Restoration makes Wright house glow

Along a curving street lined with handsome Queen Annes and well-tended Tudors, the Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, N.Y., shatters the genteel calm with its muscular power.

It's hard to believe a work of architecture so masterful had to be rescued from ruin. It took a 12-year restoration, now almost complete and costing close to $50 million, to reveal a glory not seen in decades.

Frank Lloyd Wright built the home in 1905 for Darwin D. Martin, an executive at Larkin Soap Co., a mail-order house that grew rapidly using techniques an Internet entrepreneur would admire. The mercurial Wright, 36, was just hitting his stride when Martin, 38, asked him to design a starter house on one edge of the property.

Thrilled, Martin commissioned Wright to build the 15,000-square-foot main house, where Wright expanded the same arrangement in grand style, turning it all perpendicular to the first house.

Though the Martin house complex was among the most celebrated of Wright's early work, it was abandoned for some two decades after the death of Martin's widow, Isabelle, during the Great Depression. Part of the land was sold off, and the pergola and carriage house were sacrificed to accommodate three crude apartment buildings.

Martin House Restoration Corp. was able to buy back the land, including a modest house built by Wright for the Martins' gardener.

Much of the cost of the 12-year restoration went for taking down the apartments and rebuilding the destroyed pergola and carriage house.

This is the most narcissistic of Wright houses — and that's saying something. Wright used the windows, eves and piers to frame other elements of the house in perfectly composed abstractions.