Built-in planters. Wright had it right.

Wouldn’t it be great if all houses came with built in planters – even better if they came with built-in plumbing for watering and draining? That’s what Frank Lloyd Wright thought–in 1904. Here are shots of built-in window boxes, large urns and bricked-in beds that Wright incorporated into four of his eight Buffalo structures. I’ll update on these gardens as they progress through the summer, and the years.

The Darwin Martin House
Wright’s signature Prairie-style home, he considered this his “opus” and kept an image of it over his desk for most of his days. Completed in 1904, the 29,080 sq. ft. home is now being restored to his 1904 vision with extensive plans and letters between Wright and the industrialist Darwin Martin, among the nation’s wealthiest men at the turn of the century. The neighborhood it’s in was laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted. This is very early in the season, so not much is planted yet. I’ve met the facilities manager for the property. He owns a garden center locally. He can’t wait to get to the restoration of the grounds. They have more to do on the house first though.

There are dozens of these large bowl planters around the estate.

Patio outside the living room.

Here you can see the watering device in the middle of the planter. There’s also a drainage system for each planter.

The main entrance of the house was not too welcoming. It’s hidden from the street.

Inside the Conservatory. This self-watering cathedral to plants was Wright’s answer to Martin’s request for a small greenhouse to grow annuals for the property.

Close-up of Nike of Samothrace (Winged Victory) in the Conservatory. When you walk in the front door of the house, 180 feet away, you can see this through the Pergola.

Around much of the base of the house & carriage house are these built-in garden areas.

More planned planting beds around a brick wall.

Even the thinnest strip was planned for plantings.

Nothing to do with plants, but in order to get the long horizontal look Wright wanted for his Prairie Houses, he had specified Roman brick, which is narrower and longer than our conventional brick. He also had the masons flush the mortar on the vertical joints and do a deep trowel cut on the horizontal joints. In addition, he had the masons use dye on the vertical joints to match the color of the brick to further the horizontal look. I can still hear all the masons grumbling.

The Barton House
Built on the same grounds as the Martin house, this was the home of Darwin Martin’s sister. It also represented a “less expensive,” but yet upper class, version of the Martin House. It was a test project by Martin to see if he could work with Wright. It was estimated at $4,500. When built, its costs came in around $14,000. They worked well together and remained friends and the Martin house was started, despite the cost overruns. Many of its design thoughts throughout were carried on in the larger Martin House in a grander and more exquisite manner.

Side window box planter.

Front window box planter. This house has one single bowl planter .

The Gardener’s Cottage
Built on the same grounds as the Martin house, this was the home of the gardener for the property. This house originally cost $4,500 to design & build. There is a new addition on the back of the house which increases the space significantly, and seamlessly–fortunately it was designed by the home’s owner at the time–a wood-worker and fan of Wright. It’s won awards for it’s Wright-ian qualities & craftsmanship. The home was in private hands, until recently, when it went on the market for $500,000. The publisher (and past editor) of the Buffalo News and his wife, Stan & Judith Lipsey, purchased the home and donated it to the Martin House Complex. Nice gift. I worked with Judy for years in one of the ad agencies in which I worked. Thanks for the nice gift Judy!

Along the side of the cottage, under the windows and two back planters (from the new addition) straddle the back steps.

The planters are all the same height, forming a horizontal ribbon around the house.

Close up of the Gardener’s Cottage window planter.

Just south of Buffalo, in Derby, on a cliff overlooking Lake Erie, sits this summer house commissioned by Darwin Martin’s wife, Isabelle. Built between 1926-9, it was used through the 1940s by the family. It was built from stone from the cliffs below–part of Frank’s philosophy of using native, natural building materials. Volunteers canvassed the beach below the house trying to match stone to repair disturbed walls and stone fences on the property. On a clear day, you can see the mist from Niagara Falls across the lake. There are plans to eventually recreate all the gardens originally planned for this site by Wright. The house is structurally sound but needs much restoration.

Side garden planting area.

Lakefront garden area. Originally planned by Wright to be a pool with a waterfall going over the cliff. Wouldn’t that have been wild? The cliff is deteriorating. Part of the wall that was there has fallen down to the beach.

Low planting area outside veranda.

Water pool opposite the front door. Frank’s plan was to have the irregular-shaped pond lead to this fountain that would appear to emanate from the house and on the other side of the house would have been the pool and waterfall. The plan was to have it appear as the rough-shaped pond went under the house and culminated in the waterfall over a cliff. Can you imagine?

Double-decker window boxes.

In the Martin House, Wright had corner windows that pushed toward the corners of the house. Here, at Graycliff, you can see in this garden room, he was able to get glass into the corners of the house, as the weight-bearing walls were interior ones that cantilevered this garden room. he perfected this “breaking of the box” at Falling Water where he created corners that were glass-on-glass.

To learn more about the houses, please visit:
Darwin D. Martin House Complex

15 comments on “Built-in planters. Wright had it right.

  1. Jim .. this is quite a garden ? system .. but it is so austere looking .. cold , clinical I’m just not sure how to describe it when I saw these houses.Yes .. it is incredible to see the forethought of plant care .. but such harsh lines to the houses .. even plants would not soften or cheer them up.Just my impression ?


  2. I have been a lifelong Wright fan and have had the opportunity to visit some of his buildings. The planters and urns are integral to each space. Although it would never be allowed now, Hollyhock House in Los Angeles even has a 2nd story play garden. IMO gardens and buildings should be as intertwined and inseparable as Wright envisioned.


  3. “I can still hear all the masons grumbling” Actually, no, they screamed and cursed. I always thought his planters were not integrating gardens and greenery into his architecture, but were his attempt to control plants and nature. –Sort of as a way to ‘put them in their proper place’ to serve his architecture. He didn’t want owners planting big things to hide his buildings, so he provided rather small places for them to plant small plants. At least he thought of greenery. Without plantings, some of his architecture is rather austere.


  4. You reminded me that I haven’t been to Wright’s (Pope-Leighey) house here in Alexandria in years. It was moved to its present location to make way for an interstate a few decades ago.http://popeleighey1940.org


  5. Very keen to read this post. Kevin & I have been big Wright fans for years – in fact live in a bungalow that was obviously influenced by his design principles (even down to the build-in planters – which we had to remove because they were concreted in and killed the plants). So many of the photos I've seen have his houses looking fabulous and the gardens looking looking awful – usually with one or two 60 year old bushes schwooshing up and out from a corner of the structure. Felt he was brilliant fitting his homes into gorgeous natural areas, e.g. Fallingwater, but never saw a house and garden that showed he understood how to make the garden and home look good together. Very excited that someone is going to try to put it all together and get rid of all those overgrown mugo pines…. Sounds like it's time to shuffle off to Buffalo.


  6. GardenJoy4Me,Garden system is right. Wright had a system for everything and left as little as possible to chance, or the whim of the homeowner. He most likely had lists of what could be planted in these planters. You’re impression is probably close, although I would say in person, the houses, made from stone and in earth-tones, and so low to the ground do look less harsh. If these buildings were done in a sleeker, all white material, they’d definitely be minimalistic, cold and severe-looking.Susan,I’ve been a Wright fan since I went to the Museum of Modern Art back in the ’70s and saw a model of a Wright hose and thought it was some sort of house of the future. Until I got around to the back of the model and saw a model-T car sitting in it’s little driveway. The incongruency was startling and is still a memory today.Swimray,I’m sure you’re right about control. He had specific areas where furniture was to be placed. Certain entrances for different types of people (homeowner, visitors, service providers), he controlled the light, manipulated the ceiling heights and included built-ins wherever he could. Definitely a control-freak. I had no idea there was right house by Mt. Vernon. I was just there last month and would have made it part of our trip out there! Next time. They need more photos on their web site.


  7. Barbarapc,I’m going to get you down here one way or another!The gardens here are not too impressive – yet. That’ll be the last stage of renovation for all the houses shown here. The Martin house did have a large circular garden in front of the living room veranda. He had also planted ginkgo trees on either side of the porte-cochere. There was wisteria on the property (a few windows have Wright patterns based on wisteria). And I know that at the base of the Wright-designed clothes lines (Did I say he was a control freak?) were planted some of Mrs. Martin’s favorite plants, which don’t come to mind just this minute.favorite plant.


  8. I see you’ve visited Oak Park? I’ve been lucky enough to visit there too. I’m a big fan of FLW! He was truly the master although he didn’t always design his planters large enough to accomodate many plants. Today, I find architects still do the same! They don’t seem to realize plants need room to grow!


  9. Pam,Oak Park? Never been there. This is Buffalo.


  10. How smart is that! I love those large bowl planters at the first house! Thank you, Jim!


  11. Hi there! It’s been great discovering all these local gardening blogs… and I am really enjoying yours so far. Just wanted to say hello. 🙂


  12. thanks for sharing these, i love Nike of Samothrace (Winged Victory)in the Conservatory, blends so beautifully to me.


  13. Jim — if you’re going to Spring Fling you really should add some time to go to Oak Park. Thanks for the specifics on the planters. I’m familiar with them but had not thought about how they would actually function (sad comment from a gardener!). Have you seen Derek Fell’s new book on the gardens of FLW? I did a review a while back; pretty nice. And did you see the PBS program on Wright and Martin? Excellent show. It was Martin that gave FLW his big break with the Larkin Building. And without Martin’s emotional and financial support, it’s very likely that Wright’s career might have ended when he fled Chicago for Wisconsin with his lover, Mameh Cheney. It was Martin’s money — never repaid — that built Taliesin, Wright’s refuge from the world and his troubles. And a house that needs the kind of finanacial support that Buffalo has given the Martin project.Thanks for this wonderful view the Martin complex and all the details.


  14. Ms. Wis,I may not get time to get out to Oak Park. But we’ve been talking about getting out there (as a family) sometime in the next year. I think the open studio tour of his house and a few others in Oak Park are open this week. We almost came out for that. I have a ten-year-old interested in architecture.I read your review way back when – I just checked it out on Amazon. It only covers four gardens! I am adding it to my birthday/Christmas list.I’m hoping to be involved in the periphery of the renovations of the gardens at the Martin House and at Graycliff. Even if it’s just volunteer hole digging or getting the word out to the world through my PR channels.I did see the PBS show on Wright and Martin. It was produced locally. I had some friends involved in the production.Martin was Wrights patron at the beginning of his career, and even though Wright never had a budget he didn’t blow, the two were as thick as thieves.


  15. This is exactly that kind of architecture I love including all the facilities for plants, stripes, built-in planters etc.Frank Lloyd Wright is my favourite architects – his designs were amazing.This is the house I’d like to live in – do you think if I cancentrate enough it will be possible?


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