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.