I’ve always liked the stuff that Frank Lloyd Wright designed-I like his windows and chairs as well as his buildings. Wright was an odd duck, as most geniuses tend to be, and he seldom did exactly what his clients wanted. So I can’t help but have mixed feeling about the Fontana Boathouse in Buffalo, New York-a Frank Lloyd Wright design build in 2007.
The Boathouse certainly looks like a Wright building, it has great lines and symmetry. On the other hand, it’s not exactly a building made by craftsmen or artisans. It’s a Frank Lloyd Wright building made with modern materials and modern intentions. It’s easy enough to imagine that Wright would have done a little more with the hardware and the windows-and might have used different building materials. Still, it’s a beautiful building and I would be fine with whole neighborhoods built from Wright’s unused designed.
A couple of miles away is The Martin House, a sprawling estate that is a textbook example of Wright’s Prairie School. Like the Boathouse, this is a Frank Lloyd Wright house in spirit, if not in body. The original structure was left to rot for decades and the bulk of it was torn down. Oddly, they still won’t let you take photos inside the replica Martin House. They are currently working on the driveway and countless other areas that remain in a state of decay. When I visited Falling Water a few years back they were busy with some kind of construction as well.
The Martin House is a beautiful collection of buildings. One of the most interesting aspects of the place is that it was built in 1905 and is surrounded by mostly Victorian houses covered with gingerbread and graceful lines. The Martin House must have been stunning when it was built with it’s straight lines and long overhangs and complex connections. It’s a great collection of leading lines.
There are a number places where they have put up ugly chain linked fences and blocked access to parts of the property. There are a few original aspects to the building, a number of lead glass windows and a few bits of furniture have been brought back to the house. Since the place was abandoned for about 16 years, it’s totally amazing that any of this stuff remains at all-Frank Lloyd Wright stuff sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction these days. Most of the windows in the house are clingfilm with the Wright patterns printed on them.
The people working at the Martin House were a bit bitter about the fact that bits and pieces of the house are in museums and private collections. I don’t feel sorrow for them-the city of Buffalo and the University at Buffalo were offered the house when it was still intact and they turned it down. The city was going to demolish what was left, just as they demolished Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building.
The Martin House is still a very interesting place to visit, but it’s as much like visiting a Wright House as visiting the Luxor Casino is like visiting Egpyt. The contrast is especially stark in The Conservatory, where everything is brand new and shinny and lacks even the hints of age that other parts of the compound have. The very idea that this amazing place was abandoned and ignored for the better part of fifty years is mind boggling. Of course, the same thing happened to Price Tower, the only skyscraper that Wright built during his long career.
The Martin House is also one more reminder that people used to be short in the good old days. The chairs and tables look as if they were made for children, the seats were well below knee level for me. Even if they are reproductions, a number of the tables and chairs were classic Wright designs-beautiful to look at, but difficult to think about actually using.
As with so many places, my main feeling upon leaving the Martin House was a strong desire to get a time machine and go back in time and slap everyone who allowed this masterpiece to fall into ruin.
See more images at Frank Lloyd Wright in Buffalo, NY.