We Did Shuffle Off to Buffalo

Though my friends expressed skepticism that Buffalo, New York, really was a worthy destination for the Conservancy’s 2009 conference, I knew better. And Buffalo delivered. Or rather, the myriad residents of that city who selflessly volunteered their time and effort delivered. Big time.

The Buffalo conference will go down in memory as one of the finest in the 20-year history of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. Several factors lead me to this assertion: the superb morning sessions, the well-run tours and special events, the fine organization that resulted in everything running like clockwork, with no discernable gaffes, and most importantly, the incredible volunteers and their obvious pride in their hometown.

Seldom do I recall the highlight of a conference being the speaker sessions themselves. But that was the case this time, due to the stimulating theme, “Wright in the Drafting Room: Drawings for the Built and Unbuilt” which was examined by means of panel discussions. One morning session focused on the use of the archives from a variety of perspectives. Remarks by Nicholas Olsberg, an archivist who works closely with Wright’s archives and the Getty Research Center, were particularly stimulating.

The next morning’s sessions focused on the provocative issue of “Building the Unbuilt”. This series of presentations led to an extended question-and-answer session, with a great many people responding to John Courtin’s postulation regarding “authenticity versus appropriateness” as criteria for examining the issue. Courtin is a Founding Director of the Martin House Restoration Corporation and of the FLW Rowing Boathouse Corporation. This energizing debate spawned an extensive article in the Buffalo News and continued as an undercurrent for the remainder of the conference. Not coincidentally, we then toured two unbuilt Wright works, newly completed in Buffalo: the Blue Sky Mausoleum and the Yahara River Boathouse. The tours enabled conference attendees to examine the work for themselves and further ruminate on the merits of the positions presented during the forum.

Conference Co-chair Jack Quinan, Board Member Neil Levine and our new Board President, Susan Lockhart, deserve kudos for shaping the theme and securing the outstanding roster of speakers. Gratifying to me was the topicality of the conference theme with regard to the primary mission of the Conservancy. The paper sessions were not merely academically interesting but practically focused on a critical topic related to our preservation efforts.

Gratifying too was our opportunity to see the remarkable preservation progress at both the Darwin Martin House and Graycliff. The Conservancy last visited Buffalo in 1997; Martin was on its way back from dereliction and Graycliff exhibited an utterly strange and rather unlovely amalgam of Frank Lloyd Wright and Hungarian Catholicism. The two non-profit enterprises, the Graycliff Conservancy and the Martin House Restoration Corporation, make for great public sites success stories/case studies, which were explored in a morning session. In neither instance is all the restoration work complete, but in both remarkable progress has been made. At Graycliff, the grassroots-based organization relies mightily on the effort of an army of volunteers who are restoring the grounds and exteriors to their 1926 original conditions. I am pleased to say that Graycliff looks nothing like it did in 1997. With the shed -roofed chapel addition removed, visitors can once again see clear through the house to the lake beyond, as Wright intended. The next big challenge will be the interior restoration.

At the Martin House, where fundraising has been prodigious, the reconstructed elements were the captivating sight. The conservatory, pergola and stable complete the complex as originally constructed. They are joined now by the Greatbach Pavilion, an unabashedly modern visitors’ center. Reactions to its presence adjacent to the main house varied, but the pavilion affords panoramic views of the Martin complex during social gatherings.

What might seem odd is that in neither house has the interior been restored. In both cases, that is the next step, and by design. It is essential to secure the exterior from the elements (leaky roof jokes may be inserted here) and then the critical but none-too-glamorous infrastructure work (electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling) must be done prior to tackling the interior surfaces. That is why we will undoubtedly be returning someday to Buffalo — to see these two Wright oeuvres in all their restored majesty, both inside and out.

When that occasion presents itself, perhaps we will be able to tour the inside of the Heath House. In 1997 we merely drove by; this time we stood outside and were able to savor its exterior, complete with its remarkable light screens. We also toured the Davidson House, which has changed hands since our last visit and looks to be in notably better condition.

It is important to note that the vast majority of the volunteers who made the conference so satisfying an experience were often the very same volunteers and professional staff who are instrumental to the success of the Graycliff Conservancy and the Martin House Restoration Corporation. Notable among them were conference co-chairs Sharon Osgood, Jack Quinan, and Mary Roberts. All three gave mightily to the task and bear major responsibility for its great success. But the less well known volunteers made us all feel welcome and are, to a person, great ambassadors for their city, which boomed thanks to transportation developments in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, and has seen its fortunes decline for the same reason. Their upbeat spirit is remarkable, as is the preservation story that continues to unfold in Buffalo.

Find more pictures here.

Tim Quigley is the principal of Quigley Architects in Minneapolis and a member of the Conservancy Board.

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