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The costs of restoration and regeneration: the Darwin Martin complex

Claimed to be one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie-style masterpieces, I recently visited the Darwin Martin house. It is a large residential estate that includes a main residence, sister’s house, gardener’s cottage and carriage house in Buffalo, New York. Built a hundred years ago, it defined a fundamental shift in thought about architecture, construction and space, and it defined an original American style.

Once built, the complex looked sprawling, alien and strange compared to the surrounding Victorian, mock-Tudor and neo-classical upper middle class houses. It did not conform in style, scale or materiality. Today it still stands out as something different. It draws a national and international audience to see what makes the buildings and spaces special.

Like most innovative architecture that breaks the mould on current thinking, the complex was once cutting edge. Cutting edge often becomes dated and out of favour in time, before being recognized (if it happens at all) for its ingenuity by later generations. While the complex escaped the unfortunate fate of so many other masterpieces that have disappeared from our landscape, its fate led to the significant deterioration of the overall complex before being reclaimed.

The house’s value diminished significantly with the changing times. The complex no longer was viable as family, social and technological structures changed within 30 years of being built. The original family abandoned the house after no buyer would pay to purchase it. The house was too big; it required a significant number of servants to run and operate; and the wealth of the city focused on new prestigious areas for investment, especially as the automobile enabled access further afield.

Wright’s buildings specifically were prone to later disinvestment, abandonment and demolition as they were designed to specific uses for a specific time. The Darwin Martin house defined an era of wealth and a lifestyle that has changed dramatically since its inception. Subsequent owners of the house partitioned the house to allow additional residential units to be created and rented out; they altered its character to relate to changing lifestyles; and they removed the grand pergola to allow for the development of new apartment buildings so they could afford improvements into the main residence.

After 50 years of internal and exterior changes and years of neglect and disinvestment, the overall complex was in a sad state of repair. Interest in Wright buildings, however, grew tremendously, and in the last 10 years over $40 million was secured (of mostly public funding) to restore the Martin house. Additional money is still funding on-going works.

Interestingly, over the last years and during various stages of repair and restoration, visitors have been able to visit and tour the buildings. With tremendous demand, this continues even though building works will not be completed until later this year. Recently, the pergola has been reintroduced after the apartment buildings that were constructed mid-century were purchased and demolished. A modern glass visitors’ centre was commissioned and built after an international design competition was held. And although the overall restoration project is not yet complete, the overall visitor experience is on par with other world-class tourist destinations. Due to the achievements of countless people, this has become one of the success stories from Buffalo. It has been recognized far beyond the borders of the city, and will continue to do so. An example is the selection of the City of Buffalo as the host city for the 2011 National Preservation Conference, due to the Martin House’s redevelopment.

Yet this success story is based on an investment of what probably will be in excess of $50 million. This is a significant investment in a declining and poverty-stricken city. This equates to approximately $200 for every resident of the city. Some will always argue that this money should instead feed into city services, or be used to reduce the overall tax burden of its citizens. The reality is that this money, if not captured for this project, would be used elsewhere. And its impact is best spent on such projects that can help transform certain sectors of the local economy, including construction, conservation and tourism (as opposed to funding big ticket items that have a more limited economic and social benefits, such as road schemes).

I would argue against those who do not believe that this very large sum of money should have been spent to restore this complex. I do believe that the money is an investment. It is one worth making and one that will reap significant rewards locally. However, this investment needs to leverage further regeneration and investment opportunities adjacent to the Martin complex, in surrounding neighbourhoods and throughout the region. The impact of this restoration project has great potential, yet it needs a concerted and multi-faceted approach to reap its potential benefits.

One obvious direction is to focus on the restoration of other local (but less impressive) Wright buildings. This effort has been building great momentum and even unbuilt Wright projects are now being realized in the area. Also further restoration projects will inevitably see a renewed energy and focus.

But much more needs to be considered, from creating a narrative that connects these various buildings (both figuratively and also through an improved public realm) to focusing on the (re-)introduction of historic trades and their reinterpretation for modern construction. This can focus on historic structures, their deconstruction (for re-using their materials elsewhere – as the city sadly continues to demolish its abandoned housing stock) and integration into new builds.

The development of people skills, especially ones tied intrinsically to the area, will help build the social capital of the region. Focusing on the built environment, developing skills can bring communities together and improve upon the draw of traditional urbanity throughout the city. In fact, using the built environment, and a renewed interest in its adaptive re-use, might be one of the few opportunities to grow. This is especially true for rust belt cities that have continued to decline during the boom years from the 1990’s. Such cities need to realize that they cannot compete using suburban models or replicating scenarios that enabled development in the Sunbelt of the US.

Instead such cities need to do exactly what Buffalo has been able to do with the restoration of the Martin complex; they need to focus on their unique, place-specific qualities and exploit each opportunity to the maximum (this second part still remains to be seen). They need to focus on what makes traditional American cities unique: their urbanism, which is severely lacking in most parts of the country. This is what will help bring new life into them.

I do hope the people of Buffalo can truly exploit this specific opportunity, and are able to detail the process to ensure the full impact can be demonstrated and used to leverage further money for such regeneration projects.

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