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)
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.
A probable body of documentation concerning the construction of the Larkin Building was destroyed in a fire, there are relatively few sources remaining. (21)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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)
(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.
(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
(11) Prairie School Review, Vol. VIII, No. 2, 1971. pp.14-17
(12) Puma. 2-7.
(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.