During the summer of 2019 our predecessors at the Inn took time out to visit Graycliff, a Frank Lloyd Wright designed home that’s located just south of Buffalo, NY. Built for Isabelle Martin between 1926 and 1931, it’s located on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie. The property offers impressive views of the lake and the Buffalo skyline in the distance. Constructed as a summer home for Isabelle, and greatly influenced by her personal tastes, the building offers a lightness of design that contrasts the Martins’ city residence, the Darwin Martin House Complex.
In 1902, William Martin, Darwin’s brother, hired Mr. Wright to build him a home in Oak Park, IL. After seeing his brother’s home, Darwin Martin was inspired to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio where he persuaded him to contemplate his property in Buffalo as he had wanted to build two houses. This was the beginning of a longstanding personal relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright that would last for the rest of their lives.
In addition to hiring Wright to design his Buffalo home, and as an executive for the Larkin Soap Company, Darwin Martin was involved in the selection of Wright to design the Larkin Administration Building as his first major commercial project. In fact, Frank Lloyd Wright secured commissions for homes for two other Larkin Company employees, William Heath and Walter Davidson. As you can see, Buffalo had become a hotbed of activity for Mr. Wright, which brings us back to Graycliff.
The only building constructed by Wright between 1914 and 1936 using stone, Graycliff is considered to be one of his most important mid-career works. In this home he institutes cantilevered balconies that would later become emblematic features of his iconic landmark, Fallingwater. The stone used was hauled up from the lakeshore at the edge of the property and was set in place with special attention and positioning to accentuate the fossils that were apparent in the stone.
As with many Wright buildings, there is a clear horizontal theme that is accentuated by the cantilevered balconies and the expanses of glass that both maximized natural light and allowed for unobstructed views of the lake. In fact, as you approach the house, the design allows you to look “through” the house directly at Lake Erie and the horizon beyond, which was an innovative concept when the house was designed and built.
Graycliff also features a landscape that was personally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that incorporates sunken gardens, an esplanade, and several water features including an irregularly shaped pond fed by a stone waterfall under the cantilevered porte cochere. There was also significant involvement in the landscape design by the renowned female landscape architect, Ellen Biddle Shipman. Unfortunately, over time, erosion has affected the lakeside esplanade and the bridge and stair tower that offered the Martin’s and their guests’ access to the beach.
The Graycliff Conservancy was formed in 1997 to acquire and restore the Graycliff Estate so that it could be opened to the public. Through exhaustive volunteer efforts and many donations and grants, the Conservancy is well on its way to preserving this important part of Buffalo’s architectural history. Although not technically in the Finger Lakes, Graycliff is an easy two-hour drive from the Inn and within close proximity to several other Wright structures within Buffalo. We encourage you to support the restoration effort at Graycliff with a visit, as you stay an extra day at the Black Sheep Inn to devote to exploring Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in the area. We have made it easy to do with our Frank Lloyd Wright in the Finger Lakes package, and Graycliff is part of the North American Reciprocal Museum Association, (NARM) too, so if you join as a member, you receive access to the over 1,000 other museums that participate in the program.
Hope to see you soon!
Miranda and SImon