Fred A. Bernstein

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Frank Lloyd Wright Stays Busy in Buffalo

45 years after his death, three buildings by Wright are in the works

Published in The New York Times, September 6, 2004


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 ruddy-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 buildings.''