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$52 million later, Darwin Martin complex restoration is complete

In March 1991, then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan showed up unannounced at the Darwin Martin House and grew upset at how it looked.

He called the deteriorating estate — named a National Historic Landmark five years earlier — "a ruin and a disgrace."

It what turned out to be a turning point, Moynihan called on the community to save the Frank Lloyd Wright masterwork by establishing a private fundraising campaign.

"If we keep this building up, the time will come when people will get on airplanes to come see it," Moynihan said.

People like Ruth McKeown of Yorkshire, England, have proved him right. She visited on Monday as Martin House and state officials declared the restoration project finished after 27 years and $52 million.

"It's a dream, isn't it? It's perfect as far as I'm concerned," McKeown said.

"I like the horizontal lines. I like all the glass, the open plan," said McKeown, a Wright enthusiast who came with her husband Justin and son Findlay.

She was hardly alone.

"It's magnificent," said Karen O'Hare of Severna Park, Md., as she surveyed the inside of the Martin House at 125 Jewett Parkway.

She and her husband Charley came to Buffalo after visiting Niagara Falls.

"We're going back tonight, but I had to see the house before we left," O'Hare said.

The restored site is very different from how it appeared when Moynihan showed up following the St. Patrick's Day parade in 1991 as he toured Frank Lloyd Wright properties in Buffalo. He wrote a letter to The Buffalo News about what he saw.

"The concrete is running away like sand," Moynihan wrote. "One of the great ornamental urns which distinguishes Wright's work is missing from the front step but can be found discarded in the back yard."

At the time, the University at Buffalo owned the house, which had been closed to the public months earlier after the theft of a Wright-designed chair valued at $60,000 to $70,000. A consultant's report estimated a complete exterior and interior restoration of the house would cost $4.5 million. Moynihan, in his letter, challenged the community to save the historic property.

Moynihan, who died in 2003, didn't live long enough to see the remarkable strides taken to restore the Prairie-style house Wright built for Darwin and Isabelle Martin between 1903 and 1905.

With the completion of the last project — the landscaping — Mary Roberts, the Martin House Restoration Corp.'s executive director, declared the restoration effort had crossed the finish line.

“It’s a momentous occasion,” Roberts said. “We have been able to bring back to life one of the most important architectural estates in America for the benefit of our community.

"We couldn’t be prouder of what we have done because we did it for the people of Buffalo so that it could honor and cherish its heritage, and be part of our bright future,” she said.

[Related: See historic plans and photographs of the landscaping Frank Lloyd Wright planned for the Darwin Martin House]

The Martin House Restoration Corp., formed in 1992, acquired the house from UB two years after Moynihan's challenge. The Barton House and Gardener's Cottage were re-purchased to reunify the site. Three apartment buildings — built after the Martins' sale of the house — were torn down as part of the restoration effort.

In 2007, HHL Architects completed the reconstruction of three connected buildings — the pergola, conservatory and carriage house — 45 years after they had been torn down.

In 2009, the Martin House Complex opened the Toshiko Mori-designed Greatbatch Pavilion, a critically-acclaimed structure used as a visitor center.

The Martin House's interior restoration, completed in 2018, included intricate woodwork, wall and ceiling finishes, and reproduction of the glass mosaic fireplace.

Monday signified the completion of Wright's floricycle through restoration of the estate's landscape by Bayer Landscape Architecture.

"For the first time in over 80 years, we can once again experience the spectacular garden and understand the full vision that Frank Lloyd Wright shared with the Martins, a vision where buildings and landscape were fully integrated," Mark Bayer said.

Plantings from 2018, including bright delphiniums, are in full bloom.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who was once a young staffer of Moynihan's, hailed the project's completion at Monday's ceremonial event.

"This has been a journey of a few individuals who had a true belief that if they could simply reenergize this property it could be an exceptional attraction to people from around the globe, and that vision has been realized," Hochul said.

Patrick Kaler, who heads Visit Buffalo Niagara, said he expects the restoration’s completion to eventually boost the numbers of tourists significantly above the nearly 40,000 who came last year.

Public dollars accounted for about $31 of the $52 million it took to restore the landmark, led by $24 million from New York State and $4.6 million from Erie County.

"This place sets a standard for us," state Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid told those who gathered at the site Monday. "You have done more in terms of raising private dollars and public dollars. This is really a flagship historic site for us."

A $5 million endowment campaign is underway for the New York State Historic Site, one of 36 in the state, with about 40 percent collected to date.

Martin House officials are counting on more visitors like Karen and Janet DeLoria, who came to Buffalo because of its association with Wright.

"I don't have words for how beautiful this is," said Karen DeLoria of Clearwater, Fla., standing inside the Martin House. "Every single detail is designed."

"We stopped in Buffalo specifically to see the Frank Lloyd Wright houses," added Janet DeLoria.

[Related: A Closer Look at the Darwin Martin House]

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