Bring the outdoors in: ideas from Wright’s Martin House

by Connie Oswald Stofko

Bringing nature indoors was an aim of Frank Lloyd Wright, the famed architect who designed the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo. Wright wanted the Martin family to be able to enjoy nature even when they were inside.

Rather than being an afterthought, the landscape was an integral part of the architectural design. That landscape, designed more than 100 years ago, has now been brought back to life.

“We tried to re-create what had been here by looking at plans and photos,” said Nellie Gardner, horticulturist at the Martin House. “It’s pretty accurate.”

The completion of the landscape project marks the successful conclusion of a two-decade, $50 million restoration effort to bring Wright’s masterwork to its original splendor. It is one of the finest examples of Wright’s desire to integrate nature and design.

In this article, we’ll give you some ideas from Wright that you can use in your own landscape.

You can also learn more about his style on upcoming tours of the newly restored historic landscape at the Martin House.

plants screen Darwin Martin House from street
Trees and other plantings help screen the Darwin Martin House from the street. Notice that the garden runs along the sidewalk, but then swoops into the yard. That’s an idea you can use in your own landscape. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Garden tours at Wright’s Martin House

Two different tours are being offered at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House, 125 Jewett Parkway, Buffalo.

The tours will be led by Nellie Gardner, horticulturist at the Martin House. She is also the horticulturist at Graycliff in Derby, which was designed by Wright as the summer home for the Martin family.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House is a National Historic Landmark and New York State Historic Site. This magnificent, multi-residential estate is located in the Parkside Historic District of Buffalo, a garden community planned in the late 1800s by famed architect Frederic Law Olmsted, Sr. 

The Martin House property is an extraordinary example of Wright’s artistic vision of uniting architecture in harmony with nature.

Landscape tours

Explore the themes of outdoor architecture, the natural world, and landscape. Immerse yourself in the historic grounds while listening to stories of the Martin family’s connection to their gardens, the original Wright design, and the contemporary restoration project. Along with the landscape, visitors will explore the Gardener’s Cottage and the Conservatory.

Landscape tours will be offered at 4 p.m. Thursdays, Aug. 8, Aug. 22 and Sept. 19. Buy tickets here. 

Home & garden tours

The Martin House is an exquisite example of Wright’s desire to blur the lines between the natural world and a new “organic” architecture. In this tour, explore both the Martin House and its newly-restored integrated landscape. Experience the home the way Wright originally intended: through the harmonious lens of nature, beauty and design.

Home & garden tours will be offered at  11 a.m. Fridays, Aug. 30 and Sept. 13. Buy tickets here. 

urn with plants at Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House
Frank Lloyd Wright incorporated urns for plants into his design for the Darwin Martin House. They are situated so they can be seen from indoors. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Set a container of annuals where you can see it

One of the ways that Wright brought nature into the design of the Martin House was through the placement of stone urns, said Gardner.

Rather than creating foundation plantings — low plantings around your foundation that you can’t see from inside — Wright designed multiple planters that can be seen from the windows.

Gardner looked at old photos and mimicked the look of the planters during the time the Martin family lived there.

“I tried to do it as authentically as possible and still be practical,” Gardner said. “I know at least three of the plants were used on the property.”

Those three plants that are being used in the urns now are a red grass called Penisetum rubrum (the tall plant), geraniums (the white flower), and lantana (the red and orange flowers).

“Isabelle liked lantana and it was in a lot of photos,” she noted.

It was difficult to tell from photos what cascading plant was used in the past, so Gardner chose dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ to achieve the same look.

“The urns bring such a beauty and symmetry and harmony into the landscape,” Gardner said.

“I even did it at my house. When you sit in the house and look out the window, it’s like a framed picture, like changing artwork.”

To use this idea in your landscape, sit inside and look out the window. Place a simple container of flowers where you can see it from inside.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House before landscape renovation
The grounds of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House were a vast expanse of lawn before the new landscape renovation. The chalk lines indicated where some of the new beds would be placed. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Create outdoor rooms

When we think of “outdoor rooms,” we may think of a patio or barbecue area, or some way to break up a large football-field-size lawn.

Wright was doing something similar, using plantings to create smaller, peaceful areas.

Wright used a half-circle of plants around the veranda, and you could use this idea around a patio or deck. Called the Floricycle, this bed created a private space that felt like an outdoor room.

The Floricycle also provided waves of colorful flowers throughout the seasons.

The person who served as landscape architect and provided horticultural expertise on the project was Walter Burley Griffin, the architect best known for designing the city of Canberra, the capital of Australia.

Darwin Martin and his wife, Isabelle, worked closely with Griffin. Isabelle loved flowers and often made up bouquets to give to friends. Darwin loved and planted trees.

“Isabelle was the driving force behind getting more flowers into the landscape,” Gardner said. The interaction among the couple, Griffin and Wright resulted in “an elaborate, intricate and extensive design.”

Today people are concerned about curb appeal, she said, but the Floricyle did that and more.

“It can look good from the street, it can look good from the window, and you get cutting flowers,” Gardner said. “It can do all that. It’s nature from all angles. The Floricycle didn’t just look nice from street. It did all these other things.”

Another curving garden was designed by Griffin to screen the house from the increasing commotion of car traffic on the street. It runs along the sidewalk, but then curves into the yard.

There are a number of ideas you can take from the landscape design at the Darwin Martin House to use in your own landscape.

  • You don’t have to stick a border garden around the perimeter of your yard. Your garden can start on a border, and then you can allow it to curve into the middle of your yard.
  • The gardens at the Martin House are wide. You don’t have to squeeze plants up against a fence. Consider using shrubs and even trees, as your space allows, in your gardens.
  • Use trees, shrubs and perennials to screen out street traffic. These screens of plants help create sheltered spaces with the feeling of an outdoor room.
  • Plantings at the Martin House are used to screen off utilitarian areas such as the carriage house. You can use plants to screen off your compost bin, garbage cans or other spaces you don’t want to see.
Floricycle at Wright's Martin House
The Floricyle, a half-circle bed, surrounds the veranda. When mature, the garden will create the feeling of a private outdoor room with a sequence of flowers blooming throughout the year. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

More on the landscape renovation

The landscape contains more than 300 species of plants, Gardner said, including flowering shrubs, bulbs, perennials and trees. Elm trees that were lost to Dutch elm disease about 50 years ago were replaced by resistant American elms.

The framework for the restoration of the historic grounds and gardens is based on the findings of a published planning document known as the Martin House Cultural Landscape Report written by Bayer Landscape. The highly detailed report examines original plans, letters and diaries that tell the story of the Martin House landscape.

Other features of the Martin House landscape include:

  • Replacement of trees at historic locations on the property, as well as the return of street trees along the borders of Jewett Parkway and Summit Avenue in conjunction with the City of Buffalo
  • Replacement of vegetative screens; naturalistic shrub massings; selected ornamental flowering shrub focal points; vine trellises; urn, fountain, and box plantings; and perennial gardens
  • Reinstallation of the English border gardens that flank the pergola in contrast with the more naturalistic plantings that define the boundaries of the historic property
  • Preservation of the mature European beech tree—one of only two remaining vegetative features from the historic period
  • Restoration of the visual and spatial relationships between architectural and landscape features
  • Interpretation of the landscape as a source for tours, educational programs, special events and community dialogues about the importance of nature and design in everyday life
  • Introduction of various physical improvements to the site, including a courtyard and café area, signage and wayfinding systems, and security and lighting
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