It Takes One: Graycliff Conservancy

This story focuses on three champions and founding members of the Graycliff Conservancy, Inc. While their involvement in the Graycliff Estate was spurred by differing reasons, the trio is being recognized because of their ability to come together and work “as one” to achieve a successful outcome for this significant property.

Their efforts have recently culminated in the commission of restoration work by the preservation firm, Heritage Landscapes. All of the Graycliff champions continue their mission to preserve and restore the Graycliff property by either serving on the Board of Directors or on the Graycliff Advisory Board.

Carol Bronnenkant served as the Graycliff Conservancy's first President and volunteer acting Executive Director from 1997-2004 and continues as an advisor to the Graycliff Board of Directors. John Conlin is Editor of Western New York Heritage Magazine and a dean of historic preservation in the Buffalo area. He continues as an Advisor to the Graycliff Board of Directors. Patrick Mahoney, AIA, is an associate in the firm of Lauer-Manguso & Associates and currently serves as Vice-President of the Conservancy.

How would you define a cultural landscape?

A cultural landscape is the culture of living. I like to talk about Antanas Mockus, the former mayor of Bogotá, who introduced a number of unusual initiatives that proved his thesis that citizenship is built on cultural behavior. For instance, instead of resorting to the force of law, he hired 200 mimes to regulate the chaotic traffic in Bogotá, as a way of reminding the citizens that they are the ones who create the urban coexistence in the first place. Coexistence is symbiosis.

Why did you get involved in the landscape that was threatened in your community?

Carol: The Piarist Order's decision to sell the 8+ acre Graycliff Estate in 1997 presented a unique opportunity to reclaim an important landscape and a significant architectural landmark for public access.  However, both the grounds and property were in a condition of "benign neglect" that made the parcel most attractive for redevelopment as an extension of an existing cluster of condominium units.  It was this immediate threat that spurred my involvement.

John: I got involved because I thought the cultural landscape was undervalued and misunderstood. 

Patrick: I became involved in this preservation project because I felt that any building by America’s greatest architect shouldn’t be demolished. When the property was placed on the open market for sale, the only other purchase offers were from developers who would have razed the buildings for condominium developments.  After researching summer homes designed or executed by Wright, we learned that Graycliff’s design masterfully blends the landscape, buildings, distant surroundings, and the clients’ experiences in a way not achieved on any other site in his career.  Graycliff is the only extant mature summer house and grounds of Wright’s career.

How did your understanding of this landscape change as a result of your advocacy efforts?

When we initially embarked on the project, we had no understanding of the significance of the landscape or architecture in this context.  We viewed the landscape as a single entity.  As the Conservancy's extensive research efforts progressed , so did our understanding and appreciation for both the natural setting and vistas, as well as those viewscapes created by Frank Lloyd Wright to make the visitor immediately conscious of the immense natural splendor at Graycliff.

Did the understanding of others change as well? If so, how?

While under the ownership of the Piarist Order, the Graycliff Estate was a tax-exempt property.  When Graycliff was put up for sale, the Town of Evans was initially more interested in returning a sizeable parcel to the tax rolls than in providing public access to this beautiful waterfront landscape or in saving a landmark.  Since our initial restoration efforts, it has been increasingly apparent to architectural scholars that this is a very important work, if not Wright’s most important work of this period. Furthermore, it became essential to understand how the entire landscape is integrated into Wright’s over-all design of the property. The Town has since embraced the restoration of the Graycliff Estate and its grounds for its architectural and historic significance, and for the thousands of visitors it brings to their community.

What is the message that you would like to give our readers that may inspire them to make a difference?

Our cultural landscapes and historic landmarks are our collective legacy as a nation.  Yet, we can not abdicate responsibility for the protection of these treasures to government alone.  This was a project which was deemed inconsequential early on by local movers and shakers.  Had our volunteers listened to foundations, government organizations, and influential citizens in the community, this property would have been lost.  Due the remarkable grass roots effort that exposed the significance of the property, architectural historians and the general public quickly recognized this to be one of the most significant works in Frank Lloyd Wright’s career.  Now with this near universal acclaim, those same foundations, government organizations and influential citizens have become the champions of this project as it has been made accessible and interpreted to the visitors from the world over. As often as not, it was a grassroots initiative that stepped in to prevent the destruction of this community treasure.  Each of us may be the only obstacle to the loss of an area of natural beauty or a building of historic significance.  Although it may be a daunting task, be willing to "step out in faith" and be an active participant in the preservation of what you most hold dear.