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Preserving the Future

Bruno Freschi (photo: Bruce Jackson)

Bruno Freschi talks about Buffalo's architectural heritage and promise

Bruno Freschi, former Dean of UB’s School of Architecture, is perhaps best known as the chief architect for Expo 86 in Vancouver, British Columbia—an overall design that changed the face of that city. He was in town last week to visit with some old friends. His trip coincided with the announcement of a $3 million grant from New York State for continued work on the rehabilitation of the Darwin D. Martin House, the local gem designed by architectural titan Frank Lloyd Wright. Artvoice sat down with him as he reflected on that process as well as other local treasures of international significance.

Artvoice: Let’s recap your involvement with the Martin House.

Bruno Freschi: I was appointed dean, and I didn’t know it but the Martin House was given to the University. It was purchased by the University, and given to the school (of architecture), so it became my responsibility.

AV: What year was that?

BF: ’89. Well, that’s when I arrived. And the Martin House was basically falling down. There were a lot of very, very dedicated people...well intended...but there didn’t seem to be a way to do anything. So, one thing led to another, and as the dean, I had the University saying, “No money. There’s no money.” But we were able to garner the moral support...and they could actually get the state to separate the land from the building, so that we could create a private corporation called the Martin House Restoration Corporation. The early stages of that...public meetings...and getting the university on side, and identifying some key people like Bob Kresse, Stan Lipsey, who really stood up...and that sprung then the fundraising. Because basically now the house is in private hands, and the people who got involved were just fantastic. The corporation has gone through a few generations of changes to the board, but they continue to raise money. I was there for the $3 million announcement the other day—just by accident—but it was so great to see because they’ve actually achieved the dream. I mean, it was just a wet dream. [laughs] When you look back, it was just a dream...and you try to do this, you try to do that...but the road ahead was very long. We had to get control of the Barton house, get control of those apartment buildings, tear them down. So it wasn’t just the upgrading of a house. We also recommended a visitor’s center...had an international competition for that, which I participated in to pick the winner. And she (Toshiko Mori) was clearly head and shoulders above everybody else.

AV: Overall, the project is going to be around $50 million?

BF: I don’t know. The numbers are extraordinary. In my day it was $12 million. That’s all we needed, really, to do the physical job. But those people that raise big money, they understand to triple everything. So that had to go to $36 million. And I think it’s more than that now. But they’re really doing a first-rate job. That’s the important thing. No dumbing-down. Everyone’s doing a great, great job. Because it’s a tough one to do. Every little thing like finding the original guys to do the bricks...getting the art glass work redone...those are unbelievable tasks. And they’ve managed to really do it.

AV: What is it you were saying about that being the cornerstone of Buffalo as an architectural site?

BF: One of the reasons I came here when I accepted the deanship, was because the architectural legacies in Buffalo are so phenomenal. When I was just a graduate student I was in Toronto and I made a special trip down to see the Larkin Building, only to discover a pile of bricks. Which I’ll never forgive Buffalo for. Nobody should. We should keep that as the whip. But you know, the psychiatric hospital, Sullivan’s work, Wright’s work—and there are more Wright houses—and they’re gonna come into the fold. So what you’ve got is, with the success of the Martin House, a foundation piece for a serious architectural destination. And it’s not just idiosyncratic architects. It’s people. People are very interested.

AV: What responsibility do the private owners of Wright’s homes have to the legacy of his work?

BF: A lot. [laughs] You can’t own a Frank Lloyd Wright house in North America and not know that you have a responsibility to that building. There are, under the banner of preservation and can become hyper-purist and go crazy. What will happen in Buffalo, notwithstanding the private ownership, is over time that stuff is so important it will fall into the Restoration Corporation. I keep telling the Restoration Corporation: It’s not a $12 million, $36 million, $50 million,’s $200 million, $300 million, because that’s the scale of this deal that’s going on. You wouldn’t argue about a $300 million car factory, or furniture factory. So this is a $300 million cultural factory. But it takes people a long time to get their heads around that. I think the Richardson psychiatric hospital by Buff State is the next big one. When I was here, I was using it for faculty meetings, because it’s a phenomenal building.

AV: How do you feel about some of the newly constructed Wright buildings, based on the boathouse?

BF: You know, I haven’t seen the boathouse. I wouldn’t be opposed to that, but I think that’s really a different scale of the issue. What’s good about it is it completes the repertoire in Buffalo. It’s one of those elements that was not done, so there it is, now it’s done. And it enriches the repertoire. But what’s really important is all the existing stuff. Like Graycliff is falling into that fold. And the private owners, you know, we had to buy the mortgage on the Martin House. And we justified it based on the value of the art glass. Banks stood up for it. So, you know, they won’t lose. You just have to get them to understand the value of what’s there, and not become greedy, because that’s the other problem. In the early days of the Martin House, people were calling offering me bits and pieces for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Things they had picked up for five or ten dollars at an old shop.

AV: One of the things that needs to be balanced when there’s a great investment of public money is...

BF: [laughs] Is it worth it. That’s really important. It’s not understood. You may have voices for this in the press, and you may individuals who will voice this, but it’s never enough. Especially when people are hurting financially. You have to bring forward the cultural argument, and really explain it carefully. The University carries a responsibility there, the School of Architecture and Planning. My old school ought to be front and center in its involvement with the Martin House. Architecture is a universal language. I think the bigger job is bringing into the fold all these other monuments. Everybody in the world knows these monuments. That Richardson complex? Everybody in the world knows it. It’s a building, in plan, that looks like an eagle. To evolve the sick to soar. It’s a metaphor, but think about that. What do we do with the mentally ill now? You know, where have you ever heard of anybody speaking that way? And it’s already built. It’s there. It’s not gonna fall down if everybody pulls together.

Watch AV’s interview with Freschi in its entirety—including his thoughts on the Peace Bridge, the waterfront, and Buffalo’s unique potential by visiting

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