Heath House - Table of Contents   ................... Elmwood Historic District (EAST) - Table of Contents

Frank Lloyd Wright's Heath House, 1904-1905

Elmwood Historic District (EAST)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination

Section 8, Pages 67-71
Prepared by Clinton Brown Company Architecture/Rebuild (online Feb. 2016)

Research by Hannah Beckman

The story of the Health House encapsulates many of the trends and influences common in the Elmwood Historic District (East) during the turn of the twentieth-century. The house is reflective of the common type of middle to upper-middle class business owner or manager who became wealthy enough to hire an architect to design a private residence in what was rapidly becoming Buffalo’s most prominent neighborhood.

In 1903, William R. Heath commissioned the celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright to build his own residence at 76 Soldier’s Place (1904-1905, contributing), located in the northern portion of the Elmwood Historic District (East). The two-story brick residence features several architectural elements characteristic of Wright’s signature Prairie style design, including art glass windows, cantilevered hipped roofs and an emphasis on horizontality. Situated at a unique juncture of several of Olmsted’s parkways, the William R. Heath house represents a stunning example of Wright’s work and provides an exceptional contribution to the Elmwood Historic District (East).

The mere presence of a Wright-designed house in the district attests to the sheer wealth and prestige of some of its residents at the turn of the twentieth century. William Heath was one such wealthy resident, who had made his fortune as Office Manager, and eventually the Vice President, of the Larkin Company located downtown in Buffalo’s Hydraulics neighborhood. Several other residents in this portion of the district had connections to the Larkin Company, as the company’s president and founder John D. Larkin built his large ‘Larkland’ estate just down the street on Lincoln Parkway.202

Elbert Hubbard, who worked in sales and marketing at the Larkin Company before he left to establish the Roycroft community in 1895. Effectively brother-in-law to one another, Heath lived within visible sightline of what would become his employer’s estate just a few years later in 1910. The conglomeration of wealth and power in this portion of the district was evident in the high quality of architecture and design that appeared along these streets in the early twentieth century.

The property’s location in the Elmwood Historic District (East) played a substantial role in Wright’s innovative design. Set upon a deep and narrow strip of land that faced a traffic circle [Soldier's Circle] and multiple street intersections, the physical position of the house on the lot became one of the primary determinants in Wright’s vision for the residence. The lot on which Heath had commissioned Wright to build his residence was, in short, completely atypical of Wright’s previous designs up this point. The horizontality, open plan, contiguous spaces and broad, sweeping views that were characteristic of many of his early Prairie style designs were seemingly at odds with this lot, which was narrow, angular, and very publicly oriented for a private residence.

Particularly in the context of the other residential commission that Wright was working on in Buffalo at the time, the Darwin D. Martin House and Complex, this lot required some innovative design solutions in order to work with this site. The Martin house was similarly situated within the context of one of Olmsted’s plans, in Buffalo’s Parkside district (NR ref. numbers 86002817 and 07000492) located just north of the Park. There, Wright reconciled the strong contrast between his characteristic rectilinear style and Olmsted’s curvilinear roads by placing the complex at a deep setback from the street. In the Elmwood Historic District (East) he was presented with a similar relationship to the Olmstedian character of the curving traffic circle and radiating parkways, yet faced the additional challenge of building on a corner lot that was much closer, and more visible, to neighboring properties on several adjacent, intersecting streets.

For Wright, this unique plot of land provided stylistic inspiration rather than obstacles. Facing this challenge head on, the Heath commission became an opportunity for Wright to develop an innovative design approach that would work with this kind of narrow, somewhat urban site. Privacy was a central issue in siting the residence on this land. The corner lot was subject to more street exposure than usual because it was situated at the junction of not one, but four streets, including Lincoln Parkway, Chapin Parkway, Bidwell Parkway and Bird Avenue.

Wright’s solution was to set the house back from the circle, orienting the house along Bird Avenue instead. Although the official address is on Soldier’s Place, the interior plan of the house is arranged in relation to Bird Avenue. Boldly pushing the exterior walls of the house virtually up to the sidewalk on Bird Avenue, Wright provided additional privacy by raising the house’s main interior spaces above the pedestrian sightline, thereby greatly limiting what passersby could see from the sidewalks. Rather than place a grand entrance at the front of the lot, Wright provided a small, modest entrance on the Bird Avenue side of the house. The small entrance, along with a wide chimney, and multiple casement windows designed with art glass, served as further screening devices that prevented onlooker curiosity despite the house’s close proximity to the road. This orientation scheme had the effect of essentially hiding the residents in plain sight, enabling the house to command the prominent architectural presence befitting of Heath’s commission, but also provided privacy for his family within.

Wright balanced this internal privacy with external prestige, seamlessly integrating the house into the surrounding landscape of the Elmwood Historic District (East). Unlike the sprawling lawn he was able to provide at the Darwin R. Martin house, the William Heath house was situated in much closer proximity to neighboring residents in the district. Because the property culminated in a public space, Wright could assume that the Heath residence would not be comprised by new buildings arising on the edge of the property line.

In order to create a landscape befitting a residence of this stature, Wright set the house at the back of the lot, leaving substantial open space along the property where it faced Soldier’s Place. This placement effectively doubled the ‘front yard’ of the Heath house, creating a contiguous green zone that joins the residence’s lawn to the greenery of Olmsted’s designs just beyond the property lines, in the adjacent circle and parkways.203 In this way, Wright thoroughly integrated the Heath residence into the preexisting Olmsted landscape design that shapes the district. While the property lines clearly did not include the public spaces of the circle and parkways, Wright’s orientation and placement of the house turned the surrounding Elmwood district into a virtual extension of the front yard. In this sense, the Heath residence directly participates with the surrounding community and landscape of the Elmwood Historic District (East).

Several architectural elements reinforce Wright’s innovative approach to this lot and its relationship to the surrounding district. A substantial porch faces the front lawn, covered by a cantilevered roof with square pillar supports. The horizontal elements of the porch extend outward towards Soldier’s Place, emphasizing the connectivity between Heath’s property and the district beyond. Accessed only from within the house, the porch also provides a visible display of the house’s residents, taking advantage of their prestigious location in a manner that is simultaneously private and public.

Inside, the ground floor of the Heath residence features an open, contiguous plan, characteristic of many of Wright’s designs. The living room, dining room and porch flow into one another, creating a space that connects the deep interior of the house to the district’s green spaces beyond the property line.204

Upstairs, the master bedroom is located above the porch, with windows on three sides in order to provide plenty of light and an elevated view of the Olmsted’s naturalistic landscape outside.205

Art glass adorns many of the windows in the seven bedroom house, providing a level of detail that is not only
characteristic of Wright’s style, but also attests to the opulence of the commission.

Heath’s wealth is further evident in the back of the house, where Wright also included a single story stable for the family’s horse and carriage. The ability to commute to work by private carriage was a privilege reserved for the wealthy at this time, and thus the presence of a stable further confirms the affluence of this family. Reflecting an early stage of the Elmwood district’s transition into the automobile age, the stable was replaced by a two-story garage just a few years later in 1911.206

Automobiles were still very expensive at this point, and thus were owned almost solely by the upper class. The early presence of a garage on this property confirms the elite status of the Heath family, and, by extension, the prestige of the Elmwood Historic District (East), where they chose to build their residence.

The William R. Heath house remains one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most influential contributions to global modernism that still exists in Buffalo today. Constructed five years before the Robie house (1910), the Heath house is considered to be an important precedent to his later work in Chicago.207 Wright’s solution to the unique size, shape and orientation of the lot in relation to the surrounding Elmwood district proved useful to his commission at the Robie house, which was similarly situated on a corner lot amidst the surrounding Hyde Park neighborhood and University of Chicago campus. His approach to providing privacy for the residents, as well as demonstrating public prestige in the context of the surrounding community, directly echoed his earlier work at the Heath house in Buffalo.

Wasmuth portfolio

The Heath house proved to be nationally influential not only through Wright’s work in Chicago, but also internationally influential through its inclusion in the renowned Wasmuth portfolio. Published in 1910-11 by the Berlin publisher Ernest Wasmuth, the portfolio compiled 100 lithographs of Wright’s works in America, accompanied by a monograph written by Wright.

The Wasmuth portfolio was the first publication of Wright’s work to appear anywhere in the world, predating his own publications by several years. The publication was extremely important for Wright’s career, and directly influenced many important architects across the Atlantic. Le Corbusier was known to have owned a copy of the portfolio, and it indelibly influenced his future designs.208 Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius were all working for Peter Behrens at the time, and it is reported that “work stopped when the portfolio first arrived at the studio.”209 These architects, who would later be considered the ‘fathers’ of European modernism, were all deeply influenced by the images of Wright’s work presented in the Wasmuth portfolio.210 and the portfolio contained exterior images of its Bird Avenue facade as well as the house’s plan and a few interior views of the first floor.

The inclusion of the Heath house in the internationally-recognized Wasmuth portfolio testifies to its pivotal importance in the history of architecture, of Wright’s career, and the Elmwood Historic District (East). The distribution of the portfolio, and images of the Heath house within it, to this powerful group of European architects demonstrates the cultural distinction, social prestige and economic wealth present in the Elmwood Historic District (East) during the first decade of the twentieth century. The portfolio focused on twelve major works by Wright, three of which were located in Buffalo- the Darwin R. Martin house, the Larkin Administration Building, and the Heath house.211 Of those twelve works, two have been demolished and nine have been listed on the National Register as Historic Landmarks.212213

The William R. Heath house is the only building of those initial twelve featured in the Wasmuth portfolio that have not been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Heath house represents a profoundly important and influential contribution to both the local and global history of architecture and development of modernism. Many of its innovative attributes are rooted in Wright’s architectural response to the preexisting landscape and character of the Elmwood Historic District (East). In this sense, Wright’s design for the Heath house reflects the substantial prestige of the Elmwood district at the turn of the century, identifying this portion of the district as a seat of cultural power and wealth in the early twentieth century.

201 "The New Elmwood District," October 1902, 8.
202 See “Large Estates” for more on this property.
203 Charles E. and Berdeana Aguar, Wrightscapes: Frank Lloyd Wright's Landscape Designs (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 51–56. 204 William Allin Storrer, The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002), 103.
205 Brendan Gill, Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright (Chicago: Da Capo Press, 1998), 145-146.
206 Thomas Heinz, The Vision of Frank Lloyd Wright (London: Chartwell Books, 2000), 115-117.
207 Gill, 144.
208 Stanislaus von Moos, Le Corbusier: Elements of a Synthesis, (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2009), 42.
209 Harold Platt, “Planning Modernism: Growing the Organic City in the 20th Century” in Thick Space: Approaches to Modernism,
edited by Dorthee Brantz, Sasha Disko and Georg Wagner-Kyora (Berlin: Transcript Publishing, 2012), 167.

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