Graycliff - Table of Contents

Graycliff - Introduction and History
6472 Old Lakeshore Road, Derby NY
Graycliff - Official Website

TEXT Beneath Illustrtions

Photos on this page courtesy of University at Buffalo Archives

Click on photos for larger size and additional information

Mrs. Martin (left) with her companion, "Aunt Polly."

The boy and the girl are Martin grandchildren.

The 70' "Cliff" bordering Lake Erie

1926 construction photo. Note the center bridge steel piers and cantilevered beams.

On a scenic 8.4 acre estate, the two-story, 6,500 square-foot house served as the Martins' summer home from 1928 to the mid-1940s

The esplanade behind the house overlooking Lake Erie

The stair tower from the esplanade to the beach below was completed in 1928 at a cost of $2200.

The Graycliff Estate was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright between 1926 and 1931 for Isabelle Reidpath Martin, wife of industrialist Darwin D. Martin.  Graycliff is a testament to Wright's thirty-three year relationship with the family of the Larkin Company executive and his wife; the Martins were one of Wright's most loyal patrons. Graycliff was the second of two complexes built for the family; the first was the Darwin D. Martin House (1903-1906), located in the Parkside neighborhood of Buffalo.

Graycliff is significant in several ways.  It is the largest and most complex summer residence of Wright’s mature career.  A masterpiece in Wright’s mid-career Organic Style, Graycliff anticipates Fallingwater, perhaps Wright’s best known residential design; employing several advanced design concepts.

 Graycliff’s landscape design is by Wright himself (the only discrete landscape design in Wright’s own hand.) It is coupled with additional designs by Ellen Biddle Shipman, known as the “Dean of American Women Landscape Architects, and one of the creators of the Arts & Crafts-style garden,  marking the only known collaborative effort by these two masters of 20th century design.  Graycliff is also one of the most well documented Wright designs, with more than 3000 letters between the Martins and Wright, and more than 800 photographs now housed in the University at Buffalo Archives.

Graycliff was designed for Mrs. Martin’s pleasure, for she was the client of record.  Mrs. Martin’s failing vision led her to direct Wright to create a structure full of sunlight and air. Wright obliged by creating a light, airy design that takes full advantage of its location on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie, with sweeping views of the lake, and to Canada and downtown Buffalo.

Originally budgeted at $16,000, what was planned to be a simple summer cottage quickly expanded to three buildings: the Martin’s residence, now called the Isabelle R. Martin House, the chauffeur’s residence and garage, now known as the Foster House, and the petite Heat Hut.

Wright justified the greatly increased scale and cost (which spiraled to $64,000) of the Isabelle R. Martin House by arguing that he had provided two houses for the price of one:  one for the family; the other for servants connected by a glass bridge or pavilion. 

As a result, stunningly, the Isabelle R. Martin House is transparent, allowing views through the house to Lake Erie beyond.  The long narrow plan and generous windows conduct Lake Erie breezes throughout the living and sleeping spaces. Spacious terraces provide access to and views of the lake, and the gardens and grounds.

Unlike most of his buildings, which are built on a north/south-east/west axis, Wright designed the Isabelle R. Martin House to align with the sun.  Each year, on the Summer Solstice, the sun sets over the lake, casting rays directly through the corner window of the Fern Room and through the building.

All three buildings, both interiors and exteriors, are built of the same materials: Tichenor limestone and stucco which incorporates sand, both from the beach below.   There are a total of six cantilevered balconies, including the largest and most gracious: Isabelle’s balcony, which offers panoramic views of Lake Erie.

Grounds and gardens include water features such as a fountain and pond (both designed by Wright) as well as sunken gardens, an esplanade, a tennis court and stone walls that encircle the property.  

After the deaths of Isabelle and Darwin Martin, their children sold Graycliff in 1950 to the Piarist Fathers, a teaching order from Hungary, who used the estate as their motherhouse. During the ensuing years, the Fathers made substantial changes to the property, adapting it for their own uses.  Although the Wright architecture remained intact, Graycliff was obscured by additional buildings and building structures.  For this reason, Graycliff was “hidden in plain sight” for nearly fifty years. 

In 1997, with only a few elderly Fathers still in residence, the property was put up for sale.  After learning that a developer wished to buy the property, tear down the Wright buildings and construct condominiums on the prime, lake-front location, the community rallied.  The Graycliff Conservancy was formed, and purchased the property in 1999. Now a New York State Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places, restoration has been active and on-going (non-historic buildings removed, structural repairs and all exterior restoration have been completed,) and more than 10,000 visitors from around the globe tour annually.  

East Aurora Connections

Isabelle Reidpath  Martin lived in East Aurora for a while.  The house, owned by her father, Alexander Reidpath, still stands, on Oakwood Avenue, third house southwest of  South Grove Street.  (Within the last few years  a huge addition was put on the back.)

Next  door, on the east side of the Reidpath house, is  the home of Silas Hubbard, father of Elbert, 'Frank' Hubbard Larkin and Mary Hubbard Heath. 

The house on the west side of  Reidpath house on Oakwood was, for a while, the home of Elbert and Alice Hubbard.   Elizabeth (Betty) Reidpath  tells us her  father was named for Elbert Hubbard who was "their neighbor" when he was born.  That puts another Reidpath family in the A. W. Reidpath-owned East Aurora home. 

Isabelle's father, Alexander W. Reidpath, worked for a while at the East Aurora Preserving Company.  The East Aurora Advertiser notes on January 20, 1882, "A.W. Reidpath started on an extended western trip last Tuesday in the interests  of the East Aurora Preserving Co. introducing their goods." 

She attended the Aurora Academy which was the forerunner of the current school on Main Street.  The Academy actually faced North Grove Street. 

When Isabelle and Darwin were married the news story noted the bride's "many East Aurora friends."

To the left, of that house stands the house owned by "Frank" Larkin which is the house Dr. Silas Hubbard and his wife -- the parents of both 'Frank' and Elbert Hubbard -- lived in after moving east from Illinois. 

A house on Hillcrest, off Maple, was built by the Heaths.

The Graycliff Conservancy, Inc. is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and providing public access to the Graycliff Estate in Derby, NY. 

The Estate is comprised of the two-story, 6,500 square-foot Isabelle R. Martin House and accompanying Foster House and Heat Hut, as well as extensive grounds. 

Graycliff was designed by the renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright for the late Isabelle R. Martin and her husband, Larkin Company executive Darwin D. Martin. The Estate served as the Martins' summer home from 1928 to the mid-1940's.

Built between 1926 and 1927 and situated on a 70-foot cliff overlooking Lake Erie, Graycliff is an architectural jewel set on a scenic 8.4 acre estate.

Special thanks to the Graycliff Conservancy for their cooperation and encouragement,  especially Vice-President Patrick Mahoney who was generous with sharing his knowledge and time in 2002 and Executive Director Reine Hauser in 2011..

Page by Chuck LaChiusa
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