Frank Did It First!

Frank Lloyd Wright, Graycliff Estate, 1926-31. Photo by Joseph Caserto.

Today we take for granted the idea of see-through houses, especially in reno-crazy Toronto, where evening strolls through this city’s older residential areas reveal (literally) the current fashion for open concept interiors framed by large windows on front and back facades.

Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House, 1945-51. Source

Philip Johnson, The Glass House, 1949. Source

Look up “glass house” in any history of modern architecture and you’ll find Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois (1946-51) and Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut (1949) both sited as the iconic examples of the glass wall concept taken to its outer limits.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Graycliff Estate.  Patrick J. Mahoney/Graycliff

Yet almost two decades prior, Frank Lloyd Wright was creating an early version of the glass curtain wall at Graycliff, a summer estate on Lake Erie in upstate New York. Graycliff was commissioned for Isabelle Martin, wife of prominent Buffalo industrialist Darwin Martin, for whom Wright had built a home in 1905.

Yours truly with my traveling pal, Maria, at the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Darwin Martin House. Source

The Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, once abandoned, is now beautifully restored, and is considered a key example of Wright’s Prairie House style. Graycliff, while never completely abandoned, did suffer from ungainly alterations after it was sold by the Martin’s heirs, and might have been torn down and replaced by condominiums (egad!) in the late 1990s, were it not for the formation of the Graycliff Conservancy, a not-for-profit organization that undertook the restoration of the house and grounds.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Graycliff Estate, 1926-31. Photo by Chuck Last

The removal of obscuring walls put up by previous owners brought Wright’s original vision to light again. Always keen to integrate nature and structure, at Graycliff Wright took advantage of the secluded setting, where privacy was less of an issue than in town. Both the front and lake-facing facades feature parallel banks of tall windows, so that as you approach you can see through the house to the lake beyond.

Frank Lloyd Wright, windows at Graycliff (left) and Fallingwater (right)

The barely there division between windows in Graycliff's sun room anticipates fenestration treatments in Wright’s landmark of “Organic Architecture”, Fallingwater, begun only five years after the completion of Graycliff in 1931.

Another feature that prefigures Fallingwater is the extensive use of locally-sourced stone, which in the case of Graycliff was a limestone rich with pyrite that gave the stones a tone resembling Wright's beloved “Cherokee Red”. Along with the brick-coloured roof, copper window screens and wooden floors and trim, these warm tones complement the cool palette of trees, sky and water.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Graycliff Estate. Source

Wright also designed a lovely asymmetrical pond feature, later drained by Mrs. Martin, who, strangely for a person summering beside a lake, was nervous around water. Fortunately it’s been brought back to its former glory, using the estate’s original plans.

Sun porch at Graycliff. Source

The restoration of Graycliff is still a work in progress, as some rooms still need furniture, and the ceiling was being repaired when we visited in August 2015. But it’s still well worth seeing how the visionary Frank Lloyd Wright anticipated our current craze for natural light.

The Graycliff Estate

The Organic Beauty of Frank Lloyd Wright's Graycliff by Patrick Sisson