Written on December 16, 2010 at 10:47 am , by James A. Baggett
As an undownable fan of all things Frank Lloyd Wright, I’ve managed to visit most of the major (and many of the not-quite-so-major) Wright sites here in the United States: the concrete Hollyhock House in Los Angeles; the 16-level Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Illinois; the humongously inspirational Taliesen in Spring Green, Wisconsin; and America’s most famous residence, Fallingwater just outside of Pittsburgh.
My work as a garden editor allows me the opportunity to travel extensively. It also allows me the opportunity to visit many lesser-known Wright sites tucked in out-of-the-way and less-traveled places: the Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebbsworth Park in St. Louis; Cedar Rock (The Walter House and Boat Pavilion) in Quasqueton, Iowa; Kentuck Knob in Chalk Hill, Pennsylvania. The list is always growing, and includes, of course, such posthumous landmarks as the iconic Guggenheim Museum in New York City and the sexily curvaceous Monona Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin. (I also consider myself especially lucky enough to have an offspring of the ancient Ginkgo biloba tree that predates the courtyard of Wright’s original home and studio (1889/1898) in Oak Park, Illinois, thriving right smack-dab in front of my own 1920 Arts & Crafts bungalow in central Iowa—the seedling was a passalong plant from the groundskeeper a couple of years ago while I was in Oak Park to produce a story on the natural forms found in Wright’s architecture.)
So imagine my unbridled delight when Mary F. Roberts, the executive director of the Martin House Restoration Corporation, invited me—while attending Buffalo’s requisite annual Garden Walk this past summer—to make myself right at home, thank you, in the Gardener’s Cottage (1909) that’s part of the Martin House Complex (1903-1905). The Martin House itself is the best surviving example of Wright’s Prairie House, a revolutionary design he developed in the first decade of the 20th Century. The Prairie House style is characterized by rectilinear, horizontally oriented structures linked by crossing axes that are “woven” into their site.
The Martin House Complex (located within the Parkside East Historic District, laid out by renowned American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux in 1897 and part of the first coordinated system of public parks in America) was designed in this organic fashion, allowing clear, linear vistas throughout the various buildings and the surrounding landscape. Unlike the vertical stance of the typical Victorian-stle homes built in this era, Wright’s long, low roofs and intersecting planes nestle down in the landscape seemingly at one with the earth beneath the building. In addition to the grand mansion, the Martin House Complex contains the more modest Barton House (designed for Martin’s daughter and her husband), a working-class apartment above the carriage house for Martin’s chauffeur, as well as a comfortable cottage for the gardener (the sixth building on the property, which has more structures than any other site in the architect’s vast portfolio).
At first glance, the cottage was nothing more than a cozy, two-story wood-frame construction with stucco finish and cedar trim, a butternut squash-colored box hidden behind a stand of streetside lindens. But unlike the other structures, which were abandoned and allowed to deteriorate after the Martin family fell on hard times during the Great Depression, the 1,700-square foot Gardener’s Cottage was miraculously and continuously occupied until 2006…and, if I must say so, in rather pristine condition. Here was a small, affordable, and largely utilitarian dwelling designed for the common man. The first set of drawings for the Gardener’s Cottage was furnished by O.S. Lang, the general contractor, in July of 1905, but the cottage was not constructed until 1909. The very existence of this modest structure attests to the importance of the extensive gardens and landscaping on the site, not only because of Wright’s meticulous plan, but also because of his steadfast love of the natural world.
Of course, I wasn’t so selfish as to keep this exclusive invitation to myself, so I was accompanied on this architectural epiphany by my steadfast friend Julie, who is a true artist and has a decided affinity for all things aesthetically pleasing. Together (over a glass of wine or two) we made note of all the significant details around us: the interior textured plaster walls the color of browned butter (in the late-afternoon sunlight it resembled glistening mica) with a cooler lemon chiffon above the moldings; ribbons of Art Glass windows surrounding the south, west, and north sides of the house; built-in planters below the windows and broad eaves overhead, beneath a polite hipped roof; triangular uplighted jewel-toned colored glass sconces; the triangular pendant light hanging in the staircase with linked carved wooden chains dropping to a trio of four-sided shades; the downstairs fireplace is surrounded with the same golden yellow Roman bricks used on the exterior of the main house; the upstairs master-bedroom fireplace boasting lichenlike turquoise-green Grueby-style tiles worthy of Gustave Stickley’s Craftsman Farms.
It made me happy. My friend Julie and I conducted ourselves for three days as though we really did live in the Gardener’s Cottage: we bathed each morning with the hundred-year-old, green-patinaed copper shower head, we slept fitfully bathed in the stifling summer humidity with the Art glass windows cranked open wide (and with a neighborhood stray yowling), and we walked the property each evening at nightfall under a waxing moon, making believe it really was all ours for keeps.