The Sunday Driver: Graycliff Estate

Graycliff Estate

Experience the genius of architecture and the beauty of nature on the shores of Lake Erie with a visit to the Graycliff Estate.  Designed by renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright for the pleasure of repose, Graycliff is a world away from the work-a-day world.   Photo courtesy Graycliff Conservancy

Walking Into A Work Of Art, ‘Wright’ On the Lake

Take a moment and think about what it would be like to live in a work of art. No, I’m not asking you to think about being in some abstract “B” rate movie where the protagonist gets magically thrust into the background of Munch’s The Scream or becomes a can of soup in a Warhol pop art piece. What I am talking about is pulling into your driveway and seeing your home and knowing that it is an actual piece of art.

Not many people can, or will ever be able to, make that kind of claim. But then again not many people can claim to have the kind of money that Darwin Martin had in the mid-1920’s. After he retired in 1925 Martin, who was an executive with the Larkin Soap Company, commissioned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a summer retirement home in Derby, NY. Between 1926 and 1929 Wright immersed himself in a project that would eventually help to define his style of “organic architecture,” which ultimately went on to secure his legacy. The result of his efforts was Graycliff, The Jewel on the Lake.

Graycliff is now considered one of the most important projects that Wright worked on in the 20’s; possibly because a lot of the themes that Wright worked with at Graycliff eventually turned up in one of his most famous works, Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pa. However, Graycliff wasn’t always so revered. In fact, at one point it almost ceased to exist entirely.

After starting the design process in 1926, Wright began construction of the estate in 1927. And by 1928 the Martin family was able to move into the house. Prior to Graycliff the Martin family had historically spent their summers in the Adirondacks at Lake Placid, but Mrs. Martin developed a chronic eye ailment and by 1925 it had worsened to the point where traveling was very difficult. It was at that point that Martin reached out to Wright, who had already designed the Martin’s primary residence on Jewett Parkway in Buffalo, and asked him to construct a house that was overlooking Lake Erie.

By the time Wright had finished with the project he had gone over budget, as was typical of Frank Lloyd Wright projects, and had also constructed an estate that was able to tie in a combination of natural aesthetics. Wright went into the project with the idea that he was going to focus on the use of “horizontal lines” to create an estate, which when viewed from a distance, would put just as much focus on the lake behind the house as it did the house itself. In fact, when you do step away from Graycliff and peer out towards the lake it is truly impressive just how much the house almost blends in with the natural backdrop of Lake Erie. During the summer solstice at sunset, the sun aligns perfectly to light up the interior of the main house.

Wright further capitalized on the lakeside location by using the light that reflected off of the lake to further illuminate the household. But perhaps his most obvious use of the natural surroundings in the making of the house is the way that Wright incorporated sand and boulders into the design of the house. Gray shale and tichenor limestone is very evident on the exterior of the house, even to the untrained eye. Martin initially wanted the house to be made of stucco but Wright insisted that the shale and tichenor limestone be incorporated into the project.

The entire estate was comprised of three main buildings: The Heat Hut – a small building where the boiler for the heating system was stored. The Foster House – this was originally a garage with living space above it for the Martin’s chauffeur and his family. The Isabelle R. Martin House – named for Mrs. Martin the 6,500 square foot home sits approximately 60 feet above Lake Erie, making for a spectacular view of the lake.

Darwin Martin died in 1935 and ten years later Isabelle Martin also passed away. From 1945-1950 Graycliff stood vacant, which if you were to think about it today is sort of like having a Monet stashed away in your attic and forgetting it was there. Then in 1950, the Order of the Pious Schools, also known as the Piarist Fathers, purchased the estate. Soon thereafter the priests had built a dormitory on the grounds where they sheltered Hungarian, and eventually, Cuban children who were sent to the priests as a means of escaping the political upheaval in their own country. Eventually the priests started a boarding school, which years later they had to close due to financial hardships. By that point the number of priests living at Graycliff had decreased significantly. But in the time that they were there, some serious “renovations” had been made to Graycliff, which if we stick with the Monet theme, is the equivalent of finding a Monet stashed in your attic and letting your kids take finger paint to it.

Perhaps it is Graycliff’s hardships that make its story so remarkable though. In 1996 the Piarist Order made the decision to sell the estate. By this point the land was prime real estate in the area. Condominium developments were popping up around it and the area was very desirable. Luckily for Frank Lloyd Wright fans everywhere, the property was essentially rescued by a grassroots initiative. A group banded together and was able to raise $20,000 (significantly less than what Graycliff had cost to build 70+ years earlier), which was used as a down payment on the 8.5 acres of land. This group, motivated by a passion for Frank Lloyd Wright, eventually became The Graycliff Conservancy. Despite having limited experience with fundraising and restoration the Conservancy was fueled by an unrelenting dedication to save, what it viewed as, a national treasure. The group’s ambition eventually convinced The Baird Foundation to guarantee funds for the mortgage, which had a $450,000 price tag on it by that point. And on April 8, 1999 The Graycliff Conservancy purchased Graycliff.

Due to the Conservancy’s unrelenting dedication, Graycliff is now a part of the National Register of Historic Places and has been recognized as a New York State Landmark. To date the Conservancy has raised over $3 million. This money has gone towards the restoration of about two-thirds of the estate.

Touring Graycliff (one hour and two hour tours are available) allows you to step back into the past and really develop an appreciation for, not only the imagination of Frank Lloyd Wright but also, the incredible amount of work that Wright was able to accomplish over a relatively short period of time.

Guided tours of Graycliff are available year-round by reservation. Daily scheduled tours are available from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Call 716-947-9217 or visit GraycliffEstate.org to learn more.

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