Upstate New York – A Frank Lloyd Wright Arts and Crafts Sandwich

Sign with Roycroft crest and lettering
Image via Wikipedia
I first came across Frank Lloyd Wright in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I loved the Arts and Crafts ideals melded with the Art deco design but was at that time unfamiliar with the enormous body of work and influence that Frank Lloyd Wright had on N American architecture and design. That is until I visited Chicago last year and took a side trip to Oak Park, Lloyd Wright’s home territory. His studio and a dozen or so Lloyd Wright designed private properties (mainly prairie design style) can be found in this unassuming but mostly upscale suburb of Chicago.
From then on I became a Frank Lloyd Wright groupie – This is a man whose work spans 73 years and encompasses over 415 properties and projects both commercial and residential and who was eons ahead of his time. What is really courageous is that at the time LLoyd Wright was creating his fantastically avant-garde buildings, the rest of the Victorian upper echelon were living in gargantuan, turreted dark gothic monstrosities crammed with fussy furniture, memorabilia and collectables. Can you imagine what the neighbours of your newly built Lloyd Wright property would be thinking about your clean lined minimalist open plan house? It must have been considered an eyesore only comparable with our perception of the Pompidou Centre in the middle of Paris. He must have been an extremely charismatic character to have been able to “sell” his ideas in that climate. 415 projects in the early 19 century – are you kidding? Imagine the length of time it would’ve taken to travel all over the world to source the gorgeous natural materials that Lloyd Wright used. How did he fit all the research in?………
Apparently once the design had been commissioned he rarely Managed the actual building work, preferring to do business and negotiations via detailed correspondence (can’t think why)
The travesty though is that many of his iconic houses have “had it bad” in the ensuing years which is why so many are undergoing reconstructions.
Anyhow, towards the end of last year whilst flicking through a “Visit Buffalo” brochure thinking Why” (For my brits, Buffalo is associated primarily with discount shopping trips over the border and heavy snowfall), I came across an article on the Darwin Martin House complex and Greycliffe estate both in the Buffalo area. So months later over the border we trotted (dragged our heels actually – Note to self: next time cross over the border at the Peace Bridge not Queenstown unless you want to sit in your car for 2 hours amidst truckloads of dollar parity Buffalo bargain hunters).
The Darwin Martin house is a total reconstruction of an original Lloyd Wright complex built between 1903 and 1905 for Buffalo entrepreneur Darwin D Martin and his wife Isabelle R. Martin. The first “complex” of buildings Lloyd Wright ever designed, it remained true to his Prairie House ideal of creating harmonies between buildings and landscape – letting the outside in. This project is in phase 5a of a multi-million dollar reconstruction project meaning that most of the buildings can be toured to some degree. It is slated to be finished in the autumn of 2011 – for more info, see
Roycroft Inn – East Aurora
About an hour or so east of Greycliffe is the Roycroft Inn. Built between 1903-1905 it has national Landmark status and has been totally restored to its original specifications including the original sleeping design . This place is a treasure trove of arts and crafts features – wooden doors carved with individual room names, period lamps and wall sconces; wallpaper in the style of British Arts and Crafts proponent William Morris and furnished almost entirely with “Stickley” furniture (see June 2010 Blog “From Stickley to Cabbage Town”).
Built by Elbert Hubbard – entrepreneur and advertising genius and interestingly a peer and former work colleague of Darwin Martin at the Larkin soap factory in Buffalo – as part of “The Roycroft Campus” (still standing and now inhabited by various little olde antique”y” establishments) it’s design was inspired – after Hubbard visited William Morris in England – by the “Morris” philosophy and the ideal of returning to a pre-industrialised society where all household items were handmade. When he returned he founded the Roycroft press in 1895 and populated the whole shebang with a community of artists who worked with their “heads, hearts and hands” as opposed to with the gears and machinery of the day. Like his mentor Morris, he modeled his movement loosely on the medieval “guild” ideals; first seeking out printers and book designers for his Printing shop, followed by painters, sculptors, furniture makers, metal smiths, photographers, potters, leather-workers and writers (whew). The American movement as established by Hubbard was distinguishable from the UK movement only through its focus on the materials used rather than on the actual artistic design The Campus used to house all these craftsmen and visitors became known as “The Philanstery” and then The Roycroft Campus. More significantly as an advertising guru, Hubbard staged events and conventions at Roycroft and was therefore able to promote his underlying ideas through his many publications. A little side note here: Hubbard and his wife died in the sinking of the SS Lusitania in 1915
Roycroft was a wonderful find, whilst the food was marvellous and beautifully served – we had a choice of eating in the dining hall or actually in the lounge around the fire and watching the live jazz – the atmosphere service and the live smooth jazz made the stay very special. Cas Rating – EXCELLENT can’t wait to go back
Greycliffe Estate
The next morning we travelled back towards Buffalo to visit the “other” Frank Lloyd Wright property “Greycliffe Estate”. This was the summer home and second of the two complexes built for Darwin and Isabelle Martin. Built between 1926 and 1931 Greycliffe was one of Wright’s most ambitious designs in his “Organic” architectural style and set high on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie amidst extensively landscaped grounds – also designed by Wright. One of the few “stone” Lloyd Wright designs It features cantilevered balconies, spacious terraces and a number of Wright’s hallmark surprises – such as a little window built into the chimney to let light into Isabelle Martin’s washroom..
It was Wright’s original intention to have glass meet glass at the corners of the property and whilst he didn’t get his way in this respect he did manage to incorporate ribbons of windows into the design in order to allow the experience of nature from within and through the house. On a clear day it is actually possible to stand in front of the house and look right through it to Lake Erie and Ontario beyond.
By now a personal friend of the Martin’s for well over 20 years, this project was a little more unusual as it was commissioned by Isabelle which meant Wright had to do all the negotiation with the woman of the house. Over 2000 letters were exchanged during the building of both complexes, documenting every little change, irritation and disagreement between the two. Walls, were built and then knocked down and changes both minute and massive were made according to who won which particular letter exchange. It appears to be the only one of his commissions he visited a number of times because of his friendship with the Darwin Martins.
Greycliffe is also undergoing a huge and painstakingly accurate restoration and whilst a significant part of the current tours take place inside the house, the 2 hour in-depth tour we booked was far too long (in my opinion)
Over and Out