Friday, July 22, 2016

An Architect Summer

Summertime to most families means vacations.  Some like the beach or bay. Others visit family, wherever they may be.  Our family of four (mom, dad, daughter and son) tend to seek out more varied destinations.  My wife and I started dating while studying architecture abroad.  We experienced many incredible points of interest together while we were based in Italy.  We were constantly searching out places to go, not really content to relax in one place.  There was too much to see.  After school, we tended to continue this kind of travel for our vacations.  We don’t tend to sit on the beach like some like to do.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

This summer, our idea was to take in Niagara Falls.  This destination seemed to get the kids excited.  I was excited, I had never seen it before either.  Niagara is a drivable destination for us, and we planned to go to the Canadian side which meant getting the kids passports, an idea they also appreciated a lot. 

During the trip planning, it dawned on us that we had to drive through Buffalo in order to get to the Falls, and I remembered that Buffalo has a high concentration of Frank Lloyd Wright sites.  Before you knew it, we booked an additional night in downtown Buffalo midway between two FLW houses:  The Darwin D. Martin House and Graycliff.  I didn’t know much about these buildings, and I learned from their respective websites that both houses were designed for the family of the executive who had convinced the Larkin Soap Company to hire Wright to design their headquarters in Buffalo, NY.  Obviously, we both knew about the travesty of that lost Wright gem, so it seemed like a good bet that these houses would be worth the visit.

The approach to Graycliff.  Notice the complete transparency on the lower level. 
Taking tween and teen children to historic landmark architecture is probably not the ideal family vacation for most (at least not for the kids).  Ours are kind of used to it.  But we also try to balance ‘educational’ vacations with fun for the kids.  Mom had the brilliant recall that there is a Great Wolf Lodge (and waterpark) in Niagara as well.  The fact that our time in Canada would be spent there satisfied the kids enough to endure a few hours in the two buildings.  So we set it up that we drove into Buffalo early enough to catch the last tour at Graycliff on the first day, and the following day we hit the Martin house for the first tour.  Immediately after the Martin tour, we would be on our way across the border; only a few miles away.

The look you may expect from an 11 year old visiting Wright homes while on vacation.
Graycliff has a quite striking exterior presence.  Appropriate to its name, it is a stone’s throw back from a cliff overlooking Lake Erie.  The exterior is well restored and is what you would expect from a Wright designed house.  It still needed some paint but the only real distraction is the rather ugly fence separating dumb tourists from their death in the Lake below.  Apparently, there was a really attractive wall built by Wright in the 1920’s; but the Lake has since devoured it as the cliff is now several feet closer to the house since 1920.
The inside of Graycliff is in stark contrast to the exterior.  It is currently completely ripped apart.  The foundation restoring the house is actually installing a fire suppression system, which I think is quite rare for any Wright restorations.  Plaster was missing in a large portion of the ceilings and walls, and the floors had holes large enough to see into the basement.  As there was no interior photography allowed, I don’t have any images to support these descriptions, but take my word for it.  You can imagine, the kids weren’t too impressed with the master architect’s work on the inside.  But Mom and Dad could imagine how the space was originally intended.  The house had suffered neglect and was, for many years, a home for a Catholic order of priests.  As we were walking away, we heard the docent talking to one of the restoration workers, and he said, “I’m going to be painting here for the rest of my life.”  All good architecture requires maintenance…right?

It wasn't all bad.  There's the weed covered chain link fence behind them.
It always shocks me to see a Wright house that is part of a larger neighborhood.  Pennsylvania has two Wright houses (three if you count one relocated here) and if you know about Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, you know they’re remote and have no other neighbors but the trees, rocks and water.  There’s no lengthy, wooded approach to it. As the house was designed just after 1900, the Martin House and the cute Victorian neighbors are contemporaries of each other.  We learned the Martin House is really a complex of several buildings.  A main house, guest house, conservatory, gardener’s house and garage.  Even though this was essentially an estate, the scale of it all really fit in with the rest of the neighborhood. The only hint that there was something special going on here was the sleek, white visitor’s center.  But even this is tucked back off the street and in a scale fitting in with the rest of the context.

Martin House from the street. 
This guy's daily commute includes cutting through the yard of a Frank Lloyd Wright designed house.
The exterior here too is what you expect from a Wright House.  Though we would learn that most of the complex had suffered from serious neglect and had to be completely rebuilt, it was done well.  The interior had also suffered greatly.  Large areas of the floors failed and were rebuilt.  Many windows were replaced.  And the work was ongoing, but enough of the house was done on the first floor that even the fine detailing was able to be revealed.  As we toured the dining room, a restorer was literally gilding the horizontal mortar lines on the interior, you know, emphasizing the horizontal as Wright was want to do.  They even had some original and reproduction furniture.  And the guest house was even closer to ‘finished’, boasting a dining room set and some excellently restored built-ins. 
What zoning???  This shot demonstrates the tightness of the site.
Even though this tour was 50% longer than the Graycliff tour it was much more palatable to the kids.  Both of them enjoyed the Martin house tour: there was no, “are we done yet’s” or “I’m hungry’s”.  Mom and Dad were in our element (we both took a class which devoted a full month to Wright in Architectural Art History at Penn State).  Our kids appreciate good architecture (we dragged them through Biltmore and Monticello already), but understandably for them, a home has complete floors, walls and furnishings and ‘stuff’.  Mom and Dad were glad that the Martin House delivered.

Success!  Well, at least we avoided mutiny before getting to the water park.
When Mom and Dad take their kids to Niagara Falls for summer vacation, somehow the blog post is a thousand words on Frank Lloyd Wright.  Sounds about right to me.

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series in which Bob Borson of Life of an Architect selects a theme and a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is "Summer"  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

Enoch Sears - Business of Architecture (@businessofarch)
Summer is a Great Time To Market Your Architecture Firm!

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect (@bobborson)

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
summer working, had me a blast

Evan Troxel - Archispeak Podcast / TRXL (@etroxel)
Lake Powell

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Seasons of Summer

Jes Stafford - MODwelling (@modarchitect)
The Dog Days of Summer

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Summer -- Architecture Imagery

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)

Stephen Ramos - BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@sramos_BAC)
4 Secrets To Getting The Most Out Of Your Summer Internship

Michael LaValley - Evolving Architect (@archivalley)
An Acrophobic Architect's Illuminating Summer of Roofs

Sharon George - Architecture By George (@sharonraigeorge)
Glass in Architecture - Summer Wonders

Brinn Miracle - Architangent (@architangent)
4 Reasons Solar Power is a Hot Topic

Emily Grandstaff-Rice - Emily Grandstaff-Rice FAIA (@egrfaia)
Seasonal change

Jarod Hall - di'velept (@divelept)
... and the livin's easy

Drew Paul Bell - Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell)

Samantha Raburn - The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch)
An Architectural Spark for your Summer

Kyu Young Kim - Palo Alto Design Studio (@sokokyu)
Summer in Seoul

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
[Dis]Connected Summer

Adam Denais - Defragging Architecture (@DefragArch)
5 Things to Make the Most of Your Summer

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Summer Surprise

Marica McKeel - Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
Summer : A Review

Jeffrey A Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Do I Need to Hire an Architect?

Jared W. Smith - Architect OWL (@ArchitectOWL)
Work Projects during Summer


  1. The scale of FLW's Martin house is incredible. I always pictured it to be much more human scale especially with all of his low ceilings, but it looks like that fence is close to 8' tall. One of those buildings you just have to visit in person and experience. Thanks for sharing.

    1. But it still felt in context with the 3 story Victorians. I am not sure which came first. Thanks for the comment!

    2. Oh, on the wall, the one side yard is dipped about 2 feet, making the wall even taller on that elevation.

  2. Fascinating comment by Kyu pointing out the 'scale' of the fence. It is amazing that FLW was able to create such a unique and timeless architecture that still manages to "blend" with the traditional neighborhoods. I'm sure he'd be pleased to know that his houses are being maintained and restored.

    1. True: especially the Martin complex. Many of the sites I've visited have been jewels in the landscape. Not this one. Per of the neighborhood.

  3. Great post! Hopefully they'll understand when they're older how cool those places and spaces are.

    1. According to my kids, parents are never cool, nor do they ever do stuff that is cool. But thanks for reading!

  4. Our kids grew up the same way! Tell them "it gets better". BTW - hit all these sites touring just last month. Threw in the Roycroft sites outside of Buffalo. And the Rivera court at DIA in Detroit.

  5. Very nice. Haven't seen the Roycraft community. I bet it is cool.
    Considering my parents never took me anywhere, our kids are out ahead in the deal!