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Preserving & Securing: Keeping Security Discreet at the Darwin Martin House

Covert security was the key when it came to protecting a National Historic Landmark that transports visitors back to a lavish 1907 residence.

Iconic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to build a unique residential complex for Buffalo, New York, businessman Darwin D. Martin and his family between 1903 and 1905. Scholars consider the complex of six interconnected buildings as one of Wright’s finest achievements, but the history of the house has been a rocky one. Over the decades, the complex was abandoned, buildings were sold or demolished, and the house suffered damage. Reconstruction and restoration efforts began in 1997 and are ongoing, with a new visitor center added in 2009.

About 15 years ago, members of the Martin House Restoration Corporation determined that security was needed, particularly for life safety and fire detection. However, by 2016, there were three different alarm companies that were servicing the Darwin Martin House, and the staff was having difficulty keeping up with the high number of false alarms. Some sensors were incorrectly configured or placed in the wrong areas, smoke detectors were mislabeled and some equipment wasn’t programmed into the system at all.

At that point, Margie Stehlik, Director of Tours and Guest Services for the Darwin Martin House Restoration Corporation, reached out to John Sperrazza, President of New York-based integration company Advanced Alarm, Inc. Sperrazza faced the challenge of securing a complex with 30,000 square-feet of historic architecture, 394 art glass windows, original Frank Lloyd Wright furniture and lavish artwork, all without spoiling visitors’ experience of the house, which was been restored to how it looked in 1907.

“We started from scratch, one sensor at a time,” says Sperrazza of the integration. Every new device required approval from the Conservation Group’s architects to ensure the historical property wasn’t damaged or disrupted, which meant that most devices chosen were wireless sensors from Honeywell to avoid extensive drilling or cabling. Some sensors could be recess-mounted, and recess transmitters were used to further hide devices.

The aesthetics and preservation of the building were paramount, says Stehlik. “Our architects are very conscientious and concerned that visitors on tours are experiencing the building, not devices. The sensors need to be hidden and yet work effectively, continuously and consistently,” she adds.

Wireless door and window contacts were added, as well as glass-break detectors, smoke detectors and motion detectors. Some motion detectors were programmed to require two alarms to set off an official alert, in order to verify an actual intruder. All in all, hundreds of devices were installed, and they were all integrated into an easy-to-operate system for the complex’s limited staff.

Outside the house itself, a Honeywell IP camera system was installed. This negated the need for a perimeter fence or a 24/7 security officer patrol around the complex, and it could be reviewed remotely on smartphones and tablets, with camera views looking at the buildings and down sidewalks to improve awareness, Sperrazza says.

“We may not get perfect coverage because of the building’s landmark status, but we compromised and adjusted. We covered it with security and left it looking the way it should,” says Sperrazza. As a result of the more unified system, false alarms decreased, as did the rate of user error.

“We’ve had far fewer false alarms and calls in the middle of the night,” says Stehlik, who has managed the security system for the Darwin Martin House for the past 21 years. “There are probably six people that share being on-call, and with six buildings, that could be a lot of calls. Also, people have more confidence that the system is working and online.”

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