John D. Larkin
By John H. Conlin

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The white classical revival Larkland Mansion of John D. and Frances Hubbard Larkin on Lincoln Parkway. Demolished in 1939. Courtesy of Daniel I. Larkin.
The story of John D. Larkin is Buffalo’s own “American dream” success story—of a young man born in Buffalo in 1848, who started a business from scratch, and through intense labor, sound judgement, and relentless perseverance, accumulated immense wealth and property, all the while adhering to the same fundamental values with which he began. Initially he toiled in grueling fourteen-hour days producing the soap product that he then went out to sell door-to-door from morning to night. Thus began the “factory to family” theme that would be the mainstay of the Larkin Company throughout its history. In a steady expansion, Larkin built his enterprise into a merchandising empire that rivaled Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. The huge complex of Larkin Company buildings on Seneca Street in Buffalo would eventually claim sixty four acres of interior space.

Daniel I. Larkin, a grandson of John D. Larkin, has produced a biography of the founder of the Larkin Company, incorporating information from the extensive collection of original documents assembled by his late brother, Harry Larkin, Jr., and augmented by a further collection of family letters, diaries, and scrapbooks he received from a cousin. Dan Larkin worked at the company in his youth before becoming a college English teacher.

When John D. Larkin died in 1926 he was one of Buffalo’s most respected citizens. The benign patriarch of a factory and family had taken his successes in stride in a steady sequence of seamless transitions to ever higher levels of prestige.

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John D. Larkin (1845-1926). The benign patriarch of family and factory. Courtesy of Daniel I. Larkin.
In the popular mind the Larkin story has been overshadowed by that of the world-famous Larkin Administration Building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1904 and eventually demolished by the Buffalo Common Council in 1949. Darwin D. Martin is properly credited for bringing Wright into the picture. Larkin was originally inclined to employ Louis Sullivan to design the flagship building. The design of the Larkin Building directly expressed and incorporated the ideals and business philosophy of John D. Larkin. As Darwin Martin’s personality is addressed by the Jewett Avenue residence, it was Larkin’s personality that was captured by the Larkin Building. He took pride in the instantly-famous building and did not allow it to fall into disuse during his lifetime.

All of the residences in Buffalo that were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright are related to the existence of the Larkin Company. Yet, to the architect’s chagrin, he was never asked to design a house for the Larkin family. Wright comments rather harshly on this subject in his Autobiography: “In architecture they (the Larkins) were still pallbearers of the remains of Thomas Jefferson and subsequently all built colonial houses for themselves in Buffalo.”

There is little doubt that in all matters of art and cultural taste, Larkin had trusted and relied heavily on the good judgement of his wife, Frances Hubbard Larkin, the woman familiarly referred to as “Frank.” John D. Larkin had no formal advanced education, but his wife was a graduate of Normal College in Normal, Illinois. Larkin and Martin both studied accounting and basic business methods at Buffalo’s own Bryant & Stratton Business School, but otherwise they were autodidacts. Frances Hubbard Larkin, “a woman of considerable intelligence and creative drive,” had a lifelong interest in literature, art, and history. She was an avid collector of local Niagara Frontier history. She amassed one of the finest private libraries in Buffalo. She collected art and antiques on trips abroad to England and the Continent. She was a proud member of the Buffalo Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She obtained fine Americana furnishings from Israel Sack in New York City. She was the one who made decisions of taste and style, piloting the Larkins through those seamless social transitions. (Her sister, Mary Hubbard, was married to William Heath. Her brother Elbert was “the Sage of East Aurora.”)

The little-known Larkin Pavilion at the Pan American Exposition was an erudite’s gem, a classical building with a buttressed dome. It was based on Baldassare Longhena’s great Venetian Baroque church, Santa Maria della Salute. It would be surprising indeed if Frank had not played a role in the planning of the pavilion. Light-filled, rational, and energetic—it avoided the awkward encrustations that characterized many of the main buildings of the Expo.

Before they built “Larkland,” the elaborate complex of colonial homes on Lincoln Parkway, the Larkins had resided in three other Buffalo houses. Their first house was at 218 Swan Street near Cedar, close to the soap factory. By that time (the late 1870s) Swan Street was in decline as a residential address. The growing family frequently took advantage of Delaware Park for Sunday outings, or they would escape the city for the green of the farm in Orchard Park, where John’s mother lived with some of his siblings. By 1884, the decline of Swan street could no longer be ignored. The family built a new house at 125 Hodge Avenue. It was closer to the Park. They lived there comfortably until 1901, when Larkin bought the Frank H. Goodyear House at 237 North Street. He thought it would better suit their station in the community. To his wife it was “a monstrosity of a house.” Dan Larkin quotes from his grandmother’s diary, “What would I do if I had to live under that tower, and those chimneys, and the coxcomb on the roof?” and, “I will take the house if he will have the tower and chimneys taken off and the roof adjusted.” “Colonial” architecture at that time represented something fresh and new, in sharp contrast to the dark, angular irregularities of late 19th century architecture.

In 1907, the Larkins acquired one of the most desirable lots of “undeveloped” land in the city. It was adjacent to the beloved Delaware Park, near the Rose Garden, on F.L. Olmsted’s grand Lincoln Parkway. An entire large block between Forest Avenue and Rumsey Road, then called Rumsey Woods, would be the site of Larkland, a compound of Larkin family homes, surrounded on all four sides by a continuous low limestone wall, and punctuated by wrought iron gates. The grandest mansion on the parkway was the colonial house designed for the Larkins by Joseph J. Bradney of the Buffalo firm McCreary, Woods and Bradney, specializing in classical revival architecture. The mansion of white brick had a large Greek temple portico of carved white marble Ionic columns facing the parkway. It had a large carriage house facing Rumsey Road, and a large greenhouse adjacent to Mrs. Larkin’s light-filled library. Unfortunately, the mansion became a casualty of the depression. It was demolished in 1939. However, three other large colonial houses survive within the Larkland stone fence. 75 Lincoln Parkway at Forest Avenue is the yellow brick built for John D. Larkin, Jr., who succeeded his father as head of the Larkin Company. The building is now called “Larkin House.” It is owned by The Buffalo Seminary. (It is to be the 1999 Junior League Decorator Showhouse.) At 160 Windsor Avenue is the magnificent red brick Georgian Revival Larkin-Robb House. Dan Larkin was raised in this house built for his father, Harry Larkin, Sr. Another large house at 176 Windsor was built for a Larkin daughter, Mrs. Harold Esty. All of these houses, with their attendant carriage houses and grounds, were designed by the Larkin’s favorite architect, Joseph Bradney.

None of the Buffalo homes of John D. Larkin survives. There is, however, a very important piece of architecture, relating to the beginning of the Larkin epic, that does remain in existence. Throughout Daniel Larkin’s carefully wrought account of his grandfather’s life, over and over, like a refrain, he harkens back to a clearly decisive period in the young Larkin’s life, when he seriously considered taking up farming as a career. His blacksmith father, Levi Larkin, had died young, at 35, and had left a large family with few resources. His widowed mother had remarried to an Orchard Park farmer, twenty years her senior, Henry Hoag. Many times John Larkin walked out to Orchard Park (then called East Hamburg) from Buffalo for family visits. In the late 1860’s he spent two years working the farm for his stepfather. It was “labor intensive.” His physical toil included long periods harvesting timber from swampland down a steep hill behind the house.

In the book Daniel Larkin did not specify the exact location of the Henry Hoag farmhouse, but he was pleased to point it out on a recent visit we made. Surprisingly, it was a building already considered to be one of the more important pieces of early Americana architecture in the Town of Orchard Park. It was the prominent Greek Revival house, on California Road near Southwestern Boulevard and Rich Stadium, viewed daily by tens of thousands of passersby. It is the home of a restaurant billed as “Tony’s Ox and Pig Roast.”

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The Henry Hoag farmhouse in Orchard Park, where John D. Larkin farmed in the 1860s.
The congenial Dan Larkin had made arrangements for us to see the inside of the building. He was interested in finding clues to what the house would have been like 130 years ago when his grandfather farmed there. He was not disappointed. From the outside, the house is almost too good to be true. It is a Greek Revival style, two-story New England tavern, built around 1840. The white building with green trim has a large center doorway and another similar smaller entrance in the same wall. The two-doorway facade is the telling characteristic of a stagecoach tavern with a “tap room” doorway separate from the main entrance. The gable ends above a bold cornice contain a highly unusual and original fan design. On the interior the modern restaurant operation has been largely confined to the first floor of the rear ell. Most of the two-story front house has remained vacant and unused for a very long time. It is a time capsule. There was no need to rely on imagination to see what the house was like 130 years ago. Nearly all of the woodwork, window, and door moldings, the stairs and stair hall remain intact. A tavern would have had an upstairs “ballroom” used for all sorts of community functions. Sure enough. It is still there. One large room extending across the entire front of the second floor is clearly defined, although early on, in about 1850, it was partitioned into two rooms. At one end of the ballroom there are two strange square rooms. One of them retains unpainted strips of beveled wood with a series of old cut nails that were obviously installed to serve as a place for hanging garments, a cloakroom.

The excitement of making these discoveries, which added to the significance of Henry Hoag’s farmhouse, was tempered by the news that the owners were selling the property. Other sources indicate that the house stands in the way of a large-scale commercial development along Southwestern Boulevard. The unique historic house is thus threatened and unprotected. Orchard Park, unfortunately, is one of the towns in Erie County that has not yet gotten around to providing a preservation ordinance for the protection of its irreplaceable historic landmarks.

As we left the house at dusk, the wind began to whip up. Getting into his car, Dan Larkin paused to point down the steep hill behind the house to the remnant of that swamp where John D. Larkin had long ago engaged in a herculean task.


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