An Architect's Descriptive History of Graycliff

Graycliff was the summer estate of Isabelle R. and Darwin D. Martin and is located on the cliffs above Lake Erie, 14 miles south of Buffalo, New York. It is one of the most extensive summer estates Frank Lloyd Wright designed.

Within the 8.5 acre property Wright created a 2.5 acre compound that he called the home grounds. Within its boundaries are three structures completed between 1926 and 1931 from Wrights’ plans, as well as extensive landscape features integrating this complex into its dramatic site.

The property was planned in detail by Wright through a series of landscape plans evolving during the construction process. The original entrance drive entered the property through the neighboring estate and developed a diagonal axis across the property, aligning with the setting sun as does the geology of the site. This axis greeted the approaching visitor with a view of the horizon of Lake Erie before any buildings came into view. Proceeding towards the lake, the buildings are organized around a circular drive with an irregular shaped pool in its center.

The Isabelle R. Martin House and the Foster House form an L shape around the circle. A third building, the Heat Hut, is partially recessed into the earth in a courtyard formed by the Isabelle R. Martin House and the Foster House and a garden wall partially connecting the two.

The Isabelle R. Martin House was originally conceived by Wright as two houses joined by a second story bridge further defining the Lakefront view not only to the west of the structure but through the structure itself. On clear cool summer days the spray of Niagara Falls beyond was visible through the framed opening created by the bridge. The main house is a two-story inline plan. Each end of the plan is marked by a stone veneered mass framing the transparent pavilion like center. Glass doors on the lake and shore sides of the house open to uncovered and covered terraces designed to capitalize on the gentle lake breezes flowing through the house. The stone fireplace mass is set off center and partially separates living and dining areas within a high ceilinged, beamed space. These beams create a 46’ wide and 10’ deep cantilever in the center bridge of the house. This cantilever was enclosed by the second owners of the complex, the Piarist Fathers. The Piarist Fathers sold the estate to the Graycliff Conservancy in 1999. The Conservancy is a not for profit organization committed to restoring the complex to its 1929 appearance. .

The second building on the estate, the Foster House, is a four bedroom house with its living floor on the second story, above the original garages and service spaces. The second floor features cantilevered balconies on each side of the structure. The Foster House was built in phases in 1926 and 1929. It was originally conceived as servant spaces, but adapted for use by the Martins’ daughter Dorothy Martin Foster and her family after the stock market crash in the fall of 1929.

The boiler house or Heat Hut supplied hot water to the heating systems of the two larger buildings. It was also designed to serve structures designed by Wright for the estate, but never built due to the Great Depression. The Heat Hut features a unique braided ridge detail designed by Wright for its red cedar shingle roof. The Heat Hut was restored in 1999 and 2000.

Patrick J. Mahoney, A.I.A.