Larkin Building

Added by Harrison Blair, last update: August 17, 2012, 1:22 pm

Larkin Building
Location
680 Seneca Street
Buffalo, NY 14210
United States
42° 52' 36.318" N, 78° 51' 5.526" W
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Identity of Building / Site
Primary classification: Commercial (COM)
Secondary classification:
Federal, State, or Local Designation(s) and Date(s):
History of Building/Site
Original Brief:

The Larkin Company was a soap manufacturing company which grew to include a mail-order business with branch offices in Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia, and Peoria. The company produced a variety of soaps, perfumes, powders, and other household goods, and purchased and distributed a number of other household products. The existing office spaces proved to be inadequate. The lighting was uneven, some spaces had been occupied by soap vats and tended to be dirty and noisy, and were hot in the summer. They were also too small to house the necessary administrative operations of the growing business. Frank Lloyd Wright’s building was expected to accommodate the needs of executives, department heads, and systematic mail-handling and filing, in a closely joined workplace. (1)

Sept. 11, 1902: Darwin D. Martin, an influential Larkin executive, visits his brother in Chicago and sees Wright’s work in suburban Oak Park. He soon writes that Wright “makes $8,000 look like $15,000 in a house.” (2)

Nov. 18. 1902: Wright arrives in Buffalo from Chicago for a first meeting with Martin. (3)

Jan 15, 1903: Preliminary sketches are created for the Larkin company. (4)

Apr 4, 1904: Construction drawings are produced and dated. (5)

Aug 1906: Building is ready for occupancy. (6)

Dates: Commission / Completion:1903/1906
Architectural and other Designer(s): Frank Lloyd Wright, architect. Richard W. Bock, sculptor.
Others associated with Building/Site: Darwin D. Martin. John Larkin.
Significant Alteration(s) with Date(s): 1909: A Kroeschell refrigeration unit is added to Wright’s original air treatment system, which cleans the surrounding polluted air with a limited control of humidity. (7) 1932: Windows had been cut into the walls of the fifth floor. The annex chimney has been extended above the roof line. (8) Oct. 4, 1939: The Larkin Company announced in a press release that the Larkin Retail Store will be relocated across the street in the building, which has 25% more floor space than its existing location. The building was renovated: Interior court was cleared of the Wright-designed metal desks. The floors were carpeted, an organ console and grand piano are introduced into the space. Glareless floodlights were placed on the fifth floor. Interior windows were contained by the main floor—drapes and curtains are displayed against a pastel background that was backlit to simulate sunlight. Full-length mirrors were installed and walls are repainted. The area surrounding the central court was partitioned to make three model rooms for display. The second floor was also partitioned to make three model display rooms. The second and third floors were used to hold merchandize. Fourth and fifth floors are retained as office space for the mail-order branch. Ten of the double-paned windows that face the parking lot were transformed into display windows. (9) Nov. 20, 1939: Renovated building was reopened as the Larkin Retail Store. (10) 1941: Original decorative globes designed by Richard W. Brock have been removed from central exterior piers, possibly due to structural problems caused by their weight. (11) May 24, 1943: It was announced that building was sold to L.B. Smith, a Harrisburg, PA contractor. Nine months remain on Larkin Company (now the Larkin Store Corporation) lease. No further action was taken upon expiration of lease, and building is left unoccupied. (12) Jun. 15, 1945: Building was taken over by the City of Buffalo in a tax foreclosure of $104,616. (13) Oct. 15, 1947: Building had fallen into disrepair. Every double-paned window has been broken, the iron gate had fallen off its rusted hinges, the iron fence had been sacrificed for a wartime scrap collection. (14) Oct. 9, 1949: The Buffalo Courier Express wrote that “everything removable has been stripped by vandals. Lighting fixtures, door knobs, plumbing, and even part of the copper roof have been torn away systematically by thieves.” (15) Nov. 15, 1949: Building was sold to The Western Trading Corporation of Buffalo for $5000. (16) Feb. 1950: Demolition of building began. (17) July 1950: Demolition was completed. The floors, supported by 24 inch steel beams, were used to shore up coal mines in West Virginia. The bricks and stone were used to fill the Ohio Basin. (18) Nov. 27, 1951: Common Council approved petition to use site as parking lot, which is built. (19) To present: The north pier of the fence that bordered the west property line is still standing.
Current Use: Building demolished in 1950. A parking lot is on the site.
Current Condition: Demolished.
General Description:

The Larkin Building was constructed of dark red brick with pink tinted mortar. It was six stories, the main building was attached to a three story annex. The roof was paved with brick and served as a recreation area. The entrances of the building were flanked by two fountains which spilled water from inside the building into small pools attached to the exterior facade. The interior consisted of a five-story central court, surrounded by balconies. The upper level contained a kitchen, bakery, dining rooms, classrooms, a library, restrooms, a roof garden, and a conservatory. The interior walls were made of cream-colored brick. Natural and artificial light was provided by hermetically sealed double-paned windows. Wright used magnesite in the buildings interior, including in the floor, where it was mixed with cement. Stairs, doors, window sills, coping, capitals, partitions, desk tops, and plumbing slabs were all made of magnesite.(20) Wright took care, through evolving schemes, in the placement and exterior expression of the stairwells at the four corners of the building. These stairwells were paired with airshafts which carried cooled and cleaned air from the inventive air-handling system.

Construction Period:

A probable body of documentation concerning the construction of the Larkin Building was destroyed in a fire, there are relatively few sources remaining. (21)

Original Physical Context:

The Administrative Building was one of several Larkin company facilities, among them, factories and a retail store, located in an industrial section of downtown Buffalo along Seneca St. This site had been selected because of its proximity to the railroad lines, which surround the Larkin complex on three sides. The immediate atmosphere of the site was therefore laden with smoke. The need to create a clean atmosphere for the administrative and mail-order end of the business was an important factor in the design of the building. (22)

Evaluation
Technical Evaluation:

The technical aspirations of the Larkin building were driven by two factors: the desire to render the building fireproof (with the Chicago fire of 1871 in mind) and the desire to create a healthy and comfortable space within the polluted and noisy industrial context. As for the first, the building was built out of steel and masonry, but was rendered fireproof in more surprising ways as well. The metal desks, for instance, which Wright designed for the space, had fireproofed drawers, so that burning paper inside would simply burn out without spreading. As for the air and noise polluted atmosphere of the building’s surroundings, an air conditioning system was provided, one of the first during this time, which also cleaned the air that it cooled. The performance guarantees specified that the system was to thoroughly heat the building uniformly to 70 degrees in negative ten degree weather, that the blast fans move 28,000 cu. Ft. of air per minute each (there were four), and that 98% of dust and dirt was removed from the air. Furthermore, the windows were sealed air-tight, so that polluted air would not infiltrate the interior. (23) The floors, desktops, and cabinet-tops were covered in magnesite for sound insulation.

Social:

Documents indicate that the directors during the design of the Administrative Building held progressive views about the treatment of employees. They believed that a clean, safe, attractive work environment augmented productivity. (24) Therefore the Larking Building was designed to provide healthy and comfortable working conditions for the employees. Some criticism focuses upon the almost quasi-religious overtones of the buildings, particularly in the inscriptions engraved on building surfaces (the fifth-floor level contains two quotations from the Sermon on the Mount (25)), as well as with the daylight provided for through skylights.

Cultural & Aesthetic:
The Larkin building is made distinctive by its powerful geometric forms. It departs from the prevalent Beaux-Arts styling of similar administrative buildings such as that of Sears, Roebuck and Company. The most striking aspects of the building are the skylighting of the central space, the openness through five floors of the central space, and the decoration by Richard Bock, designed with Wight’s guidance.
Historical:

Early criticisms of the work were presented by Wright himself, at first at the behest of the company management for use in promotional publications. (26) Despite this, early opinion of the Larkin Building was hurt by an Architectural Record review by Russell Sturgis in 1908, who claimed, among other, more positive remarks, that the building was awkward and massive. (27) Wright justified this by claiming that the building was an antidote to the over proliferation of decoration, which was not appropriate for the building’s use. Therefore the building is very modern in style. Very little was written about the Larkin building following Sturgis’ criticism. (28) More recently, critics have looked anew at the modern influences that shaped the building’s design, including buildings with interior courts such as Burnham and Root’s Rookery Building, and the Marshall Field Store in Chicago. It’s strong lines have lead some critics, such as Reyner Banham and Vincent Scully, to suggest its affinity with the grain elevators that were common in the region at the time. (29)

General Assessment:
Documentation
Text references:

(1) Quinan, Jack. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building: Myth and Fact. (MIT Press, 1991) p. 10.
(2) Ibid. 4.
(3) Ibid, p. 5.
(4) Ibid. p. 26.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Ibid.
(7) A&V. “Edificio Larkin (Larkin Company Administration Building)” 1995 Jul-Aug. n.54 p. 36.
(8) Quinan, p. 123.
(9) Puma, Jerome. “The Larkin Building, Buffalo, New York: History of the Demolition.” Frank Lloyd Wright Newsletter 1978 Sept.-Oct. v.1 n. 5 p.2-7
(10) Ibid.
(11) Prairie School Review, Vol. VIII, No. 2, 1971. pp.14-17
(12) Puma. 2-7.
(13) Ibid.
(14) Ibid.
(15) Quinan, p. 124.
(16) Puma. P. 2-7.
(17) Puma, 2-7
(18) Puma, 2-7
(19) Puma, 2-7.
(20) Puma, 2
(21) Quinan, Jack. Society of Architectural Historians. 1989 Jun. v. 48. Pp.210
(22) Quinan. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building. p18.
(23) Ibid. 69.
(24) Ibid.. 44.
(25) Ibid., 102.
(26) Ibid., 111.
(27) Sturgis, Russell. “The Larkin Building in Buffalo.” Architectural Record. 1908 Apr. v. 23, pp. 312
(28) Quinan, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building. 141.
(29) Ibid., 40-41.

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