Art and Architecture in Buffalo

This title is no oxymoron. My wife and I took a short trip to Buffalo, prompted by the scheduled mid-June opening of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum’s (formerly Albright-Knox Gallery) new building. It turns out that the building is slightly behind schedule; we could see a curving bridge leading to the building and its glass exterior, but it is not yet open for exhibits. Our disappointment was mitigated by the Museum’s impressive permanent collection and its new glass-ceilinged town square. And located across the street from the AKG is Buffalo State University’s Burchfield Penney Art Center, which displays regional art as well as the Stanford Lipsey Art Glass Collection, a superb display of fifty contemporary pieces, also well worth visiting.

A Frank Lloyd Wright Mecca

Buffalo is a mecca for people interested in the work of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Darwin Martin, a corporate executive at the turn of the twentieth century, became one of Wright’s most important patrons. This relationship led Wright to design a group of four contiguous houses in Buffalo for Martin’s family and domestic staff as well as their summer home twenty miles south of Buffalo on Lake Erie. The Martin House complex and the Graycliff Conservancy are both top destinations for anyone interested in Wright specifically or in architecture at all. (In a previous post, I discussed my life-long interest in architecture.)

The Martin House and Graycliff both display the key components of Wright’s revolutionary architectural philosophy. These include “breaking the box” of houses divided into walled-off rooms, anchoring a house on pillars with cantilevered components, plentiful windows (because the exterior walls aren’t load-bearing), integration of the space in the house with its external environment, and an emphasis on horizontal over vertical lines (giving rise to the term Prairie School). Rooms on the main floor aren’t divided from, but flow into one another. Because the second floor is private space, Wright de-emphasizes and hides staircases. The docents at both the Martin House and at Graycliff are excellent at explaining Wright’s philosophy and showing how it is expressed in design.

Martin House complex
horizontal brickwork

The restoration of the Martin House is an impressive story of public enterprise and civic volunteerism. Martin lost his fortune in the Great Depression and after his death in 1935, his wife Isabelle walked away from the house. It was left to the elements and parts of it were dismantled. The renovation began in the Sixties and involved rebuilding major parts of the house, such as a long pergola leading to a conservatory with a replica of the Winged Victory.

pergola and conservatory

The renovations are essentially complete, except restoring all the original leaded glass windows that use Wright’s famous “tree of life” motif. Doing this would cost several million dollars.

The Heath House

My wife and I went for a walk in a heritage district near the AKG Museum. We noticed a house that had Wright’s earmarks of horizontal lines, a porch integrated into the building, a low-pitched roof, and stained glass windows. A quick search showed that this house was built for William Heath, one of Martin’s fellow executives, at the same time as Martin’s House. The home is privately owned and doesn’t even have a plaque. I understand the current owner’s desire for privacy, but I hope that at some time in the future this house will come into the public domain. A second major Wright commission, the Davidson House, also is privately owned, and I hope it too comes into the public domain.

Heath House

These houses were designed for the wealthiest of clients and include extremely expensive detailing and workmanship, but the concepts they embody have enormously influenced subsequent generations of architects. We came away from our three days in Buffalo restored and inspired, particularly by reflecting on the revolutionary work of an architectural genius. I encourage my readers to make this trip, especially when the AKG Museum’s new building is complete.

A Few Logistical Matters (If you go …)

  1. If you are crossing the border by car, especially during high season, you can encounter long delays. With three bridges to choose from (Lewiston-Queenston, Peace Bridge, Rainbow Bridge) it makes sense to check wait times posted by both the US and Canadian governments.
  2. Buffalo is ringed by expressways (I-190 and I-290) that Google Maps and Waze recommend because the travel time when they are uncongested is shorter than non-expressway routes. We find unfamiliar expressways stressful and suggest using urban streets, which are also a better way to explore the city.
  3. We stayed in a non-descript suburban hotel. A better choice would have been the newly opened Richardson Hotel, located in a renovated heritage building on the campus of Buffalo State University, and also much closer to the AKG Museum and Martin House.

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