Launch Slideshow

Martin House Visitor’s Center and Restoration, Buffalo, New York

Darwin Martin Complex Reconstruction and Visitor's Center in Buffalo, NY by Toshiko Mori Architects and HHL Architects

Martin House Visitor’s Center and Restoration, Buffalo, New York

Darwin Martin Complex Reconstruction and Visitor's Center in Buffalo, NY by Toshiko Mori Architects and HHL Architects

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    Biff Heinrich

    Toshiko Mori Architects' design for the new Eleanor and Wilson Greatbatch Pavilion at the Martin House complex in Buffalo creates a public face for the house museum and provides education space and ticket concessions.

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    Biff Heinrich

    Mori's design was selected through an invited competition, from a pool of finalists that included Office dA, Brian Healy Architects, Schwartz/Silver Architects, and Architecture Research Office. At night, the pavilion glows from within, but all the light comes from uplights in the floor and the illuminated donor wall. No downlights mar the ceiling plane. The light also reflects off the composite aluminum soffit panels on the underside of the roof cantilever, increasing the foot candles on the pathway around the building exterior.

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    Curtain Wall Section

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    Floor Plan

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    Biff Heinrich

    The ticket counter is the first stop for visitors before they enter the visitor's education center. To enhance the daylight admitted by the curtain wall, a skylight runs down the center of the space. "Glass pavilions are very nice from the exterior, but they also tend to be dark at the heart," Mori says. The skylight makes it easier to read displays, by graphic design firm 2x4, especially during one of Buffalo's 310 cloudy days each year.

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    Biff Heinrich

    Marking the perimeter of the space are thin 2 3/4" stainless steel columns, engineering by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill that can help carry the load of the roof and support the region's heavy snow loads. Far from encouraging the snow to run off, the inverted slope of the roof retains the snow which acts as an insulator to help offset heat loss through the glazing. The columns are so thin that, although they support the roof, they do not disrupt the view. And working in dialogue with Wright's complex, the columns are spaced the same distance apart as the columns on the pergola.

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    Biff Heinrich

    The reconstruction of the carriage house, conservatory, and pergola was guided in part by evidence from thousands of archival letters and photographs. Selecting accurate reproduction products and materials involved lots of trial and error, and extra work on the part of the multiple manufacturers. The landscape plan was also reconstructed according to Wright's specifications, including the lawns and the fountain.

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    Biff Heinrich

    The overall restoration of the complex has been bookended by the work of the Martin House proper. The first order of business was emergency repair work to the roof, which included stabilization of structual beams--using a "sistering" approach of placing new beams next to the old to preserve the original structure--as well restoration of one of the cantilevered corners, which was filled in with a trunk room (yes, a room to store trunks) by the original owners. The final phase, which is now under way, is restoration of the buildings interior, including finishes and art glass such as the famous tree-of-life windows.

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    Biff Heinrich

    Wright designed the conservatory--much to Mrs. Darwin's chagrin--not as a place to sit and spend a quiet afternoon, but as the terminus of a visual axis from the main house, along the pergola, and to the stature of Nike (now a replacement from the original manufacturer). A window crank system was salvaged from a period greenhouse slated for demolition and installed to manage opening several windows at once for cross ventilation.

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    Biff Heinrich

    The rebuilt carriage house now houses the museum shop, and a display that shows the sheer number of glass pieces that go into one of the main house's tree-of-life windows. A back room was restored with stalls such as those that would have held the carriage horses. The ceiling was one of the few that was impossible to reconstruct from period documents, but the architects made an educated guess that board-formed conrete was the way to go.

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    First floor and second floor plans.

In 1903, entrepreneur Darwin D. Martin brought Frank Lloyd Wright to Buffalo with the idea of having the 35-year-old architect design a headquarters for his soap company. But to land the job, Wright had to pass a test—he had to design a house for Martin. The resulting compound—which includes a main house, a pergola, a conservatory, and a carriage house—has long been an object of study for architecture students, albeit as a distant memory. Much was deliberately destroyed or lost to neglect over time, and the house was never open to the public. But through the efforts of a local university, a conservancy, and numerous architects and craftsmen, the Martin House complex has been rebuilt.

Not only have the house and outbuildings been resurrected, they have been enhanced, with a new visitor’s center designed by Toshiko Mori Architects. The center serves as an entry point to the complex and sits adjacent to the main house, but it stands on it’s own as an architectural destination. “Trying to emulate [Wright’s] style,” principal Toshiko Mori says, “is a battle you can never win.”

A deceptively simple-looking glass pavilion, the visitor’s center is engineered to the hilt. To shield against Buffalo’s harsh winters while still maintaining clarity of views, the architects developed a triple-glazed curtain wall that was then manufactured in China. The roof forms an angular bowl with a skylight at the low point in the center of the interior, and it projects beyond the façade as a sunshade. A few central columns provide support, working in concert with thin stainless steel columns at the perimeter.

Mori won an invited competition to design the visitor’s center, and one of the things that set her design above the others was its dialogue with Wright’s work. “It was not only a design challenge,” says Mori, “but an intellectual one, because there is a very precise analytical discourse.” To that end, the inverted shape of the visitor’s center roof mirrors the pitch of the roof of the main house. The spacing between the steel columns matches the distance between the columns of Wright’s pergola. And a donor wall features acrylic bricks that match the dimensions of Wright’s masonry bricks.

Such details speak to the complexity of the original Martin House complex, the restoration of which began in 1992. The only piece still standing was the main house, which had been broken up and reworked through the years. Local firm Hamilton Houston Lownie Architects had to reconstruct the plans for the outbuildings from Wright’s original drawings (which were light on construction details), says principal Theodore Lownie, who also turned to photographs and thousands of letters that Wright and Martin wrote to each other during the construction process. The rebuilding of the complex occurred in several phases, starting with the reconstruction of the main house’s original roof, foundation, and exterior. Then came the rebuilding of the pergola, conservatory, and carriage house. The next step is the restoration of the main house’s interior—the completion of which is dependent on further fund raising.

Darwin Martin was clearly pleased with his house. He gave Wright the commission for the soap company headquarters, the Larkin Company Administration Building, his first commercial project. And the Martin House Restoration Corp., the nonprofit responsible for restoring and maintaining the complex, credits Martin with directly or indirectly winning some 15 jobs for Wright. The Larkin Building was demolished in 1950—one of architectural history’s great losses. Thankfully, the Martin House and its new visitor’s center are here to stay.