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October 25th 2008
Published: December 25th 2011
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Martin House ComplexMartin House ComplexMartin House Complex

The Martin House Complex, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
I spent this day exploring Buffalo, New York.

Many people may think I'm nuts.

Buffalo has had problems for so long the city must have nothing to see.

In reality, it’s just the opposite.

For history minded travelers, the city is unmissable.

The opening of the Erie Canal in the 1820's made Buffalo a key stop on the transport link between the Midwest and the east coast.

The city grew very rich on the resulting trade.

Numerous manufactures became based in Buffalo.

In the late 1800s, this city had more millionaires per capita of any city in the US.

These wealthy industrialists commissioned the leading architects in the US, including Louis Sullivan, H. H. Richardson, and Frank Lloyd Wright, to design grand public buildings and palatial private homes.

The entire city was soon covered with grand architecture.

It culminated with the construction of the New City Hall in the 1920s.

It was the largest municipal building in the world at the time (it’s still in the top 10).

The building was designed as a grand edifice dedicated to a prosperous city of Industry and Commerce.

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The main entrance to the Martin House in Buffalo New York, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
it proved to be the city's nadir.

The Great Depression wiped out the city's prosperity, and changes in transport patterns after World War II ensured Buffalo would never really get it back.

While undeniably painful for area residents, it proved a boon for preservationists and travelers.

The long malaise ensured that the city did not have the funds to undertake the urban renewal programs so many other cities did in the 1950s and 60s.

Buffalo ended the century with its glorious beginning of century architecture mostly intact.

Time did not stand still, and Buffalo does have a number of modernist bricks downtown and elsewhere.

There are still far fewer of them than any other city of this size.

Visiting Buffalo is a trip to the Gilded Age that no other city can offer.

Martin House Complex

My first stop was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early masterpieces, the Martin House Complex.

It was built for Darwin D Martin, who was CFO for the Larkin Soap Company.

At the time, Wright was only really known in Chicago.

Darwin Martin had an older brother who worked in Chicago, and suggested he
Martin House DetailMartin House DetailMartin House Detail

Detail of upper windows on the Martin House
check out the promising young architect's work.

Darwin loved what he saw, and commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design his house.

Frank Lloyd Wright had another purpose for working on this project.

At the time, the Larkin Company was planning a new office tower, and Wright really wanted the project.

It would be his first major commercial building.

He ultimately got it, and the result made him internationally famous.

The house is considered prairie style.

The name comes from where Wright was mostly building them at the time, on the prairies of Illinois.

The goal of this style was to make the house one with Nature.

The house should look like it rose out of the ground.

The houses features strong horizontal lines, low roofs with large eaves, big foundations, natural colors, and windows made of art class.

The glass pattern for the Martin's windows is a strongly geometric pattern of the tree of life.

They are a nightmare to clean.

The house was finished in 1918.

Martin and his family lived there until his death in 1935.
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The main Martin House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

Unfortunately, the subsequent history of the house mirrors that of the city it’s located in.

Darwin Martin's fortune was wiped out by a series of real estate developments in the late 1920s.

After his death, his widow, who hated the house, simply abandoned it.

The city eventually possessed it.

It was bought for owed taxes in the 1960s.

The new owner determined that every building but three was beyond salvage.

Those buildings were demolished, and the land sold off.

Three apartment buildings where eventually built.

Preservationists are less bitter about this than you would expect, because without this it’s likely the entire complex would have been torn down.

Eventually, the main house was acquired by the University of Buffalo.

They, in turn, sold it to the current foundation in the 1990's.

The foundation eventually acquired the remaining land, and are trying to restore the complex to the condition of its heyday.

Tours of the house are conducted by knowledgeable guides.

They describe Frank Lloyd Wright's philosophy, and how aspects of the house implement that philosophy.

Certain aspects of that philosophy were really
Albright Knox Art GalleryAlbright Knox Art GalleryAlbright Knox Art Gallery

Facade of the original building of the Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo New York
in conflict with established design principles of the time.

The house is currently being restored, so only the overall design is currently in place.

You have to imagine the details, which in some cases even includes the paint on the walls.

Some of the art-glass windows are original, while most are modern copies.

The missing windows are now located in museums around the world.

The foundation has reconstructed most of the complex buildings based on Wright' original drawings.

The in-depth tour goes to them all.

The restoration work is expensive, and tickets sales partially finance it, so they are expensive.

It’s worth every penny for fans of modern architecture.

Abright-Knox Art Gallery

My next site was another temple to modernism located only four blocks from the Martin House.

It’s the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Half the name comes from a former museum president who was a large collector of contemporary art starting in the 1940s.

Under his direction, the museum bought contemporary art with a vengeance.

Eventually, he donated his own collection to the museum as well, giving the Gallery the largest collection of Abstract Expressionism, Op Art, and Geometric Abstraction art
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Anish Kapoor sculpture at Albright Knox Art Gallery
in the US.

The museum started out as an encyclopedic museum, so it has other collections as well.

In a controversial move, the museum has started selling off those collections to acquire more works in its area of strengths.

The museum consists of five main areas.

The first is an outdoor sculpture garden.

The highlight for me was a sculpture by Anish Kapoor that consists of a sphere with a hole cut in it.

The reflections within the sphere bring the outside view (including the viewer) into the artwork.

It really screws with your head.

The second area is a survey of art from 1800 to 1910.

The highlights of this area are a copy of The Peaceable Kingdom, a masterpiece of American folk art by Edward Hicks, and The Promenade, a large painting of a Paris social party by James Tissot.

The third area is a survey of art since 1910.

The main works of the collection are in this section.

It can be a little frustrating, because the limited space means that only a fraction are actually on view.

All of
Statler HotelStatler HotelStatler Hotel

The original Statler Hotel in Buffalo New York, the model for hotels around the country. The building is now an office complex.
the big names are represented.

One unusual work was a minimalist sculpture that consisted of string running from the floor of the gallery to the ceiling.

It’s hard to see unless you are close.

Enough people have bumped into this sculpture that a security guard is stationed near it.

The fourth area is the photography collection.

The museum was the first major museum in the US to collect photography.

They now have a large collection.

When I was there, it was all displayed in temporary shows.

One show had work by Alfred Stiglitz, Man Ray, and other pioneers of photography as fine art.

It’s important to remember that most critics did not consider these to be artworks until after World War II.

The fifth area is temporary shows.

They are held in the original museum building.

Many of them are drawn from the permanent collection.

The show on view while I was there had to do with Op Art.

It’s a homage to a pioneering show the Gallery had in the early 1960s.

There are pictures of the
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The Liberty Building in Buffalo New York, with copies of the famous statue on the roof
original show on display in the current one.

Op Art is a subset of Geometric Abstraction that attempts to use optical effects to create an effect on the viewer.

The goal is to affect the viewer in a way that is not emotional, so it is not subjective.

At the time, many critics dismissed these works as a carnival sideshow.

This show attempts to show how these works deserve their status as fine art, and show their influence on younger artists.

I like abstraction, so I enjoyed the show.

The Albright-Knox has one other feature that is unusual for a museum.

It has a commercial gallery within the museum next to the gift shop.

This gallery shows work by local artists, and it is all for sale.

The artist on show makes sculptures out of cut-up phonebooks and junk mail.

Downtown Buffalo Architecture

After the Albright-Knox, I headed downtown.

The best way to approach downtown Buffalo is along Interstate 190.

It runs right along the Niagara River.

During this drive, I got the only view of Canada I would see the
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The largest municipal building in the world at the time it was built, and an Art Deco masterpiece
entire trip.

Just before the city center, the Niagara River merges with Lake Erie, and water appeared as far as I could see.

Soon after that, Buffalo's glorious downtown appears, with City Hall right in the middle.

Buffalo now treats its downtown architecture as a tourist attraction.

The local visitor's bureau has set up a walking trail.

There are displays at every major intersection listing the buildings and their history.

It takes about an hour to see the whole thing.

Among the buildings, there are several that are famous.

The first is the Statler Hotel building.

This was the main hotel of the Statler Hotel chain, which was founded in Buffalo.

It ultimately merged with Hilton.

This hotel became the model for urban hotels across the country.

The current building was converted to a mix-use development in the 1980s.

The second building is the Liberty Building.

It is a narrow, tall, office building with a copy of the Statue of Liberty on the roof at each end.

This is the building shown in city shots of Buffalo during
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Entrance to the largest municipal building in the world at the time of its construction.
sports events.

The third building is the Prudential-Guaranty building.

It was designed by Louis Sullivan, the mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright.

It was the first building to feature an internal steel support structure, making it the first modern skyscraper.

The facade off the building is a fantasy of red terra-cotta.

The inside is just as elaborate, but it can only be seen on special tours.

The final building is City Hall.

It’s one of the most impressive buildings in Buffalo.

For one thing, it dominates the city square at its feet.

Photographs can barely capture how massive it really is.

The building is an art-deco masterpiece of geometric lines and primary colors.

The interior is just as grand, but it was not open on the weekend.

Above the door is the allegorical frieze of Buffalo's glorious past and future.

One little-known fact is that the building was built to commemorate the century of Buffalo's founding.

One of the figures holds an empty scroll where the next century of Buffalo's history will be written.

It’s a pity that history did not turn out
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Another glorious old building in downtown Buffalo
the way the builders thought it would.

The drive out of Buffalo on Interstate 190 provides one more sight.

It passes by a series of huge grain elevators on the shore of Lake Erie.

It’s one more remainder of Buffalo's past as the center of Midwest trade, and an impressive sight.

Several of the grain elevators are now National Landmarks.

All of them have also been abandoned for a half century or more.

After this, I had to put on the miles to my next stop.

Additional photos below
Photos: 13, Displayed: 13


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Martin House outbuilding

Outbuilding at the Martin House, a reconstruction of the original
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McKinley Monument

Memorial to President William McKinley, assassinated in Buffalo in 1901

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