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Frank Lloyd Wright's Last Visit To Graycliff
by John H. Conlin
Reprinted with permission from The Graycliff Conservancy Newsletter 2000, 2nd Edition

Although Graycliff is a powerful work of art and a consummate expression of Wright's design philosophy, it has, until recently, been relatively unknown and poorly understood. The house's most prominent and dramatic design feature, a broadly cantilevered, floating, second floor, has been obscured by the construction of a awkward shed-roof extension across the main view of the house. This alteration also eliminated the modern open transparency of the main floor of the house to the outside.

The house's most prominent and dramatic design feature, a broadly cantilevered, floating, second floor, has been obscured by the construction of a awkward shed-roof extension across the main view of the house.

In the fall of 1958, mere months before his death (in April of '59) the ninety-one year old master architect paid a surprise visit to Graycliff. He had last visited this work, driving up to the porte-cochere in his streamlined red Cord convertible, in the Spring of 1936 shortly after the death of Darwin D. Martin In the intervening years the complex had been purchased from the Martin in in 1951 by a religious teaching order, the Piarist Fathers. They transformed the Family summer house into a year-round monastery Among the adaptations of the site to its new use was the construction of prominent two-story concrete-block school building near the entrance to the compound, where there had been a stand of tall pine trees, a gift of John D. Larkin. The Wright-designed Guesthouse-Garage combination had been extensively enlarged. On the main house a large room for a chapel had been created parallel to the house by extending a lean-to shed roof out from the cantilevered second floor

According to Father Alphonse Vercek S P, then Rector of the house, Wright's visit was totally unexpected. "We had no warning, no time to prepare the place. He went through the whole house with his entourage, into every room, just as if it were his own. There was no stopping him."

As Frank Lloyd Wright emerged from the car parked under the porte-cochere, Father Vercek hurried out to greet him. The architect was pointing his cane and shaking it at the long awkward shed-roof lean-to addition across the front of the house. "Who did this? Who made these changes? This is not my work," he sputtered, visibly upset at the mutilation of his dramatic concept. How would Leonardo DaVinci have reacted if he had been presented with a repainted Mona Lisa, without the smile? As Fr. Vercek recalled the incident, he then explained to Wright that they were a religious order and needed a chapel. To which Wright responded in apparent resignation, "Well, I guess, if you need it."

The shed roof extension.
For photos and more information, see
Graycliff Conservancy Official Website
Graycliff - LINKS

To understand how important the overhanging second floor was to Frank Lloyd Wright we have to look at some of the correspondence between the Martins and Wright during the planing of this house in 1927, (preserved in the University of Buffalo Archives.) Darwin Martin suggested that instead of the overhang, the front wall could be brought straight down to the ground thereby gaining more interior space for the living room. Wright's undiplomatic response was abrupt and full of conviction "Only a fool" he said, would think of doing such a thing.

He proceeded to enumerate three reasons why this should not be done. It would make the main view of the house unattractive; it would destroy the proportions of the house as a whole, and most importantly. such a change would destroy the relationship of the house to the ground. Of course the change that eventually was made by the Piarists was an even worse mutilation than that rejected by Wright and the reputation of Graycliff as a Wright design and as a work of art has suffered accordingly for nearly half a century

Removal of this addition and restoration of the cantilevered overhang will result in the single most important transformation of Graycliff in the ongoing attempt to recapture the essence of Wright's design. The Graycliff Conservancy, has sought and received special funding from Erie County to restore this key feature of Wright's design. The process will begin this fall. The shed addition will be removed and the main body of the house will then frame a view of Lake Erie seen through the transparent living room. It will put the smile back on this Mona Lisa, some forty years after Wright's last visit.

The public can participate in this artistic adventure by seeing Graycliff now, and then seeing it later, comparing differences. Guided Tours of Graycliff; a restoration work-in-progress, can be arranged by calling (716) 947-9217.

Page by Chuck LaChiusa
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