Family History: The Lives of Buildings

I learned just last week, while traveling in D.C., that my friend and mentor Jeff Rosenberg grew up in Buffalo, New York, and that his own family history intersected with that of Frank Lloyd Wright’s local architectural wonders, including the Larkin Administration Building. He’s kindly allowed me to write up some of his reflections and post them on the blog:

My dad’s office was in the Larkin Warehouse just across Seneca Street from the Administration Building, at least, until 1950 . . .

‘This beautiful temple of commerce’

Darwin Martin, who had been the chief executive – he and the Larkins were in love with Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright was capable of seducing his clients, like Svengali, because to be Wright’s client was an extraordinary sacrifice, not only in money but in time and emotional energy. Darwin Martin and the Larkins wanted Wright because they wanted the most progressive, the newest, the most modern – and they could afford him. So they built this beautiful temple of commerce to go with the Larkin warehouse.

‘All the sense in the world’

The Larkin company sold to people by catalogue. They sold mostly cleaning products and, if you bought their stuff, you earned points, with which you could buy furniture, and it was beautifully made furniture. My brother has a Larkin piece in his house that he bought many years ago. These were pieces that came – the postman brought them, if you can believe it – and you assembled them. This warehouse was right at the railhead, and Buffalo was a huge rail center and it made all the sense in the world to be doing business there.

‘Organ concerts at lunch time’

The Larkin Administration Building was the most radical office building in America and it’s very well-documented. The vast majority of people who worked in there were secretaries and bookkeepers and my grandmother worked as a secretary in that building when she was a girl before she was married. She was born in Buffalo and she told me that everybody took their lunch break at the same time, while an organist serenaded the staff on the building’s pipe organ(!).

You can be sure not many office workers in America (or anywhere else) enjoyed that kind of workplace environment. Here was theis gem, this masterpiece of American architecture in the early 20th century, and its setting was the industrial version of a cow pasture – warehouses and small homes and stores, and of course a rail line. That didn’t seem to matter to Wright or his clients. Inside was where the revolution was taking place.

In the mid-1930’s, Wright would refine and expand his office concepts in his Johnson Wax Administration building in Racine, WI, a stunning cathedral of commerce that survives in pristine condition to the present day.

‘The numbers aren’t there’

So the Larkins’ fortunes start to decline pretty early in the depression and the problem eventually becomes what to do with his building. And in fact, it was then used for several things, one of them, a Larkin-run department store on the lower floors, because by then it did have a parking lot around it and so on. The problem was it was in a crummy neighborhood and it was a very expensive building to keep up. All of Wright’s buildings were very expensive. Finally, the company collapses under increasing debt and the building sits empty and starts to get vandalized, and I think the city owned it and they were shopping it around.

At the time, 1949-1950, my grandfather and my father were partners in this World War II surplus store, located in the warehouse across the street. The city tried to sell it to him for something in the neighborhood of $200,000 (1950s dollars). There was still no sense of its being a treasure – there were no protected buildings. They were tearing down things in Chicago of even greater significance. And Chicago was aware of its heritage. My father, who’d trained as an industrial engineer, put the numbers together and he showed his father – ‘You can’t do it. The numbers aren’t there.’

‘Except for one lonely brick pier’

Remember there’s this huge warehouse across the street, and the trucking business in Buffalo needed a place to park tractor trailers because so many of them were coming to the warehouse. So they decided – and this is one of the great architectural tragedies – that it would be cheaper to tear down the building and use it as a truck parking lot. When I was a kid, I would go on Saturday to the office with my dad and by then the building had been demolished and removed (except for one lonely brick pier). I could look out the second-floor window and see all these trucks parked there, but my father always told me what had been there.

‘Never colder in his life’

My father had himself played as a child in the Darwin Martin house. He’d gone to school with one of Darwin Martin’s sons, and the Martins were very wealthy at the time, let’s say ’28 and ’29, before the depression. Wright had heated the house, as he so often tried to do, with radiant heat in the floor, instead of radiators and Buffalo, you know, winter – not nice. Martin had this amazing train set and Dad said he remembered as an adult never being colder in his life than playing on that floor with the trains.

Image: Jeff Rosenberg’s photographs of the recently renovated Martin House Complex.

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