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Monday, June 26, 2023

Sacred Space Realized: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Design of Graycliff

By Paul Lubienecki, PhD
Any sacred space, for any religion, has been a symbol of a primordial place of spiritual redemption and peace; it is a concretized expression of a nostalgia for paradise. The sacred place is seen as an axis mundi: an intersection of heaven and earth with humankind.[1] An object, a tree, or a building was the hinge, the connector between these worlds, and was the sign and symbol of that affiliation. This affirmation of the spiritual and the architectural is realized in Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of Graycliff in Derby, New York. Originally designed as a family dwelling and the summer home of Darwin and Isabelle Martin, Wright incorporated his architectural axiom that “form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” [2] Therefore, Graycliff's design has attained an unintentional theological basis in its form and purpose. Planned as a home, it resonates with the Architect’s interior beliefs of family, nature, and the Spiritual.[3]

Frank Lloyd Wright had experience designing houses of worship: Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, and Beth Shalom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, are two of his most notable examples of many. He was raised in a liberal, Unitarian, and intellectual environment. His Unitarian uncle, the Reverend Jenkins Lloyd Jones, was another considerable influence who continued to guide Wright spiritually and encouraged him as an architect. These family influences fostered a lifelong sense of a more significant source in his work.

Throughout his life and career, Wright maintained that he always considered himself a deeply religious person and generally spoke of nature and architecture spiritually, declaring, “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature."[3]

Graycliff’s purpose as a family home is not unique, as Wright produced plans for many family dwellings. In Buffalo, he is noted for Martin House, Heath House, Davidson, and Barton Houses designs. In 1951, the Piarist Fathers, a religious order from Hungry, purchased the former Martin Family estate in Derby, New York, from the Buffalo Phoenix Corporation for $50,000. [4] It became a focal point for education and Hungarian culture in the area. The primary residence and other buildings were suitable and would need some alterations to accommodate the needs of these unassuming and humble priests. The conversion of the summer estate into a residence for a religious order of Catholic men and as a worship site is not novel.[5] 

When Christianity was a forbidden sect, the early Church assembled at private residences for worship and left it indistinguishable from other houses' archeological evidence.[6] What distinguishes this particular Wright design is its ultimate transformation and use of that space, which can be considered sacred. The Architect’s original plan never envisioned the property as a prayer and worship center. But the function and symbolic focus of Graycliff is sanctified in its architectural content, as described this way by Wright:

“The building as architecture is born out of the
heart of man, permanent consort to the ground,
comrade to the trees, a true reflection of a man in
the realm of his own spirit. His building is therefore
consecrated space wherein he seeks refuge, recreation,
and repose of body but especially mind.”[7]

While physical structures were adjusted or constructed by the Piarist Fathers, the evolution of Martin’s summer house into a sacred space was achieved naturally, organically, and spiritually from its initial conception. Wright’s reflections on architecture clearly demonstrate his indwelling persona:      

“Any building is a by-product of eternal living force,
a spiritual force taking forms in time and place
appropriate to man. We must remember that
architecture is not these buildings themselves but
something far greater. We must believe architecture
to be the living spirit that made buildings what they were.”[8]

With the priests as the residents of Graycliff, a sanctuary was constructed for religious services. St. Michael’s Chapel, built by the Piarist Fathers, was installed before the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. That particular sacred space was created as a ceremonial center of worship serving the needs of the faith community. Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy emphasized that the worshiping community is the Church, not the building. It refreshingly acknowledged that sacred spaces change and can continue to change by permitting the Catholic parish community to modify their spaces to suit local needs.[11] The Piarist Fathers altered the area of the south terrace for worship space which is within the norms of the Catholic Church. It stood as a place of prayer and a sign of worship and connection between the people of God on earth and their Creator.[12]

Wright designed the Unitarian Unity Temple in Chicago and connected it with Unity House to have a double presence as a worship space and a public auditorium. Worship is a church’s primary function, and its social or public life should be symbolically linked with its religious purpose.[13] With Unity Temple, Wright asserted this statement to be an architectural fact. At Graycliff, the Piarist Fathers reaffirmed this in using the property for worship and public functions. Sacred space, then, should not be a formalized, staid location but one that is a representation. It is where one awaits a fundamentally different experience; the “outside” world has been banned and replaced by a new inner symbolic space.[14]

From the time of ancient cultures to the present, religious architecture is a witness to the presence of belief within that culture or community. The sacred site was a manifestation of the deity.[15] Traditionally, these structures have chosen prominent placements to declare their distinction from the surrounding secular edifices.[16] The sacred place was constructed of precious materials to set it apart from all other structures. The architects and builders of ancient cultures used the relationship of the sun to the earth to create sacred places.[17] Geometric patterns were in place as a mark of distinction and to distinguish the sacred form from the formless profane surroundings.[18] Water often possesses strong symbolic content in religion, and ablution is a ritual shared by all faiths.[19]

Wright created Graycliff utilizing the local stone with its iron oxide color to elevate this place from the profane and to have the rocks come alive. He repeats the geometric diamond pattern found in the house's stones, fixtures, and furniture. Lake Erie symbolizes a “holy water” font for ritual blessings and soul cleansing. Wright’s design of the house on the lake shore clearly commingles water with the space washing over the individual in a new baptism. The main house is angled to capture the sun’s rays that bathe the house in a penetrating diagonal path as if to energize the building. Wright designed Graycliff to capture sunlight at its optimum. The natural light penetrates the house casting diagonal shadows across the floor and spreading to the exterior shaded terrace. In a decorative motif found in the stone, Wright expressed the path of the summer sun, particularly the summer solstice. The joints of the flagstone terrace floor are set at the same angle as the setting sun on this day. It represents the natural light filling not only the structure but the individual. 
Mayan architectural influence is recognized at Graycliff. Wright felt that Mayan temples and buildings, with their extended terraces and the scale of their horizontal stone construction, were the “purest kinship to elemental nature.”[20] The physical location is set apart from the mundane, like a monastery. He has created, if not a temple, a sacred space. Here, one experiences a sense of invitation to an inner spiritual retreat reconnecting man to his Creator through the earth, water, sky, and light. 

The three fundamental tenets of fides (loyalty), proles (children), and Sacramentum (the indissoluble unity of husband and wife) were the essential basis of Roman Catholic canon law concerning marriage and the family that emerged in the early Middle Ages.[21] During the Reformation, Luther ennobled the humble home as the parents and children tended to their daily chores. Marriage is a religious state to him.[22]

Wright’s residential designs, particularly in the Prairie Style, were to be shelters for the family. They were built as protection from the external elements and implied an internal healthy psychological atmosphere. 

From his childhood experiences, he wanted to create a close-knit family living joyfully in therapeutic surroundings.[23] Wright perceived the family as an intimate group within a larger community. The family gathered by the hearth's fire, for it is here, at the center of the house, that the family maintains the sacred fires. The hearth, for Wright, was the altar of the house.[24] To the ancient Greeks and Romans, fire symbolized purity. In the Catholic tradition, the Paschal or Easter candle represents the light of Christ. An eternal flame, important at grave sites or memorials, is an extension of the ever-glowing hearth at the center of the home.[25] The expression of this is visually and interiorly present at Graycliff. 

The Martin family’s time at Graycliff was certainly memorable. That time should be considered sacred, not in a liturgical sense, but from the sacramental and consecrated quality of marriage and family. They lived in a place designed by integrating natural elements into the structure by an architect who saw God in nature. In architecture, Wright submits, “God meets with nature in the relative sphere.”[26] By mixing the organic architecture with that of the family/community, a sacredness to that time and place has been achieved. 
With the acquisition of the property by the Piarist Fathers, the notion of sacred space is self-evident. The tenet is that the church building is the house of the Church, in the Biblical sense of that word.[27]

Ordinarily, the transfiguration of the south terrace into a chapel was the evidentiary sign of sacred space. This new addition, adorned with a crucifix, altar, candles, and pews, does not make the space holy. The symbolic purpose is domus ecclesiae significant -the house of stones that shelters the faith community and welcomes those to partake in the mystical union with Christ at the altar.[28] That designates the sanctity of space at Graycliff in a traditional manner. It is not a gathering place for religious participants who ritually act out their roles with the architecture as only a theatrical backdrop.[29] The “performance” unfolding here is the mingling between the sacred and the secular, between heaven and earth-God and humankind.

Officially, the Catholic Church has not adopted any particular style of church art or architecture.[30] Church architecture is to be true to the situation it is trying to serve and express; it must say that a church building creates a sense of community.[31] Graycliff was a setting for the community of the Martin family and their friends and, later, for the Piarist Order. The sense of gathering and unity establishes the consecration of the site. 

The use of the sacred space impacts the community's existence, as lived out in the Liturgy, prayer, or worship. The Piarist Fathers celebrated the Mass in the chapel but would also conduct an outdoor Liturgy during the May crowning or the August Lawn Fete. The precise location did not diminish the worship service, as Liturgy is at the very core of the Church’s life. Private and personal devotions are not denied, but worship in the Christian community is a communal act.[32] A permanent structure designated for the corporate worship of God is not strictly essential. Precise location does not tarnish the meaning. 
The addition of the chapel and Catholic school, the placement of a statue of the Virgin Mary at the front circle, and the estate’s role as a novitiate and spiritual retreat center merely signified the utilization of the facilities as Roman Catholic. The time of the Piarist community at Graycliff was a formalization of the buildings and grounds as being sacred. It symbolized the Traditional and was a focal point for prayer, reconciliation, and redemption. The mission of the Derby House, like that of the Church, was to strive for the installation of the kingdom of God here and now. In a 1903 letter to Darwin Martin discussing Christian Science and religion, Wright would prophetically underscore this point: “It is a church, however as are other churches, a man-made effort to live about the details of every day, the life revealed by Christ.[33]

The main house is not a church edifice but a spiritual house built from living stones. The Martins’ spiritual home is within the sacred space of the family. The Catholic priests maintain that it is a spiritual house due to the rituals of the Liturgy. Wright’s notion of living stones integrates the local rock into the structure, while the Piarist Fathers consider the people of God to be the living stones. 
These varying notions and beliefs of sacred space and its use are fused at Graycliff. The concept of sacred space, be it from a traditional religious stance, a humanist perspective, or an architectural plan, enhance the experience of this site. It is easy to comprehend how the family is perceived as a sacred unit. It is conventional to assume sanctity to space occupied by a religious community. With rapt admiration, it is discovered how Wright designed a space incorporating his interior life and beliefs for a house and property that could become and did become sacred in its form and function. 

Graycliff continues to saturate the visitor with awe and inspiration as there is a felt presence here where heaven and earth have joined. Regardless of an individual’s spiritual perspective, there is an invitation to experience oneness with nature and an individual’s concept of God in this sacred space. This impression is created from the structure's design and the essence of its use over the decades as a family home and later as a religious community. 

Wright considered his organic style of architecture to be a “fourth dimension,” as he viewed space as tangible and intangible. He advanced this to the spiritual, speculating that the ultimate mission of this organic style was a path toward the universal salvation of mankind.[34] Wright believed all his structures served a higher purpose as if they were transcendental in form and substance. He endeavored to make present the understanding of the building as a sacred act and buildings as sacred places.[35]

At Graycliff, there is an appreciation for the sacredness of that space: the use of materials, the visual beauty of the site, the remembered sanctity of the family, and the memory of the religious community at worship. All this brings an aura of spirituality to the visitor.

A coexistence occurs here that may not appear obvious but is intended by the creativity of Wright. In connecting all the components of earth and heaven, family, and worship, he has established Graycliff as a singular entity in its form and function as a sanctuary. The Catholic Church validates the union of Architect and structure when it proclaims:                        

“Architects and artists give glory to God through
their work. They communicate something of
their intuition of the divine and through their
imagination give some insight into the mysteries
of faith, which are inaccessible to reason alone.”[36]

“Reality is spirit, the essence brooding just behind all aspects.”[37] He did not view life as symbolized in his buildings but embodied in the occupation of that space. By this, the occupants of Graycliff, both the Martins and Piarist Fathers, confirmed this place as the ultimate expression of sacred space.

About the author: Dr. Lubienecki is the founding director of the Boland Center for the Study of Labor and Religion. He has published and taught in the Catholic Labor Colleges, that educated workers about their rights and duties.



[1]Thomas Barrie, Spiritual Path, Sacred Place. Myth, Ritual, and Meaning in Architecture. (Boston:                                Shambhala Publications, 1996),  66.

[2]Wright, The Future of Architecture, (New York: Bramhall House, 1953) 322.

[3]Joseph M.  Siry, Unity Temple, Frank Lloyd Wright and Architecture for Liberal Religion. (Cambridge:                     University Press, 1996), 12.

[4]Ketterl, “Graycliff, A Proposal for the Rehabilitation of a Master Work,” without pagination. 

[5]There have been, and continues to be, properties on the shores of Lake Erie designed for religious purposes. The Passionist Order of Catholic Priests operated a boy’s school and minor seminary in Dunkirk, NY, concurrently with Graycliff. It closed in the late 1960s. Protestant denominations also operate retreat centers and religious camps along the lake.

[6]Richard Kitchener, Theology in Stone, Church Architecture from Byzantium to Berkeley, (Oxford:                           University Press, 2004), 70.

[7]Robert McCarter, ed., On and By Frank Lloyd Wright. A Primer of Architectural Principles, (London:

 Phaidon press Ltd., 2005),  264.

[8]Frank Lloyd Wright, The Future of Architecture, (New York: Bramhall House, 1953),  52.

[9]Paul Eli Ivey, Prayers in Stone. Christian Science Architecture in the United States, 1894-1930.                             (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 118.

[10]Ibid., 118.

[11]Nelson, ed., American Sanctuary, Understanding Sacred Spaces, (Bloomington: Indiana                                          University Press, 2006), 141.

[12] Joseph Duffy, D.D., The Place of Worship. Pastoral Directory on the Building and Reordering of                             Churches. Carlow, Ireland: Veritas Publications and the Irish Institute of Pastoral Liturgy, 1966) 17.

[13]Siry, Unity Temple, Frank Lloyd Wright and Architecture for Liberal Religion. (Cambridge:                                       University Press, 1996),  116.

[14]Samuel Laeuchli, Religion and Art in Conflict, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980),  148.

[15]Barrie, Spiritual Path, Sacred Place. Myth, Ritual, and Meaning in Architecture. (Boston:                                           Shambhala Publications, 1996),   67.

[16]Edward A. Sovik, Architecture for Worship, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing, 1973),   51.

[17]Lawlor, The Temple in the House, (New York: Putnam Books, 1994), 118.

[18]Barrie, Spiritual Path, Sacred Place. Myth, Ritual, and Meaning in Architecture.,  67.

[19]Ibid.,  74.

[20]Neil Levine, The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 141. 

[21]Norris Kelly Smith, Frank Lloyd Wright, A Study in Architectural Content, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice -Hall               Inc., 1966), 69.

[22]Ibid., 69.

[23]Robert C. Twombly, Frank Lloyd Wright, (New York: Harper & Row, 1973),.  71.

[24]McCarter, ed., On and By Frank Lloyd Wright. A Primer of Architectural Principles,  317.

[25]Lawlor, The Temple in the House, (New York: Putnam Books, 1994),  135.

[26]Wright, The Future of Architecture, (New York: Bramhall House, 1953) 200.

[27]Peter Hammond, Liturgy, and Architecture, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961),. 28.

[28]Ibid.,  155.

[29]Lindsay Jones, Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture, Experience, Interpretation, Comparison. Volume 2, (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2000), 208.

[30]Duffy, The Place of Worship. Pastoral Directory on the Building and Reordering of Churches,  12.

[31]Bernard Cooke, S.J. “Theology of the Liturgy,” Church Architecture, The Shape of Reform, (Washington:  The Liturgical Conference, 1965),  11.

[32]Hammond, Liturgy, and Architecture, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961). 29.

[33]Darwin Martin papers. MS 22.8, Box 1, Folder 20. (University Archives, University at Buffalo).

[34]Smith, Frank Lloyd Wright, A Study in Architectural Content, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice -                                  Hall Inc., 1966),  177.

[35]McCarter, ed., On and By Frank Lloyd Wright. A Primer of Architectural Principles, 12.

[36]Duffy, The Place of Worship. Pastoral Directory on the Building and Reordering of Churches,  13.

[37]Frank Lloyd Wright, An American Architecture, (New York: Horizon, 1955),  18.