The Larkin Connection

Soap, Wright and the Arts & Crafts Movement: The Larkin Connection

The Larkin Soap Company

The Larkin Soap Company, founded in Buffalo in 1875, was the unlikely root for most Wright properties in the Buffalo, NY area, as well as the genesis for the first Arts & Crafts movement in the United States, the Roycrofters in East Aurora, NY (a Buffalo suburb.)

Among the principals of the Larkin Soap Company were John D. Larkin, company President; his brothers-in law, Elbert Hubbard and William Heath; and Darwin D. Martin, the only non-family member and the company secretary (today’s CFO.)

The Larkin Company flourished with the help of two geniuses: Elbert Hubbard in marketing, who created direct-to-consumer sales; and Darwin Martin in finance, who devised a state-of-the-art accounting system. By the early years of the twentieth century, the company expanded well beyond soap manufacturing into groceries, dry goods, china, and furniture. The Larkin Company became a pioneering, national mail-order house with branch stores in Buffalo, New York City and Chicago.

Deep family and personal connections, centered on the Larkin Company, were to inspire both the construction of the Roycroft Campus and several buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright in the Buffalo, NY area.

The Roycrofters: American Arts & Crafts

Elbert Hubbard, John Larkin’s brother-in-law, retired from the booming company in 1895, at the tender age of 38 to pursue literary passions and artistic interests.

The previous year, Hubbard had sailed to Europe, where he met William Morris, the originator of the Arts & Crafts movement in England. Returning to the Buffalo area, Hubbard retired, published the first of many literary efforts, “Little Journeys” and established the Roycroft Press.

The Press expanded and eventually encompassed a range of crafts to become simply "The Roycrofters," an entire Arts and Crafts community which incorporated artisans in furniture, books, lamps and metal work. East Aurora became a mecca for master craftsmen and a gathering place for notable artists, authors, philosophers, and power brokers in U.S. history. Fourteen buildings were erected on the East Aurora campus in the first years of the new century, which now comprise a National Historic Landmark district (NHL.) Construction of the campus occurred during roughly the same years as the period of Wright’s greatest activity in nearby Buffalo.

A quotation from John Ruskin formed the Roycroft doctrine: "A belief in working with the head, hand and heart and mixing enough play with the work so that every task is pleasurable and makes for health and happiness." Like Morris, Hubbard based his Utopian vision and creative society on his belief in the beauty and functionality of craftsmanship and the rejection of sterile, machine-made goods that lacked quality and style.

Hubbard perished in 1915, when aboard the S.S. Lusitania; tragically the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine during World War I.

Frank Lloyd Wright In Buffalo

William Heath, another Larkin brother-in-law, heard about Frank Lloyd Wright, a rising young architect, from his brother who was doing construction work in Oak Park, Il. Heath encouraged Darwin Martin, a fellow Larkin Co. executive, to seek out Wright's work in Oak Park.

Darwin Martin asked his own brother, William Martin, a Chicago businessman, to accompany him to Oak Park, and a life-long association began. In 1902, William Martin commissioned Wright to design a house for his family in that Chicago suburb.

Darwin Martin House
Darwin Martin commissioned Wright to design his own home and one for his sister and brother-in-law, Delta and George Barton, on the same plot of land in the Parkside area of Buffalo in 1901. [The Parkside area street system and adjacent parkland was designed by renowned American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux in 1876 and was part of the first coordinated system of public parks in America.] The Barton House was completed in 1903 and the Darwin Martin House was completed in 1905. The Darwin Martin House complex is one of the most important of Wright’s Prairie-style designs, and one of the largest. The Darwin Martin House complex is open for public tours.

Larkin Administration Building
In 1902, Darwin Martin introduced Wright’s work to John Larkin, the company president. The Larkin Company commissioned Wright to design the Larkin Administration Building; which was completed in 1904. The Larkin Administration Building was Wright’s first major commercial design, and widely considered to be an architectural masterpiece. The innovative five story brick building featured air conditioning, built-in desk furniture, suspended toilet bowls (hung from the walls, not supported by the floor) and skylights above an atrium that flooded the building with natural light. A milestone in the history of commercial architecture, in terms of both its spatial organization and the exploitation of modern technology, the Larkin Administration Building is declared by some historians as the twentieth-century structure that, more than any other, changed the face of architecture; within a few years it was hailed in Europe. [Unfortunately, the Larkin Administration Building was demolished in 1950.]

Other Wright Residences in Buffalo
Other Wright designs for Larkin Company executives include the William Heath House in Buffalo, which was constructed in 1904/5, and the Walter V. Davidson House [a few blocks away from that of Darwin Martin,] which was completed in 1908. Both remain private residences.

In 1926, Darwin Martin asked Wright, after more than twenty years of close friendship, to design a summer residence on the shores of Lake Erie, for his wife, Isabelle. The culmination was Graycliff, the tranquil retreat on the shores of Lake Erie.  Graycliff is the only mid-career design constructed at the time of its original design by Wright in the Buffalo area, and one of Wright’s most significant creations of the 1920s.