Buffalo Photographer Captures Restored Martin House
Matthew Digati | Jan 7, 2021
All Photos courtesy of Matthew Digati.
I’ve lived in Buffalo my entire life, but throughout my whole childhood and teenage years I was unaware of the rich architectural history of my city. My best friend in high school lived on Jewett Parkway in Buffalo’s Parkside neighborhood and I found myself at this house quite often. We would head to his house after school and play outside, running all around the neighborhood as kids do. Little did I know, I was running past, hiding behind, and all together overlooking a piece of architectural art, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House. Now, as an adult who just so happens to be an Architectural Photographer, I see my city, and in particular my best friend’s old neighborhood, in a completely new light.
Buffalo, a once beaten down city, famous for its fall from grace and blue collar, rust belt attitude, has since mounted a comeback and is finally recognizing the deep architectural beauty that exists within its borders. My story of running around the Martin House as a child is actually very common. For decades, the Martin House sat vacant, slowly looking more and more like it would be lost to time or demolition. It was more appreciated as a large plot of land for kids to use than it was for being a work of art. Enter the Martin House Restoration Corporation (MHRC) and a team of dedicated individuals whose sole purpose was to bring the Martin House back to its original glory.
“Little did I know, I was running past, hiding behind, and all together overlooking a piece of architectural art, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House.”
The MHRC raised the necessary funds, totaling around $50 million, to restore the Martin House. They raised the money through every level of public and private contributions throughout the 5 phase restoration plan which started in 1997 and recently came to an end in 2019. Without the MHRC, it’s no sure bet that the City of Buffalo, and all those that love and admire the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, would still be able to visit and marvel at the Martin House. Their tireless work is to thank for what is an absolutely smashing success of a restoration.
I was lucky enough to speak with Jack Quinan, one of the Founders of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Department of Visual Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and Curator Emeritus at the MHRC. Jack had the ultimate privilege of living on the Martin House Complex (inside the George Barton House) for a year during the restoration process and played a large role in bringing the Martin House back to life.
The Martin House Complex suffered considerable damage over the decades which led to 3 of the original 5 buildings being lost to demolition. I asked Jack about Phase III of the restoration process, which saw the complete reconstruction of the original footprint based on original FLW drawings, and if any compromises were made with the need to modernize some parts of the Complex. “The foundations of all the Martin House buildings were more or less intact,” Jack explained. “One modification was made to hide a wheelchair lift for access to the secondary entrance into the reception room far to the left of the principal entrance. The lift isn’t visible from the street, but is behind an original wall. The attic is now stuffed full of a fire resistant spray system and other devices that didn’t exist in 1905. There are systems in the basement as well for heat and water, and new usages such as a classroom space.” The Martin House now uses a geothermal system installed under the lawns to both heat the house in the winter and cool the house in the summer. These modifications had little to no effect on the original footprint though.
“‘Wright was always concerned with water (and nature) in his designs whether it was natural or invented … ’”
One thing I’ve noticed in my research and visits to Frank Lloyd Wright houses is the nearly constant presence of nature. The Martin House’s Pergola leading to the Conservatory is consistently one of the most photographed places in Buffalo. Inside the Conservatory you’ll find an abundance of plant life and a very greenhouse-like vibe. I likened this to the Fern Room in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Graycliff, just 20 miles south of Buffalo on the shore of Lake Erie, and asked Jack to comment on my observation. “Wright was always concerned with water (and nature) in his designs whether it was natural or invented. Water and growing landscape features go hand-in-hand and Wright is always attentive to the outward views into the landscape. Wright’s concern with nature probably came from growing up in Spring Green where nature abounds, from reading Emerson and Thoreau, and from creating his own organic architecture with inspiration from Louis Sullivan.” Those outward views are ever present in the Pergola, as the wide open sides allow for views of the garden, the street, and the sun to literally shine straight through.
I asked Jack if one moment in particular stood out to him as a time where it seemed as though the project would not be completed or if any major setbacks were experienced. Although the project never truly seemed in jeopardy of failing, he did recall a rather tragic moment. “Lundstrom (the gentleman hired to restore and recreate the spectacularly tiled central fireplace) a west coast artist specialized in gilded tiles—died during the work.”
My final question for Jack was possibly the most important. How can we ensure that Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy, and most importantly his works of art, are never in danger of being lost to time, demolition, or neglect again? “That is why the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy was formed which thrives out of our Chicago office. Its success in saving Wright’s work is legendary but that battle will never end.” Indeed, the battle will never end. It’s up to us to visit, admire, and most importantly, be active in our quest to preserve Wright’s legacy.
Please enjoy the photo gallery that I have put together. All photos are my own and were taken in cooperation with the fine folks at the Martin House. If you are ever in Buffalo, I’d highly suggest paying this beautiful home a visit. I’d also like to thank Jack Quinan for sharing his expert knowledge and opinions regarding the Martin House and the folks at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation for allowing me to showcase my photography. If you wish to read more about the Darwin Martin House, please check out this post I put together for my site, buffalohomes.co
About the Author
Matthew is a Buffalo, NY based Real Estate and Architectural Photographer. He’s passionate about architecture and travel and is most comfortable behind his camera in a beautiful setting. His personal work is meant to inspire empathy amongst others and offer a perspective on why experiencing vastly different cultures from your own is the most important part of life. His professional work is meant to highlight the important role architecture plays in our everyday lives and why it’s so important.
If you would like to view more of his Matthew’s photography, visit his website at digatiphotography.com