campus news

Imperial Hotel exhibit to open in Wright’s Martin House

A photograph of the banquet hall from a promotional pamphlet detailing the luxurious appointments of the Imperial Hotel. Image courtesy of University Archives.


Published November 14, 2023

Hope Dunbar, university archivist, University at Buffalo Libraries.
“Visitors to this exhibit will see items not found anywhere else in the world. ”
Hope Dunbar, university archivist

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House, in association with the UB Libraries, will present the exhibit “Thought-Built: The Imperial Hotel at 100,” beginning Nov. 17 at The Barton House, 118 Summit Ave., on the grounds of the Martin estate in Buffalo.

“Thought-Built” is a rare opportunity to explore the largest collection of artifacts from the lost Imperial Hotel in Chiyoda City, Tokyo, a hybrid of Japanese and Western architectural traditions.

“The Imperial Hotel represented a fusion of Wright’s Prairie Style with the Japanese design aesthetic that was among his major influences,” says Kerry Traynor, clinical assistant professor in the School of Architecture and Planning. “The artifacts from the now-razed Imperial Hotel embody that fusion of the Japanese temple and horizontality of the Prairie Style.”

University Archives holds a large collection of the Imperial’s surviving architectural fragments, with smaller collections maintained at the Art Institute of Chicago and The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

“This is an area where University Archives has something unique,” says University Archivist Hope Dunbar. “Visitors to this exhibit will see items not found anywhere else in the world.”

Staging “Thought-Built” in the Martin House also presents an intriguing comparison for appreciating Wright’s work.

“This is an opportunity to see artifacts from a Frank Lloyd Wright building that no longer stands inside a standing example of his work,” says Dunbar. “That’s a perspective that doesn’t often happen.”

And that perspective provides new insights into Wright’s designs, according to Traynor.

“This exhibit creates a space for an appreciation and understanding of the Martin House that becomes richer through the context provided by the Imperial Hotel,” she says.

The exhibit runs through May 12, 2024. Hours of operation and a link to purchase tickets are available on the Martin House website.

Artifacts rescued from the demolition of the Imperial Hotel. Images courtesy of University Archives.

The Imperial Hotel is the best known of the many buildings Wright designed in Japan. The reference “Imperial Hotel,” often used as an historical singular, can actually refer to different buildings and additions to buildings on the grounds of the current hotel’s property.

The original Imperial Hotel opened in 1890 and was destroyed by fire in 1922. Wright was commissioned to design the second Imperial Hotel. Work began in 1919 and was completed in 1923.

Wright’s Imperial Hotel endured two major earthquakes during its construction, the second of which, despite features intended to minimize earthquake damage, affected the building in ways that led to its eventual demolition in 1967.

Edgar Tafel, a quick-thinking, one-time Wright apprentice who became a prolific architect himself, was a step ahead of the wrecking ball.

Tafel’s diligence and determination to preserve the Imperial Hotel portion of Wright’s legacy is the opening narrative involving a cast that includes University Archives, the Martin House, Tafel and former UB President Martin Meyerson in a complicated plotline that leads to the Imperial’s surviving treasures arriving at UB.

UB purchased the Martin House in 1967 for use as the president’s residence. Tafel was among the architects working on renovations to the property. He left for Japan at his own expense after unsuccessfully trying to raise the funds needed to preserve specific features of the Imperial. His ambitious primary goal being unattainable, Tafel decided instead to salvage from the rubble that which was representative of the hotel’s design.

University Archives became the logical home for the collected items given Tafel’s relationship with the university, and with Meyerson, with whom he was directly working as part of the Martin House renovation. Even after the Martin House was no longer used as the president’s residence, UB maintained a connection to the Wright-designed home.

“University Archives was once in the basement of the Martin House,” says Dunbar. “Our offices and collections were kept on site, including the architectural fragments from the Imperial Hotel.

“In one way, this exhibit is a chance for visitors to see a collection that’s returning to its first home. It’s not to be missed.”