Angels can do no more!

Angels can do no more!

The first time I heard Simon & Garfunkel's "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright," I was probably about twelve years old, and I had no idea who Frank Lloyd Wright was. And even after I figured it out, I still thought it was pretty weird to write a song about harmonizing and laughing all night with an architect. Are architects funny? Harmonious? Were Simon & Garfunkel good friends with Frank Lloyd Wright? I continued to be baffled by this up until ten minutes ago when I Googled it. Apparently Art Garfunkel had once studied to be an architect, and Paul Simon wrote the song as a farewell to him when it became clear they would be splitting up. It all makes sense now. And although they famously do not get along, it's an awfully kind song.

Architects may come and
Architects may go and
Never change your point of view
When I run dry
I stop awhile and think of you

That's pretty darn nice.

This is all by way of introduction to this post, which is about the visit I took to the Graycliff Estate, one of the Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Buffalo. Fittingly, I made this trip with my two most longstanding though intermittent creative partners, Matt and Adam. I am happy to report that unlike Simon & Garfunkel, we have no plans to dissolve our relationship. We also have no plans to co-create anything anytime soon, though, which is regrettable. If anyone would like to give us a million dollars and a film camera, we will immediately rectify the situation.

Here we are, fully prepared for rectification.

Anyway, as I was saying, my first encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright was in a Simon & Garfunkel song, so clearly I am no expert in architecture. I also talked my way out of my art history requirement in college, so I have no business discussing visual arts at all. My architectural vocabulary in this post will therefore be limited to the word "pretty."

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I took copious notes on our tour, but that was six weeks ago, so let's see what I can make of them. It does not bode well that my notes start with the words "pokeberry in pumpkin" which I believe belong to a different adventure entirely. Oh dear.

The Graycliff house was built in the late twenties and was occupied in the summers until 1943 by a woman whose name I did not record until three pages in . . . ah! Mrs. Martin. I'm the worst at notes. The basic facts about the house are on the internet, so I'll just tell you the most interesting tidbits.

First of all, please note that you can see through the house because of the windows on both sides. Pretty.

Our tour guide kept talking about the "grammar" of the house, which is a term I love and had never heard before because of my total ignorance of architecture. Some pieces of grammar include:

  • L-shapes and lots of cantilevered edges, which reflect the shape of the cliff, which is eroded in an L-shape. I forgot to mention that the Graycliff house is about fifty feet from the edge of a cliff, at the bottom of which is Lake Erie.
  • There are also lots of diamonds, hexagons, and octagons, replicating shapes from nature. The sun sets in line with the diagonal driveway.
  • The color of the molding is the same green as the moss on the trees.
  • The stone used in the house has iron in it, so it rusts over time, which is unexpectedly stunning. FLW wanted the driveway to be gold, and failing that, he wanted iron filings to be sprinkled over it so that it, too, would rust, creating that same beautiful russet color as the house.


Mrs. Martin was not, apparently, the best creative partner for Mr. Wright, PERHAPS FORETELLING THE DISSOLUTION OF SIMON & GARFUNKEL! Oooooh. Full circle. I'm not drunk, I swear; I just haven't written a blog post in a while and I've forgotten how to stay on topic. Mrs. Martin kept doing things like putting up curtains against FLW's aesthetic advice, and demanding that all rooms have a view of the lake, even the bathroom. As she rightfully observed, "a good deal of time is spent in the bathroom."

The bathroom kerfuffle was the second-best factoid from the tour. As you'd expect from an architect, FLW had a very specific aesthetic in mind. For example, he would not allow Mrs. Martin's husband, the bankroller of the whole undertaking, and his friend, to nix the balcony and porte-cochère for mere budgetary reasons, saying, "You may not need these features, but the house does." That quote may be inaccurate and the emphasis is mine. But you get the point.

What the house did not need, according to FLW, was a window in the bathroom. But according to Mrs. Martin, it did. There was some back-and-forth, with Mr. Martin as the middle-man. FLW responded to the request by making it clear that the Martins had "no idea of the compromises that are necessary to create a harmonious building." But the lady of the house insisted, to which FLW replied, "I will do my damnedest, as is she." And he added a wonderful line I intend to use liberally through my life from now on: "Angels can do no more!"

I love the drama of that. I can just imagine him getting that letter and thinking No no no no no no no no I WON'T DO IT. Kind of like getting edits back on a novel. Mrs. Martin doesn't understand my genius! I cannot! I will not! You couldn't pay me to! Well, how much, though?

He put the window in. You can see it here, the little peep-hole in the chimney on the second floor.

Eh. I have to agree with FLW. It should not be there according to the grammar of the house. It's like a comma splice.

In this photo you can see how massive the windows on the back of the house are. Mrs. Martin had eye trouble, and needed lots of light. The doors in the front and the back of the house are offset so as to draw cool air in and keep it there rather than having it just flow right through. FLW might not have been a great engineer, and his construction might've been a bit shoddy, but his principles were sound!

Here's the view Mrs. Martin needed so desperately to be able to see from her bathroom.

So you can see where she was coming from. It's a pretty good view. The first-best factoid from the tour relates to this view. There's a path from the house straight down the edge of the property line to the cliff-face, where the stairs to the beach are supposed to be. Except the stairs were built all the way across on the other end of the lawn. So Mrs. Martin would see her guests crossing her view all the time. And she could not stand it. She had a path cut into the cliff (or something) so that her guests could cross below her sight-line and not mar the perfection of her view.

Mrs. Martin is the very definition of elitist. I find her hysterical, but if I had to live with her, we would certainly have words.

She did have good taste in architects, though. Here are some of the aforementioned L-shapes, and the rust, and that perfect green on the molding:

And here are some of the diamonds from inside, on the second floor:

Another curious tidbit: I have never given much thought to early fire extinguishing systems. I guess I thought we went straight from water to the modern fire extinguisher. But we did not! At some point, these existed:

This is a "fire grenade" full of carbon tetrachloride, which is a liquid that becomes a vapor when it combusts, and serves as a fire suppressant. You could theoretically smash the glass globe on a fire, or if no one was around, the heat of the fire would eventually melt the glass and release the gas, so it was self-executing. It probably did not work very well. And as you might suspect, carbon tetrachloride is very much not good for you, so if you ever see one of these, don't smash it.

This might've been the most interesting thing on the entire tour. I love learning mundane things like this; it makes me feel like I understand the past in a more complete way, not that you can ever experience it as it would have been. But things like this help create a fuller picture of the practicalities of being alive at a particular time.

Kitchens are similar. Cooking is a very mundane thing, so I always like seeing kitchens. The Graycliff Estate is planning to restore the inside of the house within a year or two, and I hope they're able to put the kitchen fully in order, because I would love to see it more completely furnished.

We had a beautiful time at Graycliff. I highly recommend a visit, especially once the indoors are all fixed up. I left out most of the tour, so there's plenty still to learn, including a pretty funny interlude involving monks.


Photos by me, taken with permission.

Plan a trip! I can personally vouch for the gift shop, which is obviously your #1 consideration on any adventure, as it is mine.

If you want to know more about carbon tetrachloride (and who doesn't?!), please see the Wikipedia article and this informative webpage.

Whatever you're doing, don't.

Whatever you're doing, don't.