On the day they arrived at the Martin House complex in Buffalo, N.Y., most of the bricklayers from King Brothers Masonry Contractors weren't very familiar with Darwin Martin or Frank Lloyd Wright. Project Foreman Gregg Schiltz led the masons on a tour of the grounds and home, pointing out unique design elements and the significance of their upcoming work on this historic landmark.
The Martin House and its surrounding buildings were originally built between 1903 and 1907, and became National Historic Landmarks in 1986. They were designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright for Darwin D. Martin, an executive with the Larkin Soap Co.
The complex is a textbook example of Wright's Prairie House style, which features straight, horizontal lines, low roofs, and prominent foundations intended to blend with the natural landscape. The style is also known for solid construction, attention to craftsmanship, and great detail.
Hard work ahead
King Brothers was hired for what the Martin House Restoration Corp. (MHRC) called “the most ambitious and pivotal” phase of the project: complete reconstruction of the pergola, conservatory, and carriage house adjacent to the home. These structures were torn down in 1962 and replaced by apartments. Eventually, MHRC raised money to buy back the land and replace the buildings.
It was a challenging assignment, but the King Brothers team was inspired when they discovered a photo of the original group of Martin House masons. “We were looking at 50 guys in bibs with shovels, mortar carriers, and trowels, all standing on the walls,” recalled Schiltz. “It was amazing to think that they built it all in four years, without any modern technology.”
King Brothers constructs new facilities every day, but rebuilding turn-of-the-century structures required creativity. “If we had any questions about details or layout, we would look at historic photos or original drawings of the buildings to see exactly how they were done,” said Schiltz.
Matching brick and mortar
Materials were critical to the project's authentic look. No block was used. Masons built interior walls with two layers of red common brick and placed yellow brick with an iron spot face for the exterior.
Originally, the exterior bricks were 1½-in. high and 11 5/8-in. long, which is not a standard size today and not feasible for any manufacturer to reconfigure its machines. Instead, Belden Brick Co. made 4-in. jumbos and hand-cut the 70,000 face bricks used on the job.
King Brothers hired The Quikrete Companies to match the original 100-year-old mortar. The mortar on the house had weathered over time, exposing the texture and colors of coarse sand from Lake Erie. After six months of searching for the right blend of sand and cement, Quikrete perfected the formula with a new sand supplier.
Wright's design also called for several different mortar colors: white for interior red brick, tan for horizontal exterior mortar joints, and yellow to match the brick on vertical exterior joints. Quikrete produced custom, pre-blended bags for each, and masons created sample strips and panels onsite. Even though a computerized batching system was used, each bag was visually inspected before delivery to ensure a high quality mortar.
The architect, construction management company, and MHRC inspected nearly 60 preparations before they approved. “We are confronted with the task of matching existing mortar on a daily basis, and 95% of the time we can do it on the first attempt,” said Chris Darner, bulk materials territory manager for Quikrete. “This was the only project in my experience that we have spent so much time investigating sand color, gradation, and shading of the desired mortar.”
Both Quikrete and King Brothers estimate the labor took at least three times longer than a typical job. Even a common task — striking mortar joints — became a work of art on this project.
Joint thicknesses and different mortar colors created a horizontal pattern by minimizing the number of vertical lines visible. Horizontal mortar joints were 5/8 in., but vertical joints were only 1/8 in. The bed joints were raked out, but end joints were wiped with a rag to expose the aggregate and mimic the original mortar. Bricklayers worked with two mortar boards and two trowels at all times, to keep the mortar colors from mixing.
King Brothers' team had to be kept to eight men or less because of the intricate details involved. At every turn, there were columns, doors, windows, and piers. Bricklayers worked closely with the concrete contractor where the two materials came together on concrete gutters, an extended foundation, and planters in the conservatory.
For a slideshow of the detailed masonry work on the Darwin Martin House,
- Masonry Contractor: King Brothers Masonry Contractors Inc., North Java, N.Y.
- Construction Management: LP Ciminelli, Buffalo, N.Y
- Masonry Suppliers: The Quikrete Companies, Atlanta, Ga.; Belden Brick Co., Canton, Ohio
- General Contractor/Concrete Contractor: King Brothers Construction Corp., Elma, N.Y.