After two decades of ownership and a $15 million investment, the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, like a mother lion with her cub, is zealously protective of the historic Roycroft Campus.
So when an ad marketing the “Roycroft Collection” – a series of toilets and sinks – appeared in public, the foundation sued.
A week later, the two sides settled.
Even now, a century later, the Roycroft, recognized around the world as one of the birthplaces of the Arts and Crafts movement, conjures up images of skill, craftsmanship and quality.
But with that kind of solid-gold reputation comes risk, and it’s no secret that the Wendt Foundation, which bought and restored the National Historic Landmark at a time when its future was in doubt, is becoming more vigilant and more aggressive about protecting and preserving the Roycroft legacy.
“The foundation’s work has built value into the Roycroft name, and now there are people trying to trade on that brand,” said Charles B. von Simson, a lawyer for the foundation.
And to protect it, the Wendt Foundation is now going to court and suing people.
The lawsuits – there are two so far – started with the toilet and sink ad by plumbing and appliance giant American Standard.
A few days later, the foundation filed a second suit against Roycroft Realty, a small real estate firm in Kenmore.
Von Simson says that both cases were settled within days, but declined to comment on the terms.
Filed in U.S. District Court in Buffalo, the civil suits are not about toilets and sinks, but about protecting a legacy that is both valuable and beloved, von Simson insists.
“It’s not just a brand and it’s not just a product,” he said of the 119-year-old name. “It communicates the long history of the Roycroft and Arts and Crafts movements.”
Brought by the landmark’s owners, the trademark-infringement suits accuse two companies of using the Roycroft name without permission.
To hear von Simson talk, the lawsuits are part of a larger effort to preserve and promote the Roycroft and its centurylong reputation for high-quality handmade furniture, lamps and books.
The suits also are an indication of the foundation’s growing concern about pirating of the Roycroft name, especially as it grows in value. The foundation bought the Roycroft in 1994, at a time when it was at risk, and spent more than $15 million on its restoration and preservation.
It reopened to the public in 1995.
There is no shortage of architectural gems in and around Buffalo, but even among all those treasures, the restored former artists’ community in East Aurora stands out. It helped launch a movement that influenced American architecture for the next century.
“It’s an incredibly rich historical legacy,” von Simson said of the Roycroft. “It’s amazing and it’s beautiful. And it’s known across the world.”
Founded in 1897 by Elbert Hubbard, a wealthy traveling soap salesman turned writer, the Roycroft started out as artists’ community and, over time, became a symbol of the reformist craftsmen who rejected the mass produced, factory-made products that typified turn-of-the-century industrial America.
With Hubbard’s help, the campus, at its height, was home to 500 artists and attracted visitors from around the world.
It wasn’t until Hubbard and his wife, Alice Moore Hubbard, a well-known feminist and suffragette, died in 1915 that the community began to decline. The Hubbards were among the 1,198 people aboard the RMS Lusitania when it was sunk off the coast of Ireland by a German submarine.
Their story, well-known to followers of the Roycroft and Arts and Crafts movements, is part of the history the Wendt Foundation is aggressively claiming as its own.
“We really want to protect the Roycroft trademark from being used by people with no connection to the Roycroft legacy,” von Simson said.
And that includes the toilet and sinks that led to the first suit, and anything else of a similar nature that might crop up down the road.
“The foundation is not interested in going out and marketing Roycroft sneakers,” he added.
In its suit against American Standard, the foundation pointed to the company’s own ad as evidence of its trademark infringement.
The ad includes photos of the sinks and toilets and says the Roycroft Collection embraces “the design ethic and artistry of the Arts and Crafts reformists who influenced much of the art and architecture of the mid 20th century.”
For von Simson, that was proof enough.
At the heart of the suit against Roycroft Realty is its use of the Roycroft name. The foundation, in court papers, accuses the small real estate firm in Kenmore of trying to trade on the “fame and strength” of its brand, causing confusion among consumers and potential business partners.
In both suits, the foundation asked the court to stop the defendants from using the Roycroft name.
The suits also ask for monetary damages, although it’s unclear if American Standard and Roycroft Realty paid any damages as part of their settlements.
Executives at the two companies could not be reached to comment.