Darwin D. Martin: Influential Client and Loyal Friend

Part One: A Home for The Larkin Company

An architect cannot build without a client, for it is the client who provides him or her with the reason to build and the resources with which to undertake the project. When architect Frank Lloyd Wright first met businessman Darwin D. Martin, little did he realize that he was beginning a close relationship with the man who would not only be the most influential client of the first half of his career, but the friend who would be his most loyal supporter during his darkest hours.

Wright and Darwin D. Martin had much in common; the men were contemporaries. Martin was born in 1865, two years before Wright.  At an early age both men had experienced unhappiness and loneliness as their family life deteriorated. Martin’s mother died when he was just five years old. His father remarried and moved Martin and a brother from their home in upstate New York to the Midwest, separating them from the rest of their siblings. Wright’s family moved frequently from town to town; his dominating, headstrong mother never got on well with Wright’s weaker father. Wright’s parents divorced when he was a teenager. According to Wright biographer Meryl Secrest, “This unhappy childhood led Wright’s drive to create the perfect house thinking that it would bring about the perfect marriage.” Like Wright Martin’s unsettled youth also strengthened his belief in “The Home” as the center of one’s life.

    Darwin D. Martin
    Source: http://www.post-gazette.com/images4/DarwinMartinImage1119_230.jpg

Martin’s life was much like the poor-boy-makes-good Horatio Alger story. When he was only twelve years old Martin left Nebraska to live in New York City with his older brother. The two sold soap door-to-door for the Larkin Soap Company of Buffalo, New York. Martin’s acumen with numbers brought him to the attention of company president, John Larkin who promoted young Martin to accountant and relocated him to work in Buffalo. Here Martin found the sense of belonging that he yearned for and developed a close relationship with his mentor, Elbert Hubbard, who would leave Larkin Soap in 1893 to found the Roycroft Arts and Crafts Community in East Aurora, New York. While Hubbard’s exit jolted Martin, he seized upon this opportunity to move up in the corporate hierarchy. Martin went on to help Larkin become at that time one of the nation’s leading catalogue companies, rivaling Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. (1)

During this same time Frank Lloyd Wright was attempting to make his mark as an architect. After a year studying architecture at the University of Wisconsin he dropped out and headed to Chicago to work first in the studio of leading architect, Joseph Silsbee, and then later with “The Father of the American Skyscraper,” Louis Sullivan. Sullivan became Wright’s mentor; the two men formed a close relationship, as Martin had with Hubbard. Wright eventually established his own studio, working out of his home in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois. The young architect drew several commissions designing innovative “Prairie” homes for his affluent clients in Oak Park but realized that he would need to score a substantial commercial job in order to achieve the fame he felt was his destiny.

In 1902, Buffalo, New York was one of the United States’ most prosperous commercial centers and a major transportation hub. By the early 1900s Buffalo had replaced Pittsburgh as the leading steel producer in the nation. Moreover, the city hosted the Pan American Exposition in 1901. It was in this booming business environment that the rapidly growing Larkin Soap Company began embarking on building a new home for its expanding corporate headquarters. The firm appointed Darwin Martin to oversee the project. William Heath, Hubbard’s brother-in-law, suggested that Martin talk to Wright, and Martin’s brother had built a Wright house in Oak Park. Martin traveled to Oak Park where he was impressed with Wright’s style and was taken with the emphasis that Wright placed on the home. In November of that year Wright headed to Buffalo to present his plans for the Larkin Company Building. John Larkin was apprehensive towards Wright’s radical designs, but Martin persistently championed Wright until Larkin agreed to give Wright the commission. (1)

   Frank Lloyd Wright, Larkin Company Building (1904)
Source: http://www.wrightnowinbuffalo.com/whattodo/images/Larkin.jpg

The Larkin Company Administration Building was finished in 1904 at a cost of $4 million. The building “was notable for its block-like vertical structure and large central atrium rising the full height of the building.” (2) Architecture critic for the New Yorker Paul Goldberger says of the Larkin Building, “We see nobility, grandeur, and monumentality for office workers – a radical idea.”  To Wright’s dismay the building never received the critical acclaim he had hoped for, and sadly it was demolished in 1950. Wright’s legacy, however, would be celebrated through the homes that still stand in Buffalo, and especially through the restored Prairie Home masterpiece that Wright designed for his friend, Darwin D. Martin.

Next: Part Two – A Home for the Martin Family


  1. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo. WNED-TV, Buffalo/TorontoProducer: Paul Lamont; Executive Producer: John Grant and David Rotterman
  2. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo Legacy: Larkin Company Administration Building. http://www.wrightnowinbuffalo.com/whattodo/wright_legacy.asp#larkin

Other resources:
Jack Quinan, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House, Princeton Architectural Press; 2004
Wright Now In Buffalo
Darwin D. Martin House Complex
The Larkin Collection
Pan American Exposition
Roycroft Campus Corporation

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