Travelers heading toward downtown Buffalo on Seneca street might not notice this section of ordinary red brick wall nestled up against a railroad trestle:This section of masonry is all that remains of an important architectural structure, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building. Designed in 1904 and built in 1906, the great master of American architecture had been hired by the Larkin Soap Company to design an important edifice to house their headquarters.
Wright responded with a breathtaking plan and entirely fresh idea regarding the concept of the office building. He sought to share the space occupied by secretaries and executives alike. He sought to free the architectural form from the yoke of central staircases. Frank Lloyd Wright tried to kill the concept of the office building as a box. He succeeded:
The Larkin Administration Building was the first air-conditioned office building in history. It featured countless technical innovations, including suspended toilets (for ease of cleaning), built-in desk furniture and floors, desktops and counters covered with sound absorption materials. But beyond the technology, it was stunningly beautiful.It featured stained glass throughout the structure. The desks and chairs were designed by Wright himself. The exterior was executed in red sandstone. The skylight above provided natural lighting to both the common administrative area and the offices wringing the four floors of the atrium. The staircases were successfully hidden in the corners of the structure.
Prior to Larkin, the emphasis in office buildings had been on horizontal spaces. The aesthetic was limited by existing architecture and engineering. In a celebration of the vertical, Wright freed the building from such limitations.
The Larkin Soap Company was founded in Buffalo in 1875. Among the principals were Darwin Martin and Elbert Hubbard (the creator of the Arts and Crafts Roycroft Campus in nearby East Aurora, N.Y.)
Martin had Wright design a house in what is now North Buffalo. Martin was so pleased with the results that he then commissioned a much grander residence for himself on an adjoining lot. He gave the smaller, original house to his sister. The Darwin Martin Complex has now been restored. It features both the Darwin Martin residence, as well as the more intimate Barton House.
The Larkin Company grew into a very successful dry goods company in the early 20th century. It was a pioneering mail-order business. However, the Great Depression caused a major downturn in the company’s business. The firm declared bankruptcy. In 1945, the Larkin Administration Building was foreclosed for back taxes by the City of Buffalo. It was later vandalized.
Thus began a chapter of shame in Buffalo history. It sold the structure to a trucking company which demolished the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece in 1950. 60 years later, its loss is still felt in this community.
Buffalo remains a Wright-rich region. Apart from the Martin and Barton houses, there are four Wright-built residences in the area. Additionally, in 2007, a Frank Lloyd Wright designed boathouse was constructed to house the city’s famed West Side Rowing Club. There are also plans in the work for a Wright-designed gas station at Buffalo’s Pierce-Arrow Museum:Finally, the area around Wright’s Larkin Building is presently experiencing a renaissance. The former Larkin warehouse has been reborn as the Larkin at Exchange Building which features Class A commercial space housing law firms, banks and other offices. The formerly blighted neighborhood has come alive again with professional workers strolling its sidewalks. The spirit of Wright and Larkin is alive and well.
— The Major