John Conlin: Graycliff


By John Conlin
This article first appeared Buffalo Spree Magazine, September 1997

On a day in May in 1936 the whitewalls of a bright red convertible sedan crunched to a halt on the gravel drive in front of Isabelle Martin's summerhouse, Graycliff. The driveway did not terminate in front of the long, low-lying, two-story house, but curved around to form a spacious circular expanse of green lawn. Where the circle was tangent to the house, the main entry was sheltered beneath a floating roof projecting out from the house at right angles as a porte cochere spanning the drive and extending in a cantilever into the green - an architectural gesture of welcome.

The flashy automobile was carrying Frank Lloyd Wright, the genius of American architecture, who was on a trip from his home, Taliesan, in Spring Green, Wisconsin, to the construction site of another summerhouse near Pittsburgh, to be called Fallingwater. Wright, accompanied by two of his Taliesin apprentices, had gone out of his way to make a stop in Buffalo, where he paid homage to his former employer and "Lieber Meister" Louis Sullivan with a visit to the Guaranty Building on Church Street. He then brought the apprentices to see his own world masterpiece, the Larkin Building on Seneca Street.

Darwin D. Martin, Wright's most faithful and supportive client had died that winter. No doubt the architect had expected to pay his respects to the widowed Isabelle Martin, but the summerhouse on the high cliff of Lake Erie south of Buffalo had not yet been opened for the season. Edgar Tafel, one of the apprentices accompanying Wright, tells the story in his book Apprentice to Genius: Years with Frank Lloyd Wright:

The caretaker let us in. All the furniture was covered with sheets for protection. Mr. Wright led us in, surveyed the main floor, and directed us to take off the covers. He began to rearrange the furniture -- beginning, as was his way, with the piano. Next he instructed us to get knives from the kitchen and to cut huge bunches of spring flowers and branches outside in the garden. We filled all the living room vases and pots. Mr. Wright left a note for the Martins, something like this: "Stopped by to visit you, FLLW, your architect." And again we were off.

The house had been completed nine years earlier in 1927. According to Professor Jack Quinan, Buffalo's resident expert on Wright, it was the only building the architect completed that year and was one of only five completed in the decade 1925-35. When Darwin Martin retired from the Larkin Company in 1925 as one of the nation's highest paid executives, he turned to Wright for the design of a summerhouse at Derby on the Lake. Quinan stresses that Martin made it clear from the onset that his wife, Isabelle Martin, was to be considered the client. Mrs. Martin long suffered from poor eyesight and had found the house on Jewett Parkway with its broad cantilevered eaves to be too dark inside. Designed twenty years after the completion of the Martin House, the new house would have a profusion of natural light.

Margaret Reidpath Foster, the granddaughter of Isabelle Martin, remembers Graycliff as a place of dappled sunlight, abundant flowers, refreshing breezes, and general well-being. She recalls how pleasant it was to sit in the shade of the terrace "beneath the underhang" and look all the way through the house to the lake beyond as the breeze wafted through the house across the living room floor. She also recalls splashing, as a child, in the stone fountain basin between the piers of the porte cochere. Flowers and their fragrances were everywhere inside and out. The family would cut huge bunches of flowers and plunge them into water in deep metal vases placed throughout the house.

In its comfortable informality, and in its use of materials -- indigenous fieldstone, boldly molded sand-stucco planes, and wood shingle roofs -- Graycliff bears more similarity to Wright's own home, Taliesin, than to the Darwin Martin House with its elaborate symmetries and lavish arts and crafts accoutrements.

In his autobiography published in 1932 Frank Lloyd Wright tells how his faithful supporter Darwin Martin saved him from financial disaster shortly after the Derby house was begun. The architect had been evicted from his Spring Green home and had gone into seclusion on the West Coast after the bank foreclosed on the property. Wright recalled the joy of receiving a telegram from Mr. and Mrs. Martin which read: "Taliesin open for your return." Wright recalls his rescuer was "the same real friend and client, Darwin D. Martin for whom I had been building a summer home on Lake Erie when we agreed to leave for parts unknown. I sent John [Wright's architect son] to Mr. Martin to finish up the work. `No,' said Mr. Martin, `there can be no substitute for Frank Lloyd Wright. We will wait till he is out of trouble."' According to Jack Quinan, who has extensively researched the voluminous Wright-Martin correspondence, Wright visited the site at least eight or nine times during the construction.

Graycliff is certainly important for its role in the continuation of the Martin-Wright story and for its place in Wright's overall career, but as a work by "the American architect" its fundamental importance should reside in its own design quality as a piece of architecture. For a few years a number of people who possessed a familiarity with Wright's work had curiously found Graycliff to be "undistinguished," even "uninteresting." This under-appreciation was due to some well-intended but unfortunate alterations, coupled with the vicissitudes of time, that obscured many of the prime features of the architecture. Since the 1950's Graycliff had been home to a group of Catholic Piarist Priests and has been adapted to suit their requirements. An addition had been built parallel to the living room on the house's landward side to provide space for a chapel. The house had been placed on the real estate market for its assessed value of $475,000. A local group, enthusiastically headed by Carol Bronnenkant, formed a non-profit entity called the Graycliff Conservancy, Inc to purchase in the property 1997 so that it may be preserved and regularly available to the public.

Graycliff is different from all other Wright houses in the Buffalo area - different in time, place and setting. The others are all Prairie Houses on urban sites. Whether the under-appreciation of Graycliff was due to disappointed expectations of art glass virtuosity or the buildings’ beguiling simplicities, the time is overdue to recognize Graycliff as artistic architecture of a high order - without apologies. The complex is nothing less than a masterwork of design totally integrating the buildings within a spectacular natural site.

The revolution in architectural design identified and fostered by Frank Lloyd Wright at an early date in his practice was the achievement of a spacious freedom within and without the building. A new sense of space was achieved by destroying the concept of a house as a box of space and its rooms as boxes within the box. Wright relentlessly employed two interrelated design concepts to obtain the destruction (not to say deconstruction) of the box: cantilever and continuity.

The structural principle of cantilever, seen everywhere in nature (exemplified by the outstretched branch of a tree from its trunk), removed the corners from the box and transformed the walls into screens. Fallingwater, the Kaufmann summer house near Pittsburgh, with its multi-level cantilevered tray terraces, dramatically demonstrates both the structural principle of cantilever and the continuity of interior and exterior space it makes possible. An ongoing ideal of twentieth-century architecture has been the "house without walls" - a pavilion-like shelter in the landscape minimizing the distinction between interior and exterior. Both Fallingwater and Philip Johnson's Glass House are eminently successful examples of the ideal wedding of house and site.

Wright repeatedly referred to the horizontal line as the line of repose. Continuously flowing horizontal lines running parallel to the ground emphasize continuities of space in both the interior and exterior landscapes of a building. Continuity represents energized repose, like the untapped strength of a recumbent river god. In his autobiography Wright comments on the effects obtained by incorporating continuity as a design principle:

The old architecture, so far as its grammar went, for me began to disappear. As if by magic new architectural effects came to life - effects genuinely new in the whole cycle of architecture .... Vistas of inevitable simplicity and ineffable harmonies would open, so beautiful to me that I was not only delighted, but often startled. Yes, sometimes amazed.

The significance of Graycliff lies in its multiple continuities with the natural site. It is truly (deletion) "in league with the ground." The name Graycliff is derived from the sixty-foot high gray cliff of Lake Erie composed largely of shale but with a sharply outlined horizontal stratum of lighter stone three-quarters of the way up the cliff. This is a harder stone that cantilevers out from the face of the cliff beyond the shale. Level ground back from the cliff provides a natural high platform from which to survey a dramatic elemental expanse of water and sky.

On a long, narrow, level piece of ground Wright positioned the Isabelle R. Martin House, a long, ground-hugging two-story building parallel to the edge of the cliff only seventy-five feet back from the edge, making the brink of the precipice equidistant from the water and the house. The "L" shape of this relationship, taken from the site itself, becomes the generative ratio or "grammar" of the design. On the landward side a spacious courtyard is formed by a long, high garden wall that extends at a right angle from the service end of the Isabelle R. Martin House to join it to the Foster House, a smaller two-story caretaker's house, forming an overall L-shaped complex.

The Isabelle R. Martin House
The Isabelle R. Martin House becomes a "screen" in the landscape between the courtyard and the lakeside lawns. In the original design, before the insertion of the chapel addition, the house was a permeable screen, allowing continuities of light, air and vista to flow directly through the heart of the house, and it does so again today.

The main floor of the Isabelle R. Martin House, nearly at ground level, contains one large space without walls, divided into living room and dining room only by the large free-standing masonry mass of a cavernous fieldstone fireplace - the fiery heart of the house, radiating spaciousness and magnanimity.

A long stone terrace, completely open on one long side and sheltered above by a "floating" gallery, is simultaneously both exterior and interior to the Isabelle R. Martin House. The continuity obtained by this broad alcove was made possible by a subtle use of cantilevered equilibrium.

Wide floor-to-ceiling window units, some opening as French doors, are separated by narrow structural piers carried across the ceiling of the living room in continuous horizontal lines as support beams joined to identical window piers on the lake side. These visible lines of structure, running from one exterior terrace through the center of the building to the exterior terrace on the opposite side, reveal the building as a pavilion in the landscape.

The lakeside stone terrace steps down in wide tiers to a broad esplanade, below the flanking ground level, between parallel stone retaining walls which overshot the edge of the cliff to join together as a cantilevered masonry observation perch with Lake Erie "beyond and below." The top of the esplanade's continuous stone wall is level with the floor of the house. Thus, the tray of space spilling out from the interior of the house, down almost to bedrock and extending over the brink of the cliff makes the gray cliff itself an integral part of the design and even the structure of the Isabelle R. Martin House.

Unfortunately the observation point was more dramatic than anyone realized. It has since broken away and fallen to the base of the cliff. (deletion)

On the second floor of the Isabelle R. Martin House, facing the lake, a broad rooftop balcony surrounded by a parapet wall hangs over the stone terrace below in a clear analogy to the esplanade over the cliff. The balcony claims the sky as part of the house.

In the landscape design (deletion) the meeting of sky and water on the western horizon had a vertical definition focused by an allee of Lombardy poplars, other trees and shrubs running along each side of the driveway, framing a view of Lake Erie. This created a perspective on infinity - a setting for sublimity. It was a benignly existential prospect, as thought provoking as any of Louis Kahn's inspired attempts to architecturally capture the immeasurable.

Why the relentless emphasis on an intermingling of interior and exterior? How does this melding contribute to a sense of freedom and well-being in dappled sunlight? Space-within-spaciousness is a metaphor for self-reflective consciousness = the ultimate confluence of interior and exterior. Spaciousness is the freedom of the creative mind at home in nature. It is the ideal of an American tradition extending from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman, through Louis Sullivan to Wright. Graycliff, extending outward in every direction, is lavish in spaciousness.