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The Larkin Company: A look back

The story of Buffalo’s most famous family firm



Considered by many to be Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, the Larkin Administration Building is Buffalo’s most famous demolition.

Photos courtesy of the Buffalo History Museum

 

In 1967, five years after the Larkin Company shipped its last order to a customer in Philadelphia, it sold its remaining real estate holdings to Graphic Controls, bringing an end to nearly one hundred years of operation for one of the most successful and renowned companies in Buffalo business history. Today, the area that was once home to the Larkin Company, a center of the city’s industrial might in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and later a lonely warehouse district, is now, thanks to Leslie and Howard Zemsky, Tim Tielman, and many others, a vibrant urban destination centered on Larkin Square and universally known as Larkinville.

 

The Larkin Company was founded and led by John D. Larkin and, since many of its principals were related by blood or marriage, the business was, in accordance with John’s wishes, a family affair. The company left its mark on the community in many ways, not the least of which was the architectural legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright, who built homes and a summer cottage for four of Larkin’s executives. But arguably Wright’s most important Buffalo project, the Larkin Administration Building, now only a rueful memory, did not survive as part of that legacy. Hailed after its completion in 1906 as a marvel of innovative design and function, the building was demolished less than fifty years after its construction.

 

John Larkin (1880)

 

Intelligence, ambition, and a love for Canada

John Durrant Larkin was born in 1845 at 13 Clinton Street, a site now part of a parking lot directly across from today’s Buffalo & Erie County Central Library. Larkin’s father Levi, a blacksmith, died of pneumonia at age thirty-five and John grew up with six siblings and his mother Mary Ann Durrant Larkin, an English immigrant like her husband, who came of age near Winterbourne, Ontario, between Waterloo and Guelph. John Larkin always loved visiting the Durrant farm in the Canadian countryside and, after his success, he and his wife Frances bought a country house at Queenston, as well as nearly 2,000 acres of surrounding farmland.

 

Although his mother worked as a nurse, John left school at age twelve and took a job as a Western Union messenger to help support his family. Shortly thereafter, he was hired by a prominent Buffalo milliner and soon worked his way up to clerk. He was smart, ambitious, good-looking, and quickly absorbed the basics of the business world. When he was sixteen, his sister Mary married Justus Weller, the young proprietor of a soap factory on Seneca Street; Weller hired John as clerk and general assistant to the business. John also made and sold soap for Weller in New York and Brooklyn. He happened to be in New York on April 25, 1865, and he paid his respects as President Lincoln’s funeral cortege passed through the city. Around 1870, Weller moved his soap business to Chicago and Larkin became a partner. Here, he met future wife Hannah Frances Hubbard, known to family and friends as Frank. Larkin and Frank wrote each other charming little notes during their romance. These surviving documents reveal John’s whimsical and playful side, like the one in which he addresses her as “Miss Audacious Stunner.” Frank was the daughter of Weller’s uncle Dr. Silas Hubbard and the sister of Elbert Hubbard.

 

John starts his own soap company and brings Elbert Hubbard on board

John and Frances were married in the Hubbards’ hometown of Hudson, Illinois, in 1874. The following year heralded two big life changes: the birth of a son, Charles Hubbard Larkin, and the dissolution of John Larkin’s partnership with Justus Weller. John was finally ready to start his own soap business. He scouted for locations in Boston and Albany, but finally settled on Buffalo as the ideal location. In April 1875, he leased a factory building on Chicago Street in the city’s First Ward. Elbert Hubbard, who had been a traveling soap salesman for Weller, soon decided to change companies and work with his brother-in-law in Buffalo, selling Larkin soap on the road. Hubbard and his salesmen were so successful that Larkin quickly outgrew his factory in the First Ward and bought property on Seneca Street where he built new factories to accommodate the increasing volume of business. At the height of its success, the Larkin Company occupied a total of twenty-one buildings in the Seneca/Swan neighborhood. The area had been an important industrial center since the construction of the Hydraulic Canal, which provided water power for mills and factories since the 1820s. In 1878, Elbert and John formed a partnership under the name of J. D. Larkin & Co. with John responsible for the manufacturing and Bert handling the promotion and advertising.

 

Hubbard’s marketing savvy pays off

Elbert Hubbard devised the advertising, promotional, and merchandising schemes that would transform the company from a relatively unknown soap manufacturer to one of the country’s leading mail order businesses by the turn of the twentieth century. These included testimonials from prominent citizens throughout the nation, combination boxes of Larkin soap products, and premiums for purchases. Customers could order a box of toilet and laundry soaps and receive a brass floor lamp or mirrored desk as a premium. As the company grew, these premium items were sold directly to customers without the soap. Ads were directed to church groups through religious publications with an emphasis on the wholesomeness and integrity of the company and its products. All of this goodness, respectability, and commercial superiority was summarized in the theme “The Larkin Idea.” But, despite his success at Larkin, Hubbard announced in 1892 that he was leaving the company to attend Harvard College and pursue a career as a writer. He did succeed as a writer, but most famously founded the Roycroft artisans community in East Aurora as part of the national Arts and Crafts movement. Elbert Hubbard and wife Alice Moore Hubbard perished on the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania after it was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland in 1915.

 

Top: The Larkin complex; Above: Larkin employees weighing cocoa (1922)
Below (L–R): Administration Building interior, and P. G. Harlow tasting tea (1922)

 

From factory to family without salesmen

Early on, Larkin and Hubbard decided that the best way to maximize profits would be to eliminate the sales force and its expensive commissions. Thus was born the mail order business that adopted the slogan “From Factory to Family.” Another successful promotional strategy was the formation of Larkin clubs throughout the nation. Regular customers became Larkin secretaries who organized clubs in their neighborhoods typically consisting of ten women who regularly met and ordered merchandise and successively shared the premiums included in the orders. During the company’s peak years, there were 90,000 Larkin secretaries and more than two million customers across the country. Just after the turn of the century, there were Larkin branch offices in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Peoria.

 

Progressive employee benefits

Had unions attempted to organize Larkin employees, they doubtless would have met with little to no success since the company had its own employee welfare benefits. There was a medical department staffed with doctors, nurses, and dentists. The company paid disability and death benefits and established a lending library and a school for immigrants and other workers. Larkin created a YWCA for its women workers, a dormitory for young women, a men’s club with billiards, card tables, reading room, and piano, and restaurants for employees and visitors. An auditorium offered lectures, classes, and films. The Administration Building was enhanced with murals by artist Alexander Levy, a Steinway concert grand piano, and a concert pipe organ. For recreation, there was a company baseball team, bowling alleys, a women’s drum corps, a men’s band, Christmas parties, summer field days, and picnics. Larkin also offered paid vacations, a retreat on the shores of Lake Erie, and an employee savings program.

 

Darwin Martin becomes a teenage bookkeeper

In 1878, thirteen-year-old Darwin Denice Martin had been looking for a way to escape the unhappy home of his quarreling father and stepmother. Darwin’s brother Frank was then selling soap for Larkin and arranged for his younger brother to join him in the company. Impressed by the lad’s curiosity and intelligence, John hired Darwin to keep the books in the Larkin office and he became the company’s first office worker in addition to Larkin himself. Within a few years, Martin had earned the title of head bookkeeper. In 1892, he acquired company stock and a directorship; six years later, he became secretary of the company earning $10,000, the equivalent of roughly $275,000 today. Martin revolutionized the company’s records system by introducing card catalogs to replace cumbersome ledgers and organized the thousands of customer orders in a comprehensive and accessible way. Inspired by library card catalog files, the system had never been used before in a business context.

 

Martin brings Frank Lloyd Wright to Buffalo

With the continued dramatic growth of the company at the turn of the twentieth century, the need for a new administration building became obvious to John Larkin. He considered the Chicago firm of Adler and Sullivan, the architects who designed Buffalo’s signature Prudential Guaranty Building, but Darwin Martin urged his boss to hire Louis Sullivan’s brilliant young protégé, Frank Lloyd Wright. Built between 1904 and 1906, the Larkin Administration Building was unlike any other office building in the world. A cathedral of commerce with a seventy-five-foot atrium in the middle, this remarkable building was a source of pride to Larkin and all his employees. Martin also commissioned Wright to design his own historic mansion complex on Jewett Parkway and, later, a summer house, Graycliff, overlooking Lake Erie. The Barton House, built for Martin’s sister Delta and her husband George Barton, also a Larkin executive, was designed by Wright as part of the Martin compound and completed before work on the Martin House began. William R. Heath, who Larkin hired in 1898 to head his legal department, was married to Mrs. Larkin’s sister Mary Hubbard. Heath, who became vice-president of the Larkin Company, also commissioned Wright to design a Prairie School house on Soldier’s Place in Buffalo’s Elmwood district. Buffalo’s fourth Frank Lloyd Wright house, located on Tillinghast Place in the Parkside district, was commissioned by another Larkin executive, Walter V. Davidson, who joined Larkin as advertising manager in 1906.

 

Life in Larkland

Although four Larkin executives lived in Wright houses, the Larkins themselves did not. They preferred the more conventional architectural symbols of success and wealth, great Colonial mansions with Ionic columns, marble porticos, glass conservatories, French doors, and servants’ quarters. As Frank Lloyd Wright snidely commented about the Larkins in his autobiography, “In architecture, they were still pallbearers for the remains of Thomas Jefferson and subsequently all built colonial houses for themselves in Buffalo.” In fact, it was John D. Larkin who funded the construction of five houses for himself and his family. Larkin bought what was then known as part of Rumsey’s Woods, an entire block bounded by Lincoln Parkway, Rumsey Road, Windsor Avenue, and Forest Avenue to create what Mrs. Larkin called Larkland. Four of the original grand houses remain, and the entire block is still encompassed by the handsome low stone wall Larkin built around his properties,  but the patriarch’s grand manor at 107 Lincoln across from Delaware Park is long gone.

 

The company prospers, then slowly declines

The Larkin Company continued to expand and add new products until the 1920s. Among them were leather goods, gasoline, pottery, wing chairs, clothes, perfumes, lotions, cold creams, paints and varnishes, and food products. The company hit its high water mark in the year 1920 with sales totaling nearly $23 million. Sales and profits declined in subsequent years and, in 1931, the Larkin company paid its last stockholder dividend. The following year, the company lost over $1 million but, by 1943, all creditors were paid off and bankruptcy was avoided. William Heath left Larkin in 1924 and Darwin Martin retired in 1925. John D. Larkin died in 1926 and his sons John Jr. and Harry H. Larkin led the company during the following decades. In 1950, after years of neglect and vandalism, the Larkin Administration Building was demolished. All that’s left are the remains of two of the building’s piers and signage describing what was lost. Today, nearly 150 years after the founding of the Larkin Company, the historic energy and success of the company is reflected in the activity and enthusiasm of the new businesses in Larkinville and the popular year-round events at Larkin Square.

 

Learn more about a museum of Larkin memorabilia here!

 

 

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