The Martin Family

Is the American Dream Still Alive Today?

Is it still possible for an individual to rise from the bottom rung to the top, on sheer pluck and willpower? With these questions in mind, the story of Darwin D. Martin is refreshing to remember.

Darwin D. Martin was born in 1865 in Bouckville, NY (the geographic dead center of the state), and was raised largely by his brothers and father, leaving school and going to work for the Larkin Company as a door-to-door soap salesman in 1878. While working his way up in the company in Buffalo, he met and courted Isabelle Reidpath, the daughter of a grocer, and they were married in 1889.

Darwin developed a card ledger system for company accounts which transformed their mail order business and led to a steep rise in the company’s fortunes as well as his own. Just after the turn of the century, he became secretary (chief operating officer) of the Larkin Company, and, in 1903, met Frank Lloyd Wright and began the start of a string of Buffalo commissions—the Heath House, the Larkin Administration Building, and the set of houses in the prairie style designed for Darwin, Isabelle, and their family members on Jewett Parkway in Buffalo.

With little formal education himself, Darwin’s interests revolved around work, family, and home, with occasional forays into the cultural life of Buffalo. Widely read, and an avid diarist and correspondent, his life and that of the Martin family is well documented. Isabelle suffered from eye trouble and failing vision from her teen years onward, yet the family traveled often throughout the country and Europe, and their two children, Dorothy and Darwin R., went to the best private schools and colleges in the East.

Darwin took stock of his personal net worth at the end of every year and noted the amount to the penny in his diary. After cashing his stock and retiring from the Larkin in 1925 after 47 years to the exact day, he found himself at the peak of his fortune at $2.7 million. The Martins were considerably charitable over the years, interests tending toward troubled children and higher education. In 1928 they endowed a chair in mathematics at the University of Buffalo for $100,000. Good fortune would not last, however, and the stock market crash in 1929, coupled with personal investments in new real estate development at the time, wiped out his liquid assets. Yet, by all outward appearances, Darwin and Isabelle soldiered on. Darwin continued his work on local boards and commissions, and the couple continued to travel, and enjoy and develop both of their Wright-designed homes. Darwin died of a stroke in 1935 and Isabelle left the city house in 1937, but continued to summer at Graycliff until 1943. She died in 1945.

Notable Events of the Martin Family, Frank Lloyd Wright and Graycliff Conservancy

  • 1865: Darwin D. Martin is born on October 25.

  • 1867: Frank Lloyd Wright is born on June 8.

  • 1869: Isabelle Reidpath Martin is born on April 9.

  • 1879: Darwin D. Martin, aged thirteen, begins work at J.D. Larkin & Company in Buffalo after starting with the company in the New York City area the year before.

  • 1889: Darwin D. Martin marries Isabelle M. Reidpath.

  • 1893: Darwin D. Martin replaces Elbert Hubbard as secretary of Larkin Soap Manufacturing Company. Daughter Dorothy R. Martin is born.
  • 1902: Darwin D. Martin meets Frank Lloyd Wright and later purchases site for Martin House Complex, Jewett Parkway. [Martin’s diary records that FLW stayed overnight at the Martin’s home on November 18, 1902.]

  • 1903: Construction begins on Barton House.

  • 1904: Construction begins on Martin House.

  • 1905: Martin House Complex is completed, and Martins move in on November 21.
  • 1920: Dorothy Martin marries James Foster.

  • 1925: Darwin D. Martin retires from Larkin Company.

  • 1926: DDM writes to FLW requesting 1910 Bay Beach (Ontario, Canada) Cottage design; DDM is considering building on shores of Lake Erie. The next day, DDM writes to cancel his request. DDM looks at site in Derby, New York, and purchases 250-foot front lot on Lake Erie, with a 60-foot cliff. DDM sends to FLW their general requirements for a simply two-story house on shores of Lake Erie, with floor plan similar to that of E. W. Russell of Greenwich, Connecticut.

    FLW then sends DDM two preliminary sketches. DDM informs FLW that Isabelle R. Martin is FLW’s client and sends the changes she wants in the plan. FLW arrives in Buffalo to see site. Construction on garage begins. Due to marital problems, FLW asks his son John Lloyd Wright to take over the project, but the Martins do not approve the change. FLW resumes his service to the Martins; construction continues on the site.

  • 1927: FLW visits site in April. In June, DDM writes to FLW of the completion of the foundation of the main house and FLW visits Graycliff site. FLW finalizes designs. Chimney and masonry of main house completed.

  • 1928: Additional main house furniture is bought in March. Blue Sky Mausoleum is designed from April 11 through July 20 (executed 2005). Martins “open” house on July 20. House guest Paul A. Harsh suggests name “Graycliff” on September 20.

  • 1929: Isabelle R. Martin asks FLW to design a screened walk to cross the esplanade behind the stone bench for servants. FLW visits site. Construction on evergreen garden, stone seat begins. FLW selects and ships furnishings for the main house from Marshall Fields in Chicago; FLW suggests Wicker and overstuffed chairs for the main house.
  • 1930: Grandchildren Margaret Foster and Darwin Martin Foster born.

  • 1935: DDM passes away. Isabelle R. Martin continues to summer at the site.

  • 1938: Engineering report on site compiled by G.E. Seitzmiller for insurance purposes.
  • 1941: Isabelle R. Martin continues to summer at the site, but moves into the garage apartment.

  • 1943: IRM spends her last summer at the site, then moves permanently to Buffalo to live with the Foster family.

  • 1945: IRM passes away. Stewardship of the site falls to a holding company belonging to Darwin R. Martin, son of DDM.

  • 1948: Caretaker’s cottage sold.
  • 1950: Piarist Fathers, a Hungarian order, purchases the site from Darwin R. Martin.

  • 1955: Chapel addition constructed over south terrace of main house. Garage addition and storage building constructed.

  • 1956: School building/dormitory constructed to house Hungarian and, later, Cuban refugees.

  • 1958: FLW visits Graycliff.

  • 1959: FLW dies.
  • 1996: 7 Piarist Fathers place property for sale.

  • 1997: Graycliff Conservancy formed to acquire and restore site. Down payment to Piarist Fathers by Conservancy.

  • 1998: Graycliff designated a state landmark and awarded $10,000 grant for historic structures report by Preservation League of NY. The Baird Foundation guarantees mortgage; Graycliff Conservancy signs contract to purchase the site.

  • 1999: Deed transferred to Conservancy. Graycliff begins Phase 0 of restoration and receives Preservation League award. Conservancy and Jack Quinan each receive FLW Building Conservancy’s Wright Spirit Award in November. Graycliff restoration Phase 1 begins.
  • 2000: Conservancy receives $145,000 in state funding, historic photograph collection donation, Kress Foundation grant, and major archival donation. $500,000 Grant Conservancy formed to acquire and restore site. Conservancy makes down payment to Piarist Fathers.

  • 2001: New York State funding secured for restoration of windows and doors. Graycliff restoration Phase II begins. First Niagara Bank & East Hill Foundation fund gift shop and historic exhibits. Continued removal of non-historic buildings. Restoration of south terrace, porte cochere, fountain, and stone walls. Visitor Center ribbon-cutting on October 31.

  • 2002: Margaret L. Wendt Foundation funds restoration. John R. Oishei Foundation awards restoration funding.

  • 2003: Graycliff awarded prestigious Save America’s Treasures grant. Diane Chrisman replaces Carol Bronnenkant as Graycliff Conservancy Board president. Graycliff restoration Phase IIIA begins.

  • 2004: Graycliff receives Federal Appropriation for Visitor Readiness. Reine Hauser appointed first executive director.

  • 2005: Wendt-Pierce Family Trust provides funding for restoration of historic gardens and grounds. East Hill Foundation underwrites restoration of Isabelle’s balcony.

  • 2006: John R. Oishei Foundation provides funding for restoration of Foster House.

  • 2007: Margaret L. Wendt Foundation adds to Foster House restoration funds. Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo awards funding for restoration of Martin House north terrace. Graycliff Conservancy receives major funding from New York State for restoration of historic gardens and grounds. New York State Council on the Arts provides funding for Graycliff lecture series. Graycliff restoration Phase IIIB begins.

  • 2008: Key Bank grant awarded to Conservancy for marketing. M&T Charitable Foundation provides support for restoration of historic gardens and grounds. Schichtel Nurseries, Balbach Family Foundation, and Phyllis Pierce Trust provide funding for restoration of historic gardens and grounds. Graycliff featured in August issue of Town and Country magazine. New York State Council on Arts and Cannon Design underwrite lecture series.

  • 2009: Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo awards support for restoration of historic garden and grounds. Assemblyman Jack Quinn III facilitates New York State support to Conservancy for marketing. Saperston Family Foundation provides major support for historic grounds and gardens. Patrick J. Mahoney, AIA, assumes Conservancy presidency.
  • 2010: Original table returns to Graycliff with help of Hooper Family Foundation. Fire suppression system completed in Foster House.

  • 2011: Cultural Landscape Report completed. Conservancy acquires Caretaker’s Cottage, with support from Erie County.

  • 2012: Family sun porch restored (first interior room), with help of Hooper Family Foundation. Historic landscape restoration moves forward. Diane Schrenk assumes Conservancy presidency. Underwriting support from the family of author Marjorie Quinlan received.

  • 2013: Historic landscape restoration Phase I completed with support from New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo, the entire New York State legislature, Erie County, the Phyllis W. Pierce Charitable Remainder Trust, the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, Saperston Asset Management, the Western New York Foundation, M&T Bank, the Balbach Family Foundation, the Simple Gifts Fund, Schichtel Nurseries, Claire Schen and Gregory Cherr, and the Cameron Brown Fund. Martin House interior restoration advances: living room floor, fire suppression system, dining room floor, and foyer. Original table donated, thanks to Judson Mead and Jack Quinan.

  • 2014: Martin House interior restoration—living room floor, fire suppression system, dining room floor, and foyer—completed with support from New York State, the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, and the Hooper Family Foundation. M&T Visitor Pavilion upgrades completed, thanks to Alpha Contract Flooring and Uniland Development. Renovations to Caretaker’s Cottage undertaken. Drawings and specifications for interior restoration completed, thanks to support from the New York State Council on the Arts and the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.

  • 2015: Historic Furnishings Report completed, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Charles LeFevre assumes Conservancy presidency.

  • 2016: Robert Wooler begins as Conservancy’s executive director.

  • 2017: The State of New York, through Empire State Development’s investment in the economic development of the region through the second phase of the Buffalo Billion, commits $3.7 million to complete the Graycliff restoration and burnish the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in Buffalo to boost regional tourism. Path stone walk with recycled brick completed.

  • 2018: Interior of Martin House and Foster House completed. Major restoration of historic landscape begins. Path gardens and four fruit trees planted.

  • 2019: Preservation Buffalo Niagara presents award for Outstanding Project. Preservation League of New York State presents award for “Excellence in Historic Preservation.” Tennis court restoration completed. Historic landscaping restoration completed. Anna Kaplan becomes Conservancy’s executive director.

  • 2020: COVID-19 pandemic results in Graycliff’s closing mid-March through August.