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Re-Wrighting Buffalo: Build the Larkin Rowhouses

Originally published in Buffalo Spree, July-August 2006, p. 150 (Updated 18 March 2010)

Most architecturally-aware Buffalonians know how the Darwin Martin-Frank Lloyd Wright friendship led to commissions for the now-demolished Larkin Administration building and homes for the top Larkin Company officers. Demolished portions of the Martin House complex are being rebuilt as the site undergoes a complete restoration. Martin also commissioned Wright’s only cemetery monument, the Blue Sky Mausoleum, which was constructed in Forest Lawn in 2004, decades after the passing of the Martins.

Additional executions of unbuilt Wright designs are underway in Buffalo. James and Mary Ann Sandoro of the Buffalo Transportation-Pierce Arrow Museum are constructing Wright’s Tydol gas station, originally designed for Buffalo in the 1920s, on Michigan Avenue. Fundraising is underway to put up Wright’s ca. 1905 Yahara boathouse, originally designed for Madison, WI, on the Niagara River near Porter Avenue.

Some scholars argue that these new constructions cannot be considered genuine Wright creations because the architect is not present to make the many major and minor adjustments necessary to transform two-dimensional intentions into three-dimensional structures. New sites, new building codes, and new construction materials and techniques present challenges to authenticity. So let’s concede the point, call these projects Re-Wrights, and lead the world in posthumous Re-Wrighting.

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Here is the next candidate for Re-Wrighting Buffalo. In 1904, the Larkin Company, known for a corporate culture of benevolent paternalism, commissioned Wright to design rowhouses for its workers. This was a progressive response to overcrowding and slum conditions in industrial Buffalo, decades before the advent of public housing. The rowhouses were probably planned for the vicinity of the Larkin factory complex on Seneca Street. Further research is needed to determine how and why Larkin decided to provide company housing, if a site was ever selected, why they were never built, and what materials Wright had in mind.

Wright designed little with which to compare them. Apparently the only Wright rowhouses ever to be built are the Roloson apartments in Chicago, which date to 1894 and have a Tudor-style steeply-pitched gable facades and Louis Sullivan-inspired ornament above the windows.

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The Larkin Rowhouse design was first published in 1910 in Germany in the famous Wasmuth Portfolio, the publication that established Wright’s reputation in Europe. At that time, the client was identified as Mr. E.C. Waller of Chicago. In 1942, Henry-Russell Hitchcock identified the client as the Larkin Company and praised the design as an early prototype for European worker housing and US defense housing. Hitchcock’s attribution appears to be uncontested, probably because the design shows such strong affinities with the Larkin building and the Buffalo prairie houses, most notably in the prominent vertical piers segmenting the façade, the low-pitched roof with deep overhangs, and horizontal bands of windows.

The Larkin Rowhouse plans survive today in the archives of Taliesin West, awaiting a licensing agreement with a visionary builder. Buffalo has all too many “shovel ready” sites and a growing downtown housing market. Let’s build the rowhouses for everyone who wasn’t lucky enough to be a Larkin company executive.

Images: visionsofwright.wordpress.com

Written by Cynthia Van Ness

Cynthia Van Ness

Cynthia has an Master of Library Science (MLS) degree from the University at Buffalo and a BA in art history from SUNY/Empire State College. After library school, she worked at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library for 13 years, half of were in the Grosvenor Room, the local history & genealogy collection, where she developed research and reference expertise in the people, places, things, and events Buffalo history. She was appointed Director of Library & Archives at The Buffalo History Museum in 2007. On her own time, she is the author of Victorian Buffalo (1999), Quotable Buffalo (2011), and the creator of BuffaloResearch.com, a guide to researching ancestors, buildings, and companies in Buffalo.

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