if only half the expected 80,000 visitors come each year. And Roberts said 5,000 local students also visited the house last year, thanks to a transportation grant that pays for buses from the Niagara Frontier Automobile Dealers.

“The short version is, it’s not a house, it’s a work of art of significant size and stature,” Roberts said. “It’s economic development and it’s an educational opportunity for the community for the long term.”

Wright and Martin exchanged nearly 400 letters in the 30 years the two men knew each other. But nowhere in the correspondence, found in the University at Buffalo archives, did Wright ever say exactly why he needed so much oak trim at the Martin House.

For that, one has to go to Wright’s autobiography where Wright explains how wood helped him open interiors and rid the spaces of walls.

Wright may have been the first person to use the term, breaking the box. Wood trim opened that box. Oak frieze rails, for example, divide the Martin House’s 80-foot long unit room into library, living area and dining space.

“Now why not let walls, ceilings, floors become seen as component parts of each other, their surfaces flowing into each other?” Wright wrote in his autobiography. But the building trades and engineers, he said, were not ready for the new concept.

“Walls made one with floors and ceilings, merging together yet reacting upon each other, the engineer had never met,” he wrote.

Wright’s furniture and the wood trim are of the same wood, the same finish, and the same level of complexity. Wright’s furniture has been compared to the craftsmen style done by workers for Martin’s former boss, Elbert Hubbard at the Roycroft studios in East Aurora. Or Gustaf Stickley’s mission style furniture.

Wright, though, scoffed at the workmanship done by both groups.

“Crude furniture of the Roycroft-Stickley-Mission style, which came along later, was offensively plain, plain as a barn door – but was never simple in any true sense,” Wright wrote of his competitors.

Steve Oubre, an East Aurora cabinetmaker, is on the Martin House staff and along with fellow cabinetmaker Rolf Hoeg has re-created or rebuilt furniture that Wright designed for the Martins. And now they’re both working with Hulley to restore the wood trim.

“I’d say the level of the molding here is similar to the furniture,” Oubre said. “It’s like a piece of furniture. All the miters have joinery in them. It’s not just miter and stick them together. There’s joinery in there. So over time, the joints don’t propagate open.”

Two of Hulley’s crew, Jerry Ptak, a retired Army Corps of Engineers project manager, and Joe Breidenstein, a former industrial model maker, showed how the trim pieces fit together in a piece of molding the crew calls the Martin Nine, a single piece of trim with nine separate parts.

“I have a lot of respect for the original carpenters,” Ptak said. “They didn’t have power tools.”

Breidenstein said it wasn’t just the woodwork that was complex. Equally detailed was the finishing.

“We start with stain,” he said. “Then it’s shellac, glaze, shellac, toner, touch-up, shellac, spray varnish, brush varnish. And between all coats of finish is sanding. It’s like ten steps.”

Hulley makes many of the finishes himself. He buys shellac in 55 pound bags of dried flakes and dissolves the flakes in ethanol alcohol.

“It’s really hard to tell the difference between the new wood and the wood that was here,” Hulley said. “And that was the plan. We’re not trying to fool anybody. If the historic preservation trust comes in and says what’s new, we can show what’s new, what’s old. But we’re trying to blend in, we didn’t want the new to stick out. It would look kind of dumb to have an old board next to a new board and have it look that way. It kind of defeats the purpose of bringing the building back to 1907.”

Just short of his 90th birthday, Frank Lloyd Wright was at yet another peak in his long career, finishing his final monument, the spiral tower of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. For years, he had called himself the world’s greatest architect but in February 1957, for once Wright was not talking about himself.

Wright chose instead to speak about wood in the Timber Producers Bulletin, a trade publication.

“Wood is a friend of mine,” Wright told America’s timber producers. “When we use the tree respectively and economically, we have one of the greatest resources of the earth. It is a beautiful material, friendly to man, the supreme material for his dwelling purposes. If a man is going to live, he should live with wood.”

The Martins, who by the way got the house done in time for the September 1906 housewarming, lived with Wright’s wood for more than 30 years. Now it’s being brought back to life by a new generation of craftsmen.

Michael Beebe is a retired Buffalo News staff reporter. He now volunteers as a docent at the Darwin Martin House.