The Belle of Graycliff
By Ramona Pando Whitaker
Mrs. Martin (left) with her
Darwin D. Martin
St. John's church at Swan and Washington Streets
Frank Lloyd Wright
Darwin D. Martin appears to have been smitten immediately upon meeting Isabelle Minnie Reidpath,whom he called Belle, in October of 1884. That same month, he began a courtship with her that was to last almost five years.
Their afternoons and evenings were often spent in the company of Belle's sister, Nettie, playing cribbage, roller skating, or walking in the woods. Just as the young Martin had begun to nurture his own intellectual and cultural development through attending lectures by learned speakers and reading the works of Shakespeare and other literary giants, he began as well to introduce Belle to lectures and to the theatre, taking her to see the Gilbert & Sullivan musical, The Mikado.
In October of 1886, two years to the month after their initial meeting, Darwin expressed his love for Belle, and they reached an understanding. Belle was just 17. Born April 9, 1869, in a house located over her father's grocery store at 355 Seneca in Buffalo, she felt she was too young to decide such a serious matter. Darwin's New Year's resolution for 1887 was to "win her this year to 'someday' be my wife."
He succeeded. And following their official engagement on July 30, 1887, their outings became more romantic, including a picnic at Chautauqua, moonlight excursions on Lake Erie, and a trip to the Cave of the Winds at Niagara Falls. Two years later, in July 1889, they were married at St. John's Church in Buffalo.
Even before their engagement, Belle had begun to manifest the vision problems that were eventually to result in near-blindness, a condition her Christian Science beliefs later prevented being treated.
It was Belle's impaired vision that contributed to her continuing unhappiness with the "darkness" of the house at 125 Jewett Parkway, designed for her husband, and ostensibly her, by the man who was to become America's foremost architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Aside from its shadows that plagued her, the house failed to provide bedrooms of a size she preferred, and it lacked roomy closets.
Thus, even before Darwin bought the acreage on which the Isabelle R. Martin House at Graycliff was eventually built, the couple appears to have been in private agreement that Belle would negotiate with Wright for the kind of house she wanted. The site itself she found "delightful" -- located atop a 50 foot bluff along Lake Erie at Derby, New York, south of Buffalo.
Some weeks before the actual purchase date of April 19, 1926, Belle wrote to Wright, but received no reply. On April 5, Darwin himself then wrote to chide the architect for failing to respond to his wife. He reminded Wright that in 1910 the architect had made a sketch for a proposed summer home at Bay Beach on Lake Erie, which was never built. That design might do for the summer home they now planned, except that Isabelle now wanted bedrooms on the second floor. He requested that a pencil sketch for the design be dashed off and sent to him "instanter or sooner."
Yet, the very next day, another letter followed in which he advised Wright that Isabelle said Darwin was wrong about the sketch and to forget his request, except for replying to Belle's letter.
Correspondence began to flow back and forth, eliciting Wright's willingness to provide the design and indicating that Belle wanted a "severely simple, two-story house." They had seen a design by E. W. Russell on page 295 of the Architectural Record of October 1913, which, although according to Darwin was "too much house," illustrated the floor plan they desired. A subsequent letter outlined in great detail their general requirements for the house, principal of which was that it be flooded with "light and sunshine, including maids' rooms" and appear to take its growth "from the soil."
Did Belle get the house she wanted? A photo in the University of Buffalo archives of Mrs. Martin with daughter, Dorothy Reidpath Martin Foster, and a family pet enjoying summer breezes off Lake Erie seem to attest to her pleasure with the estate.
References: Important Events in the lives of Darwin D. Martin & Isabelle R. Martin and Darwin D. Martin letters of April 1926, State University of New York at Buffalo archives.
© 1997 Ramona Pando Whitaker.
The author is a Wright aficionado, architecture buff, and preservationist, as well as freelance writer-editor and owner-innkeeper of the Beau Fleuve Bed & Breakfast Inn located in an historic house in Buffalo, NY.