Graycliff Conservancy

At the April 1st meeting of the Grand Island Historical Society, June Crawford presented slides and told the story of the Graycliff Estate, located on the shores of Lake Erie in Derby, New York.
The Graycliff Estate was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and was built between 1926 and 1929. The house was planned to be a summer home for Darwin and Isabelle Martin, who lived in a house in Buffalo that was also designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. That house, now called the “Darwin Martin House,” has recently been restored to its former grandeur. It was built with a “prairie design” but the house wasn’t especially comfortable for Isabelle Martin. There was very little direct sunlight coming into the house because of all of the overhangs. As a result, the house had a dark and gloomy feel. Isabelle Martin had a problem with her eyesight and a dark house wasn’t a good fit for her.
The Graycliff Estate was designed to be a “natural house.” Frank Lloyd Wright made use of locally obtained materials, such as gray shale from the banks of Lake Erie.
Darwin Martin and Frank Lloyd Wright were friends for many years, and Darwin Martin possessed the business skills that, according to June, Frank Lloyd Wright lacked. With Darwin Martin’s help, Frank Lloyd Wright became a well-known architect. He designed such structures as Fallingwater in rural Pennsylvania, the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, the S.C. Johnson Wax Company Headquarters in Racine (Wisconsin), and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, among many others. For more information on Frank Lloyd Wright, take a look at Wright’s Life and Work.
A fair number of the houses and other structures that Frank Lloyd Wright designed have been restored. Unfortunately, the Larkin Administration Building was not saved.
The Larkin Administration Building was Frank Lloyd Wright’s first commercial commission. John D. Larkin, who had gone into business of manufacturing soap with his brother-in-law Justus Weller in 1861, was truly a self-made man who created a big business after his partnership with Weller fell apart (which occurred at about the same time that his sister’s marriage to Weller ended). By 1904, John Larkin apparently decided that he needed a office building for his large business. So he commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright, who created a very large structure that was designed to be quite efficient. Read this to find out more about John Larkin and the Larkin Soap Company.
The fortunes of Darwin Martin, too, were tied up with the Larkin Soap Company. As a young man, Darwin Martin obtained employment as a delivery boy for the Larkin Soap Company. Eventually, he worked his way through the ranks and became the chief executive officer.
Darwin Martin lost his fortune during the stock market crash of 1929 and the following years of economic depression. He died in 1935. Frank Lloyd Wright died in 1959.
The Larkin Soap Company’s administration, too, fell on hard times. It fell into disrepair in the 1940s and it was torn down in 1950. Click here to see a picture of the Larkin Administration Building.
But when the few years before Darwin Martin lost his fortune, he and Isabelle and their children and grandchildren enjoyed summers at Graycliff. The house was built for entertaining and relaxing, June explained. Outside, it boasted the only tennis court that was ever designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The surface of the court was made of concrete that had been tinted red to make it look like clay.
The estate also boasted a sunken garden.
The house was expensive to build. The cedar shingles of the roof were each hand dipped in dye to create a variegated effect. Apparently, Frank Lloyd Wright felt that uniformity was boring and that nature, which he was trying to imitate with his design, was not uniform. Also, Frank Lloyd Wright was not especially amenable to changes to the design of his structure for the purpose of saving money. When Darwin Martin said that he really didn’t need a balcony outside of his and his wife’s bedroom, Frank Lloyd Wright told him, “You may not need a balcony, but the house does.”
All of the upstairs bedroom windows faced the lake. The house was full of light.
Darwin and Isabelle Martin’s daughter Dorothy spent much time at Graycliff. Her married name was Foster, and she and her family were housed in an apartment above the garage. By 1943, Isabelle, who could not afford to maintain the large summer house, moved in with her daughter.
The Graycliff Estate fell on hard times and was vacant until the Piarist Priests purchased it in the 1950s. The intention of these priests, who had left Hungary to escape the Communists, was to build a school.  They did build a boarding school but they made a number of changes to Frank Lloyd Wright’s design. They filled in the sunken garden to make a chapel. They also added space to the garage, which made the drainage problems worse.
In the 1990s, the house and grounds were sold again. By this time, the house was decrepit. June showed pictures of the house in this sad condition.
By chance, a woman named Carol Bronnenkant came to see the house. She had wanted to turn it into a bed and breakfast there and run it with her husband.  June explained that Carold Bronnenkant did not want Frank Lloyd Wright’s house to go to “wreck and ruin.” A whiz at fundraising, she quickly was able to collect $20,000 from 30 people.
Eventually, she and her husband decided that the house needed more work than they had expected when planning to create the bed and breakfast. Instead, they started the Graycliff Conservancy to restore the old summer home of Darwin and Isabelle Martin. Eventually, they were able to get many donations and were also able to get the Oishei Foundation to underwrite the mortgage. The price of the house and grounds was $450,000, “as is.”
The first building to be completely restored was the “heat hut.”  This small building had been designed to store the furnace. Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t want the furnace in the house as he had experienced fire in his own house and he was very concerned about the possibility of fire.
The house is still in the process of being restored.
For information about tours, check the Graycliff Conservancy’s website

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top