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Frank Lloyd Wright Stays Busy in Buffalo

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A new rendering of Wright's gas station, to be built in Buffalo, but without gas tanks. He envisioned a national network of such stations.

September 6, 2004

Frank Lloyd Wright Stays Busy in Buffalo

By FRED A. BERNSTEIN

BUFFALO - Half a century after Frank Lloyd Wright's renowned Larkin Administration Building was demolished here to make way for a parking lot, this city is taking ambitious steps to reclaim its Wright heritage.

A $25 million restoration is under way at the Darwin D. Martin House, part of a red-brick Prairie-style complex that rose in 1905, a year before the Larkin office building was completed. Already workers have torn down a boxy apartment building that was shoehorned into the Martin House site in 1962 and have patched the house's masonry.

But Buffalo is taking an even more surprising step to lure architecture tourists and celebrate its past: 45 years after the architect's death, three new Wright buildings are in the works.

The three projects are separate, although their organizers meet once a month to talk about their common ambition of creating a critical mass of Wright structures in Buffalo. Boosters insist that the city could become like Fallingwater, the Wright house in western Pennsylvania that draws more than 100,000 visitors a year.

But Fallingwater was completed under the supervision of Wright, who was famously obsessed with details. For the Buffalo buildings now in the works, Wright never went beyond preliminary sketches, said Anthony Puttnam, a Wisconsin architect who is involved in the three projects.

Mr. Puttnam, who was a Wright apprentice 50 years ago, said he was extrapolating from Wright sketches, using contemporaneous buildings by Wright as guides to how the buildings would have looked.

"You'd be surprised how muddy some of the questions become,'' he said. "Materials have changed, building codes have changed. The idea is to keep the spirit to what Wright proposed.''

That quest has stirred skepticism among architects and historians, including William Allin Storrer, the author of "The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion."

"To create an authentic Frank Lloyd Wright building, you have to have exact plans, not just sketches,'' Mr. Storrer said. "The building must also be on the original site situated exactly as Wright placed it. Otherwise it is a replica at best. And if the interior details are modified to suit the new client, it doesn't even qualify as that.''

Mr. Puttnam, 70, is best known for "executing'' another Wright-designed building, a convention center in Madison, Wis., called Monona Terrace, which opened in 1997. Theodore Marks, the president of a nonprofit organization that hired Mr. Puttnam for one of the Buffalo projects - a boathouse on the Niagara River - described Monona Terrace as stunning.

Stunning perhaps, but not wholly accurate. "We used Wright's exterior religiously,'' Mr. Puttnam said, "except we made a six-inch mistake in height. There were hand-done drawings, and we thought we saw a zero. Years later we blew up the drawing for an exhibition, and we said, 'Whoops, it's not a zero, it's a six.' ''

Robert Twombly, a Wright biographer, has accused the architect's former apprentices of muddying his legacy with mediocre "Wright'' buildings.

As for the Buffalo projects, he said: "I recognize the good intentions. But why tarnish Wright's reputation with ersatz buildings when there are so many real Wright buildings for people to see?''

Wright buildings contain details that are microcosms of their architecture. At the Martin house, which is open for tours during its renovation, the geometry that forms the buildings' outer walls is reprised in the smallest window and furniture patterns.

While Wright (1867-1959) was inventing a new style of architecture, he was relying on Old World craftsmanship to do so. The Martin house alone contains 394 stained-glass windows, each with as many as 700 panes.

Such craftsmanship is hard to come by in this country, which is why posthumous Wright buildings are often detailed with stock materials that dilute the intended effect.

One of the three Buffalo projects, a burial site that Wright designed for the Martin family in 1928, has been reincarnated as the Blue Sky Mausoleum, with 24 double crypts available for sale to the public. Wright described his original concept to his client, Darwin D. Martin, as "a compromise between the grave and the mausoleum." He continued: "It may have the better points of both. The whole could not fail of noble effect.''

Mr. Puttnam modified Wright's design, creating a granite patio where mourners can gather, "so women in heels won't sink into the mud,'' he said. He also moved it from the Martin plot to a more public section of Buffalo's Forest Lawn cemetery.

The cemetery's vice president, Joseph Dispenza, said he had been fretting over setting the price for the crypts. "It's a struggle,'' he said, because he wants to serve the community but also hopes that Wright enthusiasts from around the world will purchase spaces.

"At the Martin House they get admission fees, which will trickle in forever,'' he said. "We can only get paid once.''

Two miles south of the cemetery, Mr. Marks showed off the site on the Niagara River where he hopes to build a stately boathouse designed by Wright in 1905 for Wisconsin. Mr. Marks heads a nonprofit organization, Frank Lloyd Wright's Rowing Boathouse Corporation, that is hoping to use the building as both a working boathouse and a tourist attraction.

Two miles south of the boathouse site, efforts are under way to build a gas station designed by Wright for a nearby corner. The building is intended to attract visitors to the nonprofit Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum, a trove of automotive memorabilia that was collected mostly by James Sandoro, a Buffalo native who made his fortune selling classic cars at auction.

Mr. Sandoro said that Wright expected his filling station, with two 36-foot pylons supporting a neon Tydol sign, to serve as a prototype for as many as 2,500 Tydol stations nationwide. The 1927 design included period innovations like a ladies' room, so women would not have to use the greasy mechanics' bathroom, and gasoline hoses dangling from a cantilevered roof. The second floor features a waiting room with built-in seating.

Mr. Puttnam and the Buffalo architect Patrick J. Mahoney modified the design, which now features an elevator for wheelchair users where the gas tanks would have been. (The building will not be a functioning gas station.) They also modified the stairway because Wright had not left enough headroom, Mr. Puttnam said.

Of the three projects, the mausoleum, which is more monument than building, required the fewest changes, Mr. Puttnam said. It may also be the most pragmatic financially, given that Forest Lawn could recoup its $500,000 investment many times over.

There are hundreds more unbuilt Wright designs, and Mr. Puttnam said he would like to see them executed. He added: "You can say, 'I've got the site, and I need such and such - what's the availability of things in my cost range?' And we'll give an opinion.''

Mr. Puttnam's fees, he said, are a percentage of construction costs. (To cut down on traveling, he collaborates with a local architect on each project.) Clients also generally pay a "search fee'' to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which owns the rights to Wright's designs and is eager to see them built.

In Mr. Puttnam's view, Wright would have been glad to see his designs become real buildings long after his death. "He was nothing if not an optimist,'' he said.

Charles Gwathmey, whose Gwathmey Siegel & Associates designed an addition to Wright's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, said, "I always worry about sketches that become buildings without the original author completing the process.''

On the other hand, he said, "three more Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, from that creative and original mind, could be much more exciting than three ordinary buildi

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I like some of Wright's work, but most of it doesn't appeal to me. I know a lot of people think he's the greatest American architect, but I don't see it. I think he's just overrated.

For those of you who like Wright, there is a nice selection of his works on our sister site.

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This is great news for Buffalo. You have to admire their spirit. Maybe it's atonement for the tragic and senseless destruction of the Larkin Building in 1949, which in some people's eyes was the American Parthanon.

But I cannot help but laugh at the nearly religious adoration people have of this architect. No one admired Frank Lloyd Wright as much as Frank Lloyd Wright (OK, maybe Ayn Rand). His leaky roofs and uncomfortable furniture would seem to diminish his God-like status; but don't tell that to the True Believers. HE could do no wrong.

He was a great architect. One of the most rewarding experiences I've had was my first visit to Chicago; couldn't wait to go to Oak Park and see the greatest concentration of his buildings. It's a museum of his works, from awkward and uninspired adaptions of the Queen Anne style popular at the turn of the century to his Prairie Style structures (especially the lovely Robie House). He was hyperintellectual, and I do not pretend to fully grasp his obscessive mathematical approach. 6" here, 6" there will not diminish popular appreciation for his genius. That people are honoring his memory by re-creating his ideas should be celebrated.

The True Believers can go have their circle-jerks (am I allowed to say that?), and guard their vision of FLW as Savior. Just because he wasn't on the job site to make peoples lives miserable doesn't mean that these tributes to him are meaningless. For the rest of us, a sensible interpretation of his work in a city that deserves recognition is a breath of fresh air.

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Great reply dbig. Wright was great for what he did, but it seems somewhat wasted effort to try to reconstruct his buildings now. Respect the style, sure, but recreations will always ring false, like the Parthenon in Tennessee.

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his biggest constribution, IMO, was the interior layout of his houses; large rooms flowing from one to another unlike typical houses of his day that had smallish rooms closed off from one another.

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FLW did bring a completely new style to architecture. He did create something new. However, I'm not a fan of most of his work. The style he created many times looked awkward and uncomfortable. Plus, in his interviews he was condescending.

However, some people do still see him as infallible. He was an architect, not a god.

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When I was young (10, 12) I found at our public library a book on FLW with Fallingwater on the cover. Something about his style spoke to my nerdy, math-lovin', little heart. I checked it out, and from then on I've been hooked.

I am a big fan of his, but not a die-hard-he's-a-god, type fan.

I can't imagine how anyone could not acknowledge him as a great architect even if they don't like his 'style'. The man was a master in my eyes, and yep, the first American architect.

(hehe dbig said circle-jerk)

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Oddly enough for someone with such a god-like rep, FLW was really out of the mainstream of "advanced" architectural thought during his career. His buildings really didn't much hew to the modernist rules of undecorated Miesian boxes. As much as he is admired today, it seems his long-term influence was far more limited than the modernists.

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Frank Lloyd Wright said, "A great architectural highway with its roadside markets, super service stations, fine schools and playgrounds, small integrated intensive farming units, great automobile objectives and fine homes winding up in the beautiful natural features of the landscape of Broadacres City."

In other words, sprawl. With the exception of the farming units, this pretty much describes the modern American landscape. Frank Lloyd Wright hated cities. Suburbs (argueably) are the legacy of his Broadacres City, but without the idealism. Farming units and preservation of beautiful natural features have taken second place to economics. I don't think he forsaw the advent of SuperBox shopping centers.

Discuss among yourselves...

Personally, I'd call Louis Sullivan the first 'real' American architect; Father of the skyscraper, and all that. A good case can be made for FLW being the first/most influential American residential architect, though.

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I'm a big fan of Wright's work. Sure, his roofs leaked, he often under-engineered buildings (his construction crews were known for adding extra reinforcement to the cantilevered designs while he was off site), and his furniture was more about art and design than comfort and practicality. But what he contributed to American architecture is significant. He was truly way ahead of his time, as evidenced by some of his houses that were built before World War I yet are very similar in style to houses built by others in the 1950s and 1960s. There are many of his influences in styles that were popular in the US. Many of the craftsman bungalows in Montrose in Houston (and similar neighborhoods in other cities) have obvious signs of his influence. There are several new houses I

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Frank Lloyd Wright said, "A great architectural highway with its roadside markets, super service stations, fine schools and playgrounds, small integrated intensive farming units, great automobile objectives and fine homes winding up in the beautiful natural features of the landscape of Broadacres City."

In other words, sprawl. With the exception of the farming units, this pretty much describes the modern American landscape. Frank Lloyd Wright hated cities. Suburbs (argueably) are the legacy of his Broadacres City, but without the idealism. Farming units and preservation of beautiful natural features have taken second place to economics. I don't think he forsaw the advent of SuperBox shopping centers.

I don't think Wright hated cities at all. A number of his projects were specifically designed for cities. His only skyscraper built, the Price Tower, was originally designed to combine ground-level retail with a mixture of residential apartments and corporate offices in the tower. Doesn't sound too anti-city, pro-suburban sprawl to me! This design started life in 1925 as the Saint Marks Tower project that was intended for New York but not built. Eventually the design was recycled and modified to be used for the HC Price Company of Bartlesville, OK. Construction of the Price Tower commenced in 1953, with completion in 1956. For many years the building housed the corporate offices for a local utility company, a dress shop, a beauty salon, several two-story apartments rented to local residents, and the Price Company's headquarters. Eventually Price needed all of the building for its offices, and the full tower was used as office space. Today the tower has been reborn as the Price Tower Arts Center, featuring an art museum, exhibit of Wright's furniture designed for the tower, boutique hotel, fine restaurant, and guided tours of the tower.

Yes, Frank Lloyd Wright did believe in grand, well designed buildings and neighborhoods along the nation's highways and in suburban areas. However, I think it's wrong to say he was anti-city, as a number of his projects were quite urban in scope.

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I'm from Pasadena. My grandfather worked in the Bank One Building in the center of the city. Now it's crumbling. There's a topic somewhere on HAIF specifically about it. But it was built by the firm McKie and Kamrath. Karl Kamrath knew Frank Loyd Wright and was one of his adherents. The building has a lot of features that remind one of FLW. I'm biased but I think the building is great looking and I find it sad that the tower has fallen into such disrepair. 

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