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First floor of Martin House restored to its 1907 glory

Walking through the first floor of the Darwin Martin House feels a little like stepping into 1907.

The walls and ceilings give off a soft golden glow.

The white oak woodwork has been restored to a lustrous finish.

And the gilded mortar joints glisten a rich gold.

Not only has the restoration been completed, but the furniture that Frank Lloyd Wright designed also has been returned to the dining room, living room and library. That includes Wright’s signature barrel chair, and a tall case clock that was restored and now stands at the top of the second-floor stairs.

"For the first time since at least 1936, when the Martins left the residence, Wright's design genius is evident again in the Martin House," said Mary Roberts, the Martin House's executive director.

“The scale of the work was almost overwhelming,” said John Hulley, the lead woodworker.

The completion of the wood restoration, the glazing and the gilding marks a major milestone toward the 15,000-square-feet Martin House's completion. A total of $27 million has been spent to date on the house, including the reconstructions of the pergola, carriage house and conservatory.  The renovation, which is on tap to be completed in 2018, is expected to cost approximately $50 million.

[A Closer Look: The Darwin Martin House]

There is just one more piece of work to complete the first-floor restoration: A mosaic fireplace is expected to be installed as soon as January 2017.

The second floor, including woodwork restoration and reconstruction of the main bedroom suite, is expected to be finished in 2018.

Wright designed the Martin House for Martin and his family between 1903 and 1905, and the house is being restored to how it looked in 1907, said Susana Tejada, curator for the Martin House.

Wright designed all of the furniture with the exception of three pieces designed in the reception room. He also designed a piano for the house, but after tiring of waiting for it, the Martin family purchased a custom-made Steinway piano instead.

"Sun traps" provide the basement with light and reflect a beautiful pattern from the light screens. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

"Sun traps" provide the basement with light and reflect a beautiful pattern from the light screens. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Wright drew up a plan for where the furniture should be placed, which is how the house looks once again.

The central fireplace, now in production, will feature blossoms and vines on all four sides in subtle earth tones.

The woodwork restoration used stain, shellac and varnish on ceiling trim, frieze rails, built-in units and baseboards. The woodworkers  followed a chemical analysis of coatings done on the National Historic Landmark by the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

The woodwork was a large and elaborate production. Some 90 percent of the wood - thousands of pieces - was removed in 2011, requiring each piece to be marked with where it came from for later reassembling. The work was done by 10 employees in Hulley’s Kenmore workshop as funds were made available.

The woodworkers stained the wood, applied a coat of shellac and then "scuff" sanded. Next, they applied another coat of stain over the shellac, brushed it out and shellacked and then scuff sanded again. After that, one more coat of varnish was applied, followed by scuff sanding and scraping the finish off the joints. The finished wood was then wrapped and stored until installation.

“We feel privileged to have gotten the work,” Hulley said.

The small amount of detail work that remains will be completed before the end of December, he said.

The glazing, which Wright used to unify and define space, is made of powdered earth pigments combined with beeswax glaze.

Jo Hormuth, an artist who owns Chicago Architectural Arts, followed Wright's instructions for the pigments and beeswax, including how many layers to apply, their sequence and color. The powders were ground by hand in linseed oil, mixed with melted beeswax and thinned with an odorless turpentine substitute.

As many as four layers of the translucent or semi-transparent glazes were applied to most areas of the ceilings and walls. The final coat was made of metallic powders, providing the soft golden glow.

"At first I thought that with all this gold it would be glitzy, but it's not at all, and that's because nothing takes precedence in the interior," Hormuth said. "Everything is sort of equal. It really is a work of art.

"It's an amazing house, and this treatment is like none I have encountered before," said Hormuth, who has worked in seven other Wright houses.

Hormuth restored the gilded mortar using the original technique of flash gilding. The process involved sealing the mortar four times, including a base coat, two layers of the copper and aluminum powder to give it its gold appearance, followed by a top coat.

"The Martin House is the only one I know to have put back the original beeswax glazes as specified by Wright himself," Hormuth said. "Every decision we made was prescribed by Frank Lloyd Wright."

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