Frank Lloyd Wright and His Forgotten Larkin Building

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By Jonathan H

Larking Company Headquarters in Buffalo
It’s a Saturday. Such an excellent day for documentary films. Of course, if I ever catch myself watching documentary films on Friday, Ganesh forbid, I will have to admit that my soul forever rests in the land of nerdom.

But it’s a Saturday. And a Saturday is a perfectly acceptable day for an edifying documentary film without losing any sense of hipness at all.

And if there is any documentary film that is perfect for a Saturday, let me just say, that Ken Burns’ eponomously titled documentary DVD, Frank Lloyd Wright, is a masterpiece edifice of its own.

The film follows the path of the iconic architect, even his less-than-glamorous history of philandering and his penchant for self-promotion. But, through it all, emerges a portrait of a man who did it to create beauty. And it is a uniquely American and transcendentalist notion of beauty — a perception of beauty that bequeaths “nature with a capital ‘N’,” in Wright’s own words.

So what did I most like about the film? The pictures of course! And which pictures, in particular? The one image that made my heart jump forthwith was the Larkin Building in Buffalo New York:

Inside the Larking Soap Building

The beauty of this building really rests in its careful consideration of the worker. Its interior closely resembles the cathedral-like structure of a church — workers bustling away to complete orders, while the sun spills in from the six-story ceiling. But the story of Wright’s first big commission, at age 35, really rests in its demise. It is heralded as one of the biggest losses in American architectural history. The building was demolished in 1950 to make way for — what else — a parking area.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1906 Masterpiece

Said Douglass Swift, a partner in the company that is restoring other Larkin warehouses: “The ironic thing is that we, as a city, tore down a masterpiece to create parking space for a factory building. All of the other Larkin buildings, including ours, are still here and thriving. But the work of art is gone.”

All that remains of Wright’s Larkin Building is a 20-foot-hight pillar that once anchored one of the building’s corners. At one time that corner was one part of a 76-foot-high interior that rose to the sky and imbued workers with an ethereal experience via its double-glazed skylights.

Workers’ Murals Inside of Wright’s Larkin Structure

But the Great Depression came, and the Larkin company, America’s fourth largest mail order operation (behind behemoths Montgomery-Ward, Sears, and others) simply fell by the wayside. By 1948, the deteriorated, unheated building was a haven for vagrants, and it was quickly becoming a nuisance, rather than a work of art. By 1949, the Buffalo Evening News found reason for editorializing:

“The area from street to street is carpeted with broken bricks, sticks, rubbish and waste. The parallel side streets are even more cluttered with fallen plaster, masonry and rubble. Groups of urchins have fun hurling brickbats and plaster chunks at one another and at visitors to the structure.”

Even Wright himself, by then 82 years old, felt indifferent about the building that he spent energy designing as a young, 35-year-old independent architect, “To them, it was just one of their factory buildings, to be treated like any other,” he said. So, in 1949, for the sum of a mere 5,000 dollars, one of America’s greatest architectural designs collapsed and was replaced with a parking lot. It was once the first air-conditioned building in the U.S., but by 1949 it had become a nuisance.

The Larkin Building About to Be Demolished

“Nobody cared,” University of Buffalo’s Jack Quinan says simply. “It was a time when people didn’t place a value on those things. There wasn’t much of a preservation movement in the United States at that time.”

28 comments on “Frank Lloyd Wright and His Forgotten Larkin Building

  1. Blaize on said:

    The photo of the workers at their desks on the floor of the atrium reminds me strongly of photos I have seen of workers at the old Federal Pension Bureau (now the National Building Museum) in D.C. To wit: http://www.gao.gov/about/history/articles/images/greathall_flag.jpg

    Thanks for the recommendation of the documentary.

  2. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Thanks so much for that photo, Blaize! That seriously made my day. You’ll love the documentary. It’s available on Netflix watch now if you have that.

  3. Blaize on said:

    I’m glad you liked it! I’ve been to the National Building Museum, and found it very interesting. And I do have Netflix, so I’ll check that documentary out soon.

    P.S. I really enjoy your web log and your flickr photostream.

  4. David Buonaugurio on said:

    Great pictures on your site. I live in Rochester, NY. The Larkin building was destroyed the year I was born. As I write, the last tenants are moving out of Midtown Plaza, the masterfull 1960 creation of Victor Gruen, so that it can be destroyed to make way for a corporate headquarters. It was the second enclosed mall in the country. Stupidity never ends.

    Dave

  5. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Thanks Dave. I didn’t know about Midtown Plaza. Such a shame… Things like that seem to be happening more and more these days. I think we’ve also lost more than one Kirkbride in the past few years.

  6. TravellerSu on said:

    So sad that this building was lost but Buffalo remains a great place to visit for FLW and other architecture.

    http://traveller.uncommontraveller.com/2007/12/01/frank-lloyd-wright-in-buffalo–who-knew.aspx

    http://traveller.uncommontraveller.com/2007/12/03/frank-lloyd-wright-and-the-martin-house.aspx

  7. Michael Ralph on said:

    Hello,
    I stumbled on this site, while trying to research the Larkin Building fire in 1949- 1950. My father was a Fire Fighter, and was injured during the blaze. His name was Glenn Russel Ralph. I had a photo my mother gave me as a child, of my Dad being assisted from the area. It was front page news in either the Courier Express, or the Buffalo Evening News. I have since lost the photo, and wanted to pass it on to my son. I had no idea of the relationship of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Larkin Building until this day. It’s a wonderful web-site!
    Michael Ralph

  8. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Thanks Micheal. I appreciate the added history. I’m always elated to hear about the personal stories of places. Thank you.

  9. elZaphod on said:

    Interesting photos. I love Wright, but the exterior has a very oppressive look, possessing equal parts mausoleum and Reichstag. Nice interior flourishes on the columns and skylights though.

  10. Renee on said:

    I have a desk that was once belonging to my father. Upon brining it home I discovered a label on the back bearing the name Larkin Soap Co. and another label stating it was manufactured at Larkin Soap Co. I was trying to research it a little and I seems to find more information about the Larkin Administrative building then the products it once made. If anyone should have a source of information that might be helpful feel free to contact me.

  11. Will Sampson on said:

    Am I showing my age or doesn’t everybody who read the Fountainhead know who Frank Lloyd Wright was? Anyhow, my favorite is the Walker residence in Carmel: http://www.cupola.com/images/bldgstru/flwright/walker02.jpg
    I think I have almost saved enough money to make an offer. Not.

  12. Kevin (West Herr) on said:

    My father-in-law’s offices were accross the street on Seneca St Buffalo. One day I walked around the area and found some of the foundations of the buildings still in tact. This is an example of why it is sooo important to support restoration and preservation efforts in your town, you never know what you are saving..
    Here are two examples: Buffalo Central Terminal http://blog.westherr.com/journal/2009/6/8/buffalo-central-terminal-what-a-restoration-project.html
    and the Buffalo Psyc Center: http://blog.westherr.com/journal/2009/6/20/buffalo-developers-start-the-restoration-of-another-architec.html

  13. I like your work.

  14. Dennis Eldridge on said:

    If I may offer a counter opinion, I would term this building style “American Brutalist,” after the Fascist penchant for building edifices which are meant to oppress the viewer and worker within. And as for Wright’s famed embrace of nature in his designs, I honestly see absolutely nothing at all natural about the spaces depicted. Nature does not have straight lines to it; the human form factor does not conform to hard corners and edges as this building is architected.

    It is, frankly, a very ugly design.

  15. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Dennis: I definitely appreciate your interpretation. In some ways, I do agree. However, I think one has to look at the Larkin Building as if it existed today. Would you rather work in a tall cathedral of natural light (and the first air-conditioned commercial building in the U.S.), or would you choose the office of today – a farm of cubicles and fluorescent light? Perhaps the Larkin Building was the egg and the controlled environment of the office space today is the chicken, but I’d much rather spend my days toiling in the egg than the chicken, so to speak.

  16. SHERman MERman on said:

    CHA CHA CHA

  17. SHERman MERman on said:

    LICK ME

  18. Leah on said:

    I have a question for anyone who can help. I want to do a dissertation on F.L.Wright’s furniture for my MA in Fine and Decorative Arts. The Larkin Building would have been perfect if some idiots didn’t destroy it. Does anyone know where I could get direct information such as archives, and personal papers Wright may have written about the builing from? The internet is good and so are books but I need primary sources to make my dissertaion work. Thank you tons to anyone who can help. I am very trustworthy if that is an issue and actualy go to school with Sotheby’s.

  19. Carole on said:

    I too would like more info. on the products made/sold out of the Larkin Bldg.
    My grandmother of 93 yrs. old said she and her father made pasta in the Larkin Bldg.

  20. Joany Bund on said:

    My father who passed in 1986 told me his first job was delivering the mail in the Larkin Building.
    He said they would give him a mail bag and a pair of roller skates and he would skate through the whole building delivering. I would love to find a picture of the workers at that time, probably 1034-36, he was only 13.

  21. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Incredible stories, Carole and Joany. Please feel free to continue with the memories.

  22. Donald Bieler on said:

    Now that Buffalo has been a destination for followers of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture and the beauty of the Roycroft, are there plans to rebuild the Larkin Building?

  23. Johnny Sotiriou on said:

    Throughout this grand design of things you secure a B- with regard to effort. Exactly where you confused us was in all the specifics. As it is said, details make or break the argument.. And it could not be much more accurate at this point. Having said that, allow me say to you exactly what did do the job. The article (parts of it) can be really engaging and that is possibly the reason why I am making an effort to comment. I do not really make it a regular habit of doing that. Second, despite the fact that I can notice the jumps in reasoning you come up with, I am not certain of how you seem to unite the points which in turn produce your conclusion. For the moment I will subscribe to your issue however wish in the foreseeable future you link your facts better.

  24. Gregory on said:

    My grandmother lived by The Larkin Building on Seneca Street, where the 7 firefighters perished. I knew of this building but not of The Larkin Administrative Building just a few blocks away. I wish I could have taken a tour of it, like I do with all the beautiful and preserved buildings downtown and on Elmwood. I’m glad I have the opportunity to at least see the remaining historic buildings here in Buffalo. My Professor at Canisius College (back in 1981) got me into Buffalo’s architecture. If you want to see magnificent architecture you have to come to Buffalo.

  25. Perry Hvegholm on said:

    To all those who offered the opinion that this building was “ugly” and “oppressive” I will only counter with the fact that beauty…much as everything else in this world…is completely subjective and always open to personal interpretation. To me this building eschews everything that was the grandeur, the splendor and the spirit early 20th century America. It was indeed a work of art… and its a travesty that it was destroyed to create space for a parking lot.

  26. mcveigh,j on said:

    I love the Carytide; is that how to spell it? Anyway, I believe they came into exsistence due to ornamentation as well as serving a function including carrying the sins of the husband. Therefore, the industrial pre-depression era has female employers working as shown in the photos. Perhaps FLW was sexist? Nevertheless, a nice building brought to its rubble because nobody cared. Well, it must be more common than I thought,the USA doesn’t preserve buildings like Australia. I noticed that fact when I was travelling in the southern states of America and I didn’t study Architecture at the time, just an interested observor of buildings in the USA. J McVeigh

  27. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I go running by the site whenever I’m in Buffalo, and it looks to me like the pillar still there was not part of the building, but part of the fence surrounding the building.

    http://www.google.com/imgres?um=1&hl=en&sa=N&biw=1024&bih=653&tbm=isch&tbnid=fzrFL2oxzeccwM:&imgrefurl=http://www.flickriver.com/photos/nhofer/popular-interesting/&docid=bFzMy9csXn0oxM&imgurl=http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2212/3527580624_308d269a0d.jpg&w=500&h=375&ei=4RjxT-CTI4fY6wGdzsCHBg&zoom=1&iact=hc&vpx=309&vpy=348&dur=1111&hovh=194&hovw=259&tx=137&ty=168&sig=109119019281748967677&page=1&tbnh=128&tbnw=176&start=0&ndsp=17&ved=1t:429,r:13,s:0,i:131

  28. The Larkin Administration building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright is a beautiful piece of industry and art combined. I love the look of this buiding and all that it stood for, it is a shame that we did not keep up with such beauty.

    Thanks for sharing this information to me.

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