A Martin House Story
The restoration of the Darwin Martin Complex has excited Western New Yorkers and thrilled Wright visitors for a decade. But this is recent history and it is easy to forget the years when simply saving, let alone restoring, the Martin House was in grave doubt. The Darwin Martin House Restoration Corporation did not exist in 1988 when Christie's Auction House announced the sale of two sidelight windows from the Darwin Martin House. In the 1940s and 1950s, at least 70 of the 394 exquisite art glass windows from the complex had been removed and sold to museums and private owners. Other windows were destroyed or damaged.
The two sidelights, each six feet tall and about a foot wide, had originally been desiged for and installed on either side of the Martin House front entrance. They depict the wisteria pattern which Wright used on the first floor of the house. They were sold in 1945 to a local man who consigned them to Christie's for sale in 1988.
The Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier, whose president was John Conlin, learned of the auction and immediately made plans to acquire at least one of the sidelights at auction. Mr. Conlin attended with Austin Fox (1913-1996), past LSNF president and Western New York's most respected architectural historian. Here is how Mr. Conlin described the the day in an article in Buffalo Spree in 1997:
"Only the day before the scheduled auction were arrangements put in place commissioning Austin Fox to go to Christie's and bid up to a total of $100,000 for the windows. They were in separate lots, and each carried an estimate of $75,000. Fox and I took an early flight out of Buffalo the day of the sale and were among the first to arrive at the Park Avenue auctionhouse. It was the annual Arts & Crafts auction, with record setting prices expected. The room was theater-like, focused on a stage centered with a Chippendale-style mahogany pulpit for the auctioneer.
"Austin had never been to such an auction. There was no opportunity for practice. Our strategy was to come away with at least one of the windows, and we knew it would have to be the first one (because on the second we would be bidding against someone trying to complete the pair). Austin said this was like entering a major league batter's box and having to hit a home run on the first pitch. After two hours of ever increasing anxiety while record prices were being set, we heard the announcement, 'Lot 115 Rare and Important Leaded Glass Window from the Darwin Martin House.' The adrenalin was flowing. Austin caught the auctioneer's eye and entered into the flurry of rapid-fire bidding that ended abruptly with a sharp crack of the stone gavel which was also the sound of Austin hitting a home run.
"This was no time to breathe easily. We had obtained one window at half of its estimate, and would try for the pair. The bidding for Lot 116 went by $5,000 increments. This was heady stuff. While the auctioneer was calling for a bid of $40,000, an anonymous telephone bidder hesitated a little too long, and Austin calmly raised his number to receive the second win. A group of people we had talked with before the auction broke into applause at this result. Noting a puzzled look on the face of the auctioneer (such breaches of decorum were rare), I took the pleasure of rising and announcing to all present, 'These windows are going back to the Martin House in Buffalo, where they belong.' The entire room of over 300 international art dealers and collectors burst into applause. Austin said, 'This is a good time to make an exit.' We did so, elated."
The total purchase price paid for both windows was $82,500, an amount loaned to the Landmark Society which immediately commenced a fund-raising campaign for repayment. To aid the campaign, the windows were mounted in frames built by John Conlin and displayed at the Buffalo History Museum for a month in mid-1989. By the end of December in that year, the yearlong campaign succeeded in raising the funds to repay the loan. In addition to individual donors, major support was received from the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation and the Baird Foundation. The windows were stored at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery for an unknown future time when community support would gather to save the Martin House.
The Martin House Restoration Corporation was established in 1992 with the intent of saving the family residence. Ownership title to the house was transferred to the Corporation in 2002. In May 2004, the two sidelights were formally presented to the MHRC: "Gift of Darwin D. Martin House Sidelights Made in Honor of Austin McC. Fox by the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier."
By 2007 the MHRC had acquired and restored the exterior of the entire Darwin D. Martin complex, including the Barton House, Gardener's Cottage, Pergola and Carriage House. The sidelights were installed in 2016, once again welcoming guests.
This is one of many stories associated with the rebirth of the Martin House. But today this story is particularly important because windows from this complex rarely appear for sale and, if they appear, their purchase price is beyond the means of the MHRC. Of the original 394 art glass windows (combined total for the Martin House, Barton House,and Conservatory/Carriage House), the MHRC has 185 originals (as of 2008). Replication of misssing windows is being done as funds become available. The estimated total cost is nearly $2 million dollars.
The foresight and optimism that allowed the sidelights above to be saved for an unknown future, at a cost that could not be matched today even as a re-created pair, deserve our awed gratitude.