Frank Lloyd Wright and the zombie building boom

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Frank Lloyd Wright and the zombie building boom
Designed in 1905 for a rowing club 700 miles away / Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fontana Boathouse, Buffalo
Frank Lloyd Wright and the zombie building boom
Designed in 1905 for a rowing club 700 miles away / Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fontana Boathouse, Buffalo

Parked like a red brick aircraft-carrier in the leafy suburbs of Buffalo, New York, stands the most opulent private house that Frank Lloyd Wright ever built. Its 400 windows sparkle with intricate art-glass panels, the mortar between its bricks gleams with gold, while its rooms are lined with eight miles of wooden panelling and thousands of hand-glazed mosaic tiles. It was “the most perfect thing of its kind in the world”, Wright said, with characteristic modesty, “a domestic symphony” that was the ultimate“opus” of his Prairie house style.

“It was extravagant beyond all reason,” is how Mary Roberts puts it. As the director of the Martin House Restoration Corporation, which has spent the last two decades and $50m doing up the building after years of neglect, she knows quite how much excess Wright lavished on the commission. “Just one of these windows costs $28,000 to reproduce,” she says, wrenching open one of the panes, inlaid with Wright’s trademark tree of life design.

Completed in 1905, it was a fitting monument to one of the most successful businessmen in the city, Darwin D Martin, an executive of the Larkin Soap Company, which pioneered mail-order sales and built one of the most revolutionary office buildings of all time, also designed by Wright.

Across town, a small brick stump is all that remains of the Larkin administration building, after it was demolished in the 1950s, but it is a site that nonetheless attracts architectural pilgrims to come and worship. “It rewrote every rule of the office,” says Tim Tielman, when we meet at the hallowed stump. “It introduced air conditioning, gravity heating, toilets hung from the wall – and Wright designed every last detail, including all the furniture. He was a maniac.” An architectural historian who has spent a lifetime battling to save Buffalo’s built heritage, Tielman says he knows where the remains of the Larkin building are buried: dumped in the Ohio canal basin, beneath what is now a park. “One day we’ll dig it all up and rebuild it,” he says, almost popping with excitement. “It’s not a question of if – but when.” []

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