Architect, designer and writer Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was a leader in organic architecture and the Prairie School movement who designed more than 1,000 structures through the world. His designs would eventually earn him the title of “the greatest American architect of all time” from the American Institute of Architects (1991). So how did this amazing American architect become embedded in the architectural lore of Buffalo, New York and the surrounding Western New York area?
Wright’s work was already a fixture in Oak Park, Illinois, where he lived while working for the Chicago firm Adler & Sullivan. Darwin D. Martin, an executive with the Larkin Soap Company in Buffalo, went to Oak Park to visit his brother, then returned to Buffalo to convince the Larkin board of directors to commission Wright to design their new office building after meeting the architect. Sadly, the Larkin Company Administration Building, completed in 1903, was destroyed in 1950; a small portion of wall still exists in the vicinity of “Larkinville,” a new outdoor activities venue in downtown Buffalo.
The Larkin Building was just an introduction to Buffalo for Wright, however, as he went on to design a house project for Martin. The Darwin D. Martin House Complex, located at 125 Jewett Parkway in Buffalo, was one of Wright’s largest “Prairie-style” homes, consisting of five interconnected buildings, including the main house, the connecting pergola, the conservatory and carriage house, the Barton House for his sister and brother-in-law and a gardener’s cottage. Wright also designed more than 390 pieces of art glass for the house, which achieved National Historic Landmark status in 1986.
Wright designed other homes for Larkin executives before designing a summer home for Martin and his family – Graycliff, located at 6472 Old Lake Shore Rd. in Derby. Built between 1926 and 1931, it was the final home Wright designed in the Buffalo area.
Recently, more Wright designs have been built in the Buffalo area through independent means. The Blue Sky Mausoleum, located in Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, was designed for Martin as a family plot featuring 12 shallow steps with crypts on either side leading to a tall monument. Martin lost his fortune in the Great Depression, and the mausoleum was never built until 2004.
Another Wright design that never saw the light of day until recently was the Fontana Boathouse, located at the foot of Porter Ave. next to the West Side Rowing Club. Designed for the University of Wisconsin Boat Club in 1905, the Boathouse was built in 2007 after $5.4 million was raised for its construction.
The most recent “new” Wright project taking place in Buffalo is the 1920s filling station being built on the site of the Buffalo Transportation/Pierce-Arrow Museum, located at Michigan Ave. and Seneca St. in downtown Buffalo. The station was originally planned for a Buffalo oil company and was quite extravagant for any station of its time, including a second-story observation room with a fireplace, restrooms, a copper roof and gravity-fed gas tanks.