Shopping by mail, Factory to Family, was becoming an economical way for rural folks to obtain city goods.
John's brother-in-law Elbert Hubbard pioneered the idea of offering premiums, and the mail orders and money poured in.
Down in New York City, Darwin Martin and his older brother were selling Larkin soap door-to-door. Darwin proved to be good at keeping records, so John relocated him to Buffalo to help him in the office at the age of 13.
Maintaining customer accounts and tracking sales required cumbersome ledger books. Everyone did it that way. But Darwin had a better idea. Inspired by the card-indexing system at the local library, he converted Larkin's records to efficient card catalogs. When an account was paid, its card was moved to a mailing-list file.
Martin's initiatives were exemplary, says the Pine Mountain Settlement School, and were later followed by many companies. His efforts were recognized by Larkin and were richly rewarded by the company which continued to promote him and his good work. He became secretary of the corporation and built a personal fortune of more than a million dollars.
In 1902, he visited another brother in Chicago. Captivated by certain newly built houses in suburban Oak Park, he sought out the studio of the architect.
Meanwhile, the Larkin Company now served over two million customers, having expanded into dry goods, china, furniture, and groceries. A new office building was needed. John Larkin was generous to his employees, and the company was willing to pay the high price for a well-designed, innovative structure. Martin was able to convince Larkin to give that commission to Wright as well.
The smaller structure on the right, the annex, contained corporate offices and other facilities including a branch library. It was fronted by a rectangular pool and fountain inscribed Honest labor needs no master; justice needs no slaves.
Just to the left, employees entered through doors consisting simply of large sheets of plate glass, a Wright innovation. There was no traditional façade. Towers in the corners, topped by skylights, concealed the staircases and elevators.
And to the left of the entry stood the massive five-story edifice where 5,000 letters a day would be processed by 1,800 clerical employees.
Because the site was in an industrial district, there were comparatively few windows. It would not do for a soap manufacturer to send its customers soot-covered mail, so the windows were sealed shut and the building was air-conditioned. Fresh air was taken in at the roof level, where a skylight illuminated a central atrium. Balconies faced this light well, turning their backs on the smoke of the railroad locomotives outside.
Alas, the company eventually fell on hard times. With the advent of automobiles and chain stores, people no longer needed to order merchandise by mail. Larkin died in 1926, and John Larkin, Jr., was not his father. Martin quit. By 1943, the decaying building was sold and abandoned. Eventually it was claimed by the city for back taxes and demolished in 1950. Architect J. Stanley Sharp wrote, The destruction of all but one pillar of the Larkin Administration Building is tragic in the architecture community.
But now, thanks to modern technology, we don't have to imagine it! Using AutoCAD and other programs, beautiful color views of the long-gone landmark have been generated by Spanish architect David Romero. And there's the pier in the foreground, no longer a ghost.
One sees it, Jan Wils wrote in 1921, and one senses the tempo of our time. No secrets, no obscurities an immediate aura of work and reality. Expressing the power of an age has always been the best task for art. It is the only one that compels us and leads us on.
Inside the building, vertical piers of cream-colored brick projected slightly from the balconies and rose powerfully toward the light from the sky 76 feet above.
Everything in the building, including the furniture and even the employees, had to harmonize with Wright's visual concept. Many of the employees were women. They would be issued smocks, George Twitmyer wrote in 1907, to protect their gowns and to preserve the color scheme, for at present the ensemble of blacks, reds, whites and greens, individually becoming, is undeniably at variance with the color scheme of the interior.
Some of the steel desks had tops that were adjustable to various heights, and some had seats attached, eliminating the noisy scraping of chair legs as well as the need for janitors to pile 1,800 chairs onto desks each night. In the restrooms, Wright installed wall-mounted toilets and hanging walls between the stalls, all to make it easier to mop the floors.
The sound-absorbing floor, a mixture of excelsior and magnesite (a mineral imported from Greece), was poured over on a cushion of felt.
A replica of the Winged Victory of Samothrace graced the topmost balcony. Here the company restaurant served shifts of as many as 600 diners at once, seated at rectangular tables. The white ornamentation, molded from magnesite, contrasted with the simplicity of the solid masses below.
William Heath chose the gilded inspirational messages. Each triplet of words was sequential in meaning, he explained, such as
These simple words, the great words of the English language, were inscribed rather than great quotations because they permit independence of thought and individuality of interpretation. A great thought, once in words, is accepted as complete. A simple word is suggestive; it is a text for the exercise of reason or imagination.
Twitmyer described the appearance of the interior from this vantage point. Directly in front are the dignified capitals surmounting the columns of the central court. Below, hundreds of people busily transacting the affairs of this great institution are in plain view. One is reminded of nothing so much as of a mammoth watch. It is enterprise, American enterprise, that drives the wheels; carefully organized systems and methods are the jewel bearings; good will, the lubricant.
For a 1987 book by art history professor Jack Quinan, Heath's daughter Evelyn spoke of an almost magical aura of calmness and order within the Larkin light court, despite the activity of so many office workers. She felt that Frank Lloyd Wright must have been a genius.
At the other building site out on Jewett Parkway in northern Buffalo, the architect had again been given complete freedom and an almost unlimited budget. By 1907 Darwin Martin's house was essentially complete. I toured it 110 years later, making it twelfth on the list of Wright buildings I've been privileged to enter.
Both the interior and the exterior are largely of brick. Walls must not exclude and define the surrounding world of nature, wrote Grant Carpenter Manson, nor continue to serve the old belief that the outside of a house must be treated in one way and its inside in quite another.
Nowadays there's a lovely garden in front of the carriage house and pergola. Note the horizontal lines and the ornamentation, including the rooftop structures Wright called stone birdhouses.
The docent also explained that rainwater in the gutters has to go somewhere, but ordinary downspouts (red) would have been totally out of keeping with the home's horizontality. So Wright let the water escape from the gutter through a little round drain, then fall freely (blue) into a catch basin sunk into the lawn.
Inside the Darwin Martin House, three great rooms have no walls nor doors to separate them. The space flows freely from the library in the foreground through the living room to the dining room in the background. The intervening transition areas are indicated subtly by flanking piers and lowered ceiling beams.
For one small example, in a corner stands a table that turns out to be a bookcase. But it doesn't hold its books upright. Rather, each narrow shelf, echoing the horizontal Roman bricks, holds one volume of an encyclopedia horizontally.
Below we see the reception room adjacent to the entry hall. The docent mentioned that some visitors think the furnishings might be for a children's tea party. Well, Americans were smaller a century ago.
But through the efforts of many, including Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who proclaimed the house a national treasure), the main house was restored. Then between 2004 and 2007, the other portions were reconstructed according to the original plans. Some work is still going on, especially in the bedrooms on the second floor, but for the most part the house now looks again as it did in 1907.
Back in Buffalo's downtown, there's a gas station surrounded by classic automobiles inside the Pierce-Arrow Museum. It was orginally intended to be built on the corner of Michigan and Cherry, one mile to the north.
It's stylish and futuristic, but I have some quibbles. The observation room is raised like a control tower up a narrow flight of stairs. It even includes a fireplace, indicated by the curling wisp of smoke in the sketch above. As a result, the canopy over the cars is unusually high. Rain could blow in on the wind.
The building that I'd actually like to see reconstructed from Wright's drawings is the Larkin Administration Building.
former site is still there, guarded by the ghost pier in
the background. For 67 years it has been used for nothing but a
parking lot, currently $3.00 for two hours.
Somewhere there must be some wealthy lover of architecture willing to spend a billion or so to bring this masterpiece back to life!
We can dream, can't we?