The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Martin House in Buffalo, New York, now beautifully restored to its original grandeur, is also notable for the magnificent gardens surrounding it. Also designed by Wright and his team, the gardens have an astounding variety of flowering plants that offer a constant kaleidoscope of color from early spring to late fall.
History of the Martin House
Frank Lloyd Wright designed the house, which was completed in 1905, for Darwin Martin, an executive at the local Larkin Soap Company who’d taken a shine to the then little-known Midwestern architect. The home perfectly encapsulates Wright’s early “Prairie Style” architecture, featuring strong horizontal lines, long flat roofs, and rows of windows.
The Martins were avid gardeners, especially Darwin’s wife, Isabelle, who was known for filling her home with bouquets and also gifting them to friends and family. Both Isabelle and Darwin informed Wright early in the design process they didn’t mind a smaller house if it meant they could have a larger garden.
What they got from Wright was both a large home of nearly 15,000 square feet and a large garden surrounding it, reflecting Wright’s philosophy that both the exterior elements outside the house and the home itself should work together as an organic whole. The house’s rows and rows of windows, many containing priceless art glass, demonstrate Wright’s wish both to bring the outdoors inside and to blur the distinction between outdoors and indoors.
The Martin House Today
The home itself is widely considered one of Wright’s masterpieces, containing such gems as a fireplace made of thousands of pieces of glass tiles forming a wisteria-themed mosaic. A 100-foot pergola leads from the main house to a conservatory filled with orchids, begonias, ferns, peace lilies, arrowhead plants, and dwarf papyrus. The centerpiece of the conservatory, perfectly framed by the pergola leading to it, is a magnificent reproduction of the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
Other structures on the 1.5-acre property include the Barton House, constructed for Martin’s sister and her husband; a carriage house; and a gardener’s cottage, all also designed by Wright. Everything you’ll see on site is a result of massive restoration and reconstruction following decades of neglect after Martin died in 1935. Restoration of the house was completed in 2017, while the long-missing gardens were again put in place in 2019.
The Martin House Gardens
The gardens envelop the various structures on the Martin property on all sides. The restoration was guided by an exhaustive study done by Bayer Landscape Architecture near Rochester, which used historic photos, correspondence between the Martins and Wright, and even Darwin’s diaries to compose a “Cultural Landscape Report” providing recommendations for restoring the gardens, right down to the types and numbers of plants in each bed. “Actually, it’s more correct to describe what we did as a rehabilitation of the garden rather than an exact reproduction,” explained Mark Bayer, founder and principal of the firm. “Our goal was to re-create the character and spatial qualities of the original gardens to capture the general feeling of what was there when the Martins resided in the home.”
Nevertheless, the Martins would certainly recognize today’s gardens as a very close match to their own, even though only one element of their original landscaping remains — a magnificent copper beech tree — in front of the home. Today’s rehabilitated gardens closely match Wright and his team’s attempts to ensure a steady stream of vibrantly colored flowers throughout the growing season.
The division of the gardens into distinct quadrants, each with its own distinctive plantings, is also a match for what the Martins would have known in their day. In front of the house and along the driveway, hydrangeas bloom in the summer months, while alongside the driveway other colorful species, like two species of spirea, viburnum, and honeysuckle offer color throughout the season. Large self-watering planters hold lantanas, white geraniums, crimson fountain grass, and silver falls dichondra.
Behind the house and to the west of the pergola, sections known as the Courtyard Garden and English Border Garden include anemones, delphiniums, false indigo, clematis, astilbe, and two different types of peonies, one white, the other pink. On the east side of the pergola a large area known as the Summit Lawn (named for the adjacent street) is lined with clematis, mock orange shrubs, Virginia rose, spirea, and bigroot geranium. Wisteria propagated from plants found growing on the property now lines the pergola.
But it’s the area just to the south of the Summit Lawn and adjoining the house’s spacious verandah that’s arguably the garden’s biggest showstopper. This area, which Wright dubbed the “Floricycle,” is a huge semi-circle divided into a series of identically planted wedge-shaped beds containing hollyhocks, phlox, bellflowers, forsythia, foxgloves, irises, columbines, pink Oriental lilies, and many others. Each section is punctuated with a European spindle tree as its centerpiece. In Wright’s original design, the Floricycle consisted of 11 and a half sections, now reduced to 7 and a half to allow more spacing between the individual plants.
A dedicated corps of volunteers from all walks of life — including doctors and nurses, attorneys, pharmacists, professors, and engineers — tend to the gardens daily, watching for seasonal fluctuations like this year’s failure of the hollyhocks to flourish. They also stay vigilant to ensure that species such as snowbank false asters and purple poppy mallows don’t take over. According to Roseanne Stolzenburg, co-lead of the landscape team, her volunteers have “stayed 95 percent true” to the original plan laid out by Bayer and his team, making adjustments only when certain species don’t work in a particular place.
A number of tours of the Martin House and the other properties on site are offered, with a specialty garden tour offered seasonally on Saturday mornings from early June to late September. But no matter the time of year, visitors are welcome to stroll through the gardens at any time of day free of charge. A number of Buffalo residents do just that!
The Martins’ Summer Home
While you’re in the neighborhood, check out another Frank Lloyd Wright home and garden, Graycliff, the Martins’ summer home, overlooking a 70-foot-cliff beside Lake Erie with dramatic views of the Buffalo skyline, Canadian shoreline, and even the far-off mists from Niagara Falls. With 8.5 acres, Wright had room to add expansive lawns and trees to a landscaping that also includes a “picking garden” of showy perennials, sunken gardens, and a water feature that includes a large pool with water cascading into it. Supplemental landscape work was done by Ellen Biddle Shipman, a noted female landscape architect known for her Arts and Crafts designs. Weekly landscape tours are also offered at Graycliff.
When You Visit
Visiting gardens in Buffalo, New York, means seeing incredible flora and fauna displays at private homes, public buildings, parks, historic sites, and tourist attractions unrivaled by anywhere else in the country. Buffalo loves its gardens. For more info about Buffalo and its gardens, check out visitbuffaloniagara.com.
Rich Warren is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in AAA magazines and also in such places recently as NationalGeographic.com, The Saturday Evening Post, and GardenandGun.com. An avid gardener, he fills up his small yard in Columbus, Ohio, with flowering plants each summer and then fills up his front porch and lines his driveway with planters when he runs out of space. Many of his stories can be seen on his website, www.richjumpswiththechimps.com.