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Historic photos are among the over 370 objects donated to UB by the Graycliff Conservancy Board of Directors. (Photo by Douglas Levere)
Historic photos are among the over 370 objects donated to UB by the Graycliff Conservancy Board of Directors. (Photo by Douglas Levere)

Graycliff Conservancy donates Frank Lloyd Wright material to UB, University Archives


Fri, Dec 15th 2023 11:20 am

By the University at Buffalo

A major donation of historic objects by the Graycliff Conservancy board of directors to the University at Buffalo Libraries will add to the university’s already extensive Frank Lloyd Wright collection, further establishing UB as the most comprehensive source in Western New York for research materials related to the celebrated architect and his creative process.

Over 370 objects originally owned by Darwin D. and Isabelle Martin, who commissioned Wright to build Graycliff, their summer home in Derby, New York, will be housed in the University Archives.

The Martins’ granddaughter, Margaret Foster, gifted the artifacts to the conservancy over many years. Margaret’s daughter, Betsy Mudra, made additional donations following her mother’s death.

Collectively, the historical materials, some of which had been deposited with the University Archives since 1999, consist of textiles, such as the family’s quilts, napkins and table coverings, with additional materials that include blueprints, sketches, manuscripts, photographs, diaries, memorandum books, business and family correspondence, and genealogical records concerning the Martins and their children, Dorothy and Darwin R. Martin.

“We’re grateful to the Graycliff Conservancy for making this donation to the university, the culmination of a 24-year relationship which began with the conservancy’s first deposit of historical artifacts,” said Hope Dunbar, university archivist. “All of these impactful pieces help create a single curated repository point at UB for researchers exploring Wright’s work and legacy, but also for enthusiasts interested in learning more about him, his buildings in the Western New York region, and how he worked with clients.”

Designed in 1926 and built over four years beginning in 1927, Graycliff consists of three Wright-designed structures and gardens spread over roughly 8 acres of land above a cliff on the Lake Erie shore, 17 miles southwest of Buffalo. A Roman Catholic teaching order purchased the property in 1951 and modified the buildings and grounds to accommodate a boarding school. Falling enrollment led to the school’s closing in 1997. Local preservationists formed the nonprofit, volunteer Graycliff Conservancy that same year to purchase the complex and begin the process of restoring Wright’s original design. Today, Graycliff serves as a cultural education center and public museum.

All of the Wright-related material in University Archives is accessible to the public. But as with all the archives’ collections, guests are strongly encouraged to make an appointment prior to their visit. This is especially true of the Graycliff donation, which consists of many fragile items with associated preservation concerns.

“It is a huge weight off our organization’s shoulders to know that these specific objects will not only be properly cared for, but accessible, with a reach far greater than what our organization can offer,” said Anna Kaplan, Graycliff executive director. “By transferring ownership of these objects, we are strengthening a partnership with UB, and I look forward to continuing to work together to further the interest in scholarship related to Darwin and Isabelle Martin and Frank Lloyd Wright in Buffalo.”

The Graycliff donation provides a unique research window into the development of a house into a home, while offering at the same time a broad view of the decades-long friendship and working relationship between Wright and the Martins.

“These are objects that belonged to the family, things they loved and cared for,” said Sarah Cogley, digital archivist at UB. “They bring a social connection that gives visitors a different avenue into the collection.

“Beyond the architect and the design, we see the social history of the home.”

And though Graycliff is a Wright design, it’s also an example for how a client’s input influenced the architect’s work.

“From the start it’s clear that Isabelle Martin would have a guiding hand in Graycliff’s design,” Dunbar said. “Correspondence from the collection makes that very clear, demonstrating Isabelle’s agency, and how she took charge of a large architectural project in ways that haven’t always been historically documented.”

Prior to Graycliff, Wright designed the Martins’ primary residence in Buffalo, the six-building Martin House Complex on Jewett Parkway. But the goals of the summer home presented new possibilities.

“We have with this collection an example for how the same family worked with the same architect to realize both their city home and their country home,” said Marie Elia, archivist for special collections. “It gives a look at the relationship between the two designs.”

Selections from the new Graycliff collection will be available online in the spring, adding to several existing digital collections on Wright and the Martin family. More information on the collections is available at: https://research.lib.buffalo.edu/martin-wright.

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