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Visiting Graycliff

If you are looking for a place to find some peace and quiet, along with great views and a look at history, consider going to Graycliff Estate in Angola.

Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright between 1926-31 for Isabelle R. Martin, the wife of industrialist Darwin Martin, the property was owned by the family until it was sold to the Piarist Fathers in 1951 for use as the order’s motherhouse. The Fathers altered the property substantially for their own uses, adding additional buildings and structures that obscured Wright’s vision for nearly 50 years.

In 1997, Graycliff was offered for sale. The only offer the Fathers received was from a condominium developer. Meetings were called in an effort to save Graycliff, resulting in the formation of the Graycliff Conservancy, a non-profit founded specifically to acquire, preserve, restore and make accessible to the public the Graycliff Estate.

The efforts were successful, as today the Graycliff Estate is open for tours. Reine Hauser is the executive director of Graycliff Conservancy, Inc. and said while there is still work to do, a key element has been completed.

“What we’ve recently completed is our historic landscape and I’ve got to say, and this is completely biased of course, but it does seem to be in line with what our visitors are saying, it just looks beautiful,” she stated. “We’re very thrilled with it.

“It doesn’t really look like it but we’re about 80 percent done. The interiors are not all done but all of the structural repairs have been completed. All building exteriors have been completed. There are three Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings. Now we’re getting into the phase where we’re working on the interiors. Anybody who knows a house knows that the structural work is the most difficult and expensive … and nobody ever sees it again.

“We have recently completed our first building interior; the family sun porch. We plan to be doing some more interior work this fall and winter. Tours continue throughout restorations. People like to see it.”

Research showed Graycliff is not just about buildings, however.

“It turns out our landscape is just as significant as our buildings, if not more so. The grounds and gardens were also designed by Frank Lloyd Wright,” Hauser explained. “He designed Graycliff as a complex and he designed the buildings and landscape together to provide landscape. There are three buildings and they are set within this landscape and Graycliff is the whole entire thing. We didn’t understand that in the very early days, we thought it was the main building. Through research we came to understand that it’s the buildings within the landscape that is what actually is Graycliff, and how that’s how Frank Lloyd Wright designed it, to be kind of a whole complex.

“You just feel like you are in a very secluded, very tranquil location and it’s like being in another world. People from Buffalo come out, it’s only 20 minutes from downtown, and people say, ‘you know, I feel like I’m 100 miles away from downtown Buffalo.’ It’s very, very tranquil.”

Hauser said Graycliff, which is open seven days a week in summer and fall, hosts some 10,000 visitors a year from around the world.

“People should email or call us for reservations to make sure, because tours are so popular that they sell out. We hate turning people away. We strongly recommend reservations and we strongly encourage people to look on our website because we have different kinds of tours that are available, different lengths, different kinds of things people might be interested in.”

Tours are all lead by trained, volunteer docents.

“They are terrific. This estate is really a project of love by many, many people,” Hauser added. “We have volunteers who do all kinds of things at the estate. We have our many visitors. We have people join and become a member of Graycliff to support our efforts. It’s really a wonderful thing.”

Prices vary depending on the type of tour.

“People should go to our website and see what kind of tour they are interested in. A basic 1-hour tour is $15. Of course all proceeds go to help the Conservancy continue its work. Students 10 to 21 get a discount with a student ID of some sort,” Hauser explained. “We say that our tours are most appropriate for kids age 10 and up, unless your child is like 8 or 9 and is really into architecture, which does happen occasionally. It’s really a tour that’s designed for adults.”

The basic tour includes seeing the new landscape, the first floor of the Isabell Martin House and the views of the lake.

“You get to learn about the history of the Martin family, you get to learn about Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed Graycliff. Our docents are extremely knowledgeable and they’re all certified. They have to take a training course,” Hauser stated. “Our visitors regularly say they’ve been to many other historic properties and their tour of Graycliff was the best one they’d ever gotten. I’m very proud of that. … Our wonderful volunteers are doing that. They are truly amazing.”

Hauser said reservations should be made, the sooner the better for summer tours. As for getting to Graycliff from the northern Chautauqua County area, Hauser said there was plenty of signage but she also had directions.

“Take Route 5 until they get to South Creek Road. Take South Creek to Old Lakeshore Road and make a quick left and they’ll be right there,” Hauser said. “We encourage people to come visit, we encourage people to look at our website because there’s a lot of tour information there. They can also, if they like, go on Facebook and they will see a lot of photographs.”

The website to make reservations is www.graycliffestate.org.