Buffalo Behind the Scenes: Graycliff Estate

DERBY, N.Y. (WIVB) – Western New York is home to some architectural gems, including work by Frank Lloyd Wright. Now, after decades of renovation work, the historic Graycliff Estate is nearly fully restored to all its former glory.

The restoration work should be finished by the end of this summer to bring the property back to how it looked in 1931, the year the house and landscaping were finished.

“This was a work of passion for so many of the volunteers and board members who took this project on because they really wanted to save this property and bring it back,” said Bob Wooler, executive director of the Graycliff Conservancy. “It feels great to finish to really honor their work and their commitment to getting this job done.”

Designed originally for the Martin Family, for whom the Darwin Martin House in North Buffalo was also built, the Graycliff estate was first used as a summer home in 1928.

It is a true showcase of iconic architecture right in our own back yard.

“This is an example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Organic Design,” Wooler said, explaining how that means building it with materials found on the site so it’s one with the site and using windows and natural light to merge the indoors and outdoors.

So, from the diamond window that reflects the shape of the limestone rocks that fall from the cliff below the house, to the rocks from the site used in the central fireplace, to the plastered walls made from sand from the beach, to the wall of windows in the hallway connecting the family’s main quarters with the servants’ side of the house, every single design detail must be carefully preserved as the Graycliff estate is brought back to life.

“That means new plumbing systems, heating systems, electrical, fire suppression. That requires opening up the walls, then we have to close everything up, re-plaster all 6,000 square feet in this house, 2,000 square feet in the other house, and in the end restore all the wood work, rehang the doors, shine up the hardware,” Wooler said. “But it will be a pristine, wonderful job when it’s done.”

The final phase of renovations is being funded in large part by a state grant from the second phase of the Buffalo Billion.

MORE | Click here for our earlier coverage of the state’s funding announcement at Graycliff.

Renovations really started decades ago, though, when the Graycliff Conservancy was founded in 1997. The Conservancy bought the property from the Piarist Fathers, a Hungarian order, which purchases the site from Darwin Martin’s son in 1950. The priests used it as a school and dormitory for Hungarian and Cuban refugees, before putting it up for sale in 1996.

In 1998, Graycliff was designated a State Landmark and was awarded $10,000 grant for Historic Structures Report by Preservation League of NY, and phase one of the restoration work got underway in 1999.

Fast forward to 2018, and work is focusing on restoring pedestrian access to the beach, revamping the landscaping, and finishing interior projects.

The finish line is finally in sight for everyone who has worked so hard to save this property.

“It’s a lot of fun. It’s an honor to be here,” said site supervisor Mike Beebe, when asked what it’s like to be part of this project.

“It’s going to be sad not coming out here everyday,” he added. “You get to know the family that used to live here, that owned the place, and you have a lot of respect for them. You feel like you’re working at someone’s house, and it’s great to be able to say that you’re working at a Frank Lloyd Wright house.”

While construction continues, the public is invited to take special tours of Graycliff focusing on the renovation techniques and challenges. Those tours begin at the end of April.

To learn more about visiting Graycliff and the ongoing renovations, go to https://experiencegraycliff.org/

News 4’s Katie Alexander got a rare look at the ‘bones’ of the Graycliff estate as part of our continuing Buffalo Behind the Scenes series. Watch the videos below to see our full Wake Up coverage.

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