Falling for Frank Lloyd Wright in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands
Touring three Frank Lloyd Wright houses in two days will make a visitor sure of two things.
No. 1: The brilliant, phenomenally talented architect envisioned houses that remain functional as well as beautiful well over half a century after construction.
No. 2: This eccentric, irascible man would have caused occasional — perhaps regular — bouts of apoplexy in homeowners tying their dreams and finances to him.
Consider Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr., who saw the cost of his weekend home, Fallingwater, rise from an estimated $30,000 to $155,000 in the mid-1930s, when skilled laborers on the project earned 75 cents an hour.
Travelers can explore the legacy and lore of Wright with a trip to Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, about an hour’s drive southeast from Pittsburgh. Here visitors will find three Wright houses open for tours and two others designed by an apprentice using techniques of the master.
The three Wright houses offer a range of his residential work, from the fantastic design of Fallingwater to the livability of the Duncan House, which I got to experience firsthand with an overnight stay.
Department store owners Liliane and Edgar Kaufmann wanted a weekend home where they could escape the smog and heat of Pittsburgh.
Wright delivered with Fallingwater, which blurs the lines between indoors and out. A breathtaking masterpiece of glass and cantilevered concrete perched above the rushing waters of Bear Run, Fallingwater exemplifies Wright’s principles of organic architecture.
Incorporating the giant boulders of the hillside, the house melds with the rhododendron- and hemlock-dappled landscape. Crashing water is heard throughout the home, and breezes enter from all sides as windows and doors open to the world.
Everything about the house is intended to draw the visitor’s eye to the outdoors, from the seven terraces to mitered glass windows that eliminate visually jarring mullions. Indeed, about half the home’s total square footage — 5,330 — is made up of terraces.
Walking through Fallingwater, one gets the idea that no detail, no matter how small, was overlooked.
One of the joys of a tour, though, is hearing about the bumps in the project. For example, Fallingwater was built without window screens, a decision that didn’t last long after the Kaufmanns — and mosquitoes — moved in.
Slightly less grand but no less stunning is Kentuck Knob, seven miles southwest of Fallingwater.
I.N. and Bernardine Hagan, friends of the Kaufmanns’, appreciated the beauty of Fallingwater but wanted a house that could be a year-round home. For them, Wright envisioned a wood and stone house with an interior that seems cozier and more practical than Fallingwater.
Whereas Fallingwater is all concrete and glass and hard edges, Kentuck Knob is warm woods and inviting public spaces. It employs Wright’s trademark technique of compression and release, and it has the typical enormous stone fireplace.
But Bernardine Hagan asked for — and got — elements she considered essential for a practical home. Despite Wright’s initial reluctance, he gave her a larger dining room for entertaining. He also gave her a larger kitchen, although he refused to eliminate the claustrophobic, 21-inch-wide hallway that doing so created.
Wright never visited the Kentuck Knob site, which allowed Hagan to surreptitiously add attic storage under the roof peak, something he wouldn’t have approved. Wright believed attics, garages and basements did nothing but aid clutter.
Comprising 130 acres, Polymath Park holds three Usonian homes, one designed by Wright and two by Peter Berndtson.
Originally, Polymath Park was intended to be an enclave of 20 to 24 similar homes, but only the Balter and Blum houses were constructed — in the 1960s — because those families opted to keep the property to themselves. After their deaths, Polymath Park went through several owners before coming into the hands of CEO Tom Papinchak, who opened the houses to guests.
Wright’s Duncan House, now on the property, is a transplant to the Laurel Highlands, having been moved from Lisle, Ill., a decade ago.
The Usonian homes, which aimed to bring Wright’s design to a wider audience by holding down costs, have fewer of the elaborate features of the custom properties.
For the Duncan House, the buyers had options for finishes, such as a choice between stone or concrete block, to help with the bottom line. But the houses still had enough on-site craftsmanship that they weren’t as affordable as envisioned. The Duncan House cost $34,000 in 1957, compared with the average of about $20,000.
All three of the houses offer comfortable living areas, large fireplaces and open views to the outdoors.
A fourth Usonian house is expected to be moved to the property late this year.
Staying at Duncan House
I don’t know what I was expecting.
There was no “Aha!” moment, no magical transportation to another world during my night in a Frank Lloyd Wright home. The stay at Duncan House was comfortable and relaxing, without drama.
And maybe that was the revelation in the end: This was a design that simply worked.
Visitors can book lodging in Polymath Park’s three Usonian homes, including the 2,200-square-foot Duncan House. My husband and I stayed here, along with friends, taking the opportunity to notice things we would have missed if we’d merely walked through.
The house was approachable, with features well ahead of their day. The kitchen, for example, bears design elements that remain common: an island with seating; recessed lighting; and a pot rack over the cooktop. Blind hinges give the cabinetry a sleek, modern look.
Although the Duncan House employs Wright’s compression-and-release tactic — juxtaposing areas of constriction and openness — the house is warm and welcoming, with a layout that will feel familiar to anyone who grew up in a 1960s ranch. We spent hours simply talking and relaxing in the open living area.
Visitors can appreciate the amount of storage built into the home, and they can enjoy the large bedrooms, much bigger than at either Fallingwater or Kentuck Knob, where Wright apportioned small sleeping areas to encourage people to congregate in public spaces.
But I found one area where I was totally unnerved.
Wright preferred to leave windows uncovered, which works well in a living room or kitchen. But in the bathroom, I felt like a fish in a bowl as I showered, even though only deer or a coyote might be outside to see in.
Duncan House guests have free run of the ground level, but the original kitchen, with a pale pink refrigerator, is mostly for show. Be sure to look inside, though, to see the Lazy Susan shelves.
Cindy Decker is a freelance writer.
If you go
Reservations are essential to tour the Frank Lloyd Wright houses of the Laurel Highlands.
For reservations at Fallingwater and Polymath Park, go to www.fallingwater.org or call 724-329-8501.
For tours of Kentuck Knob, visit www.kentuckknob.com or call 724-329-1901.
Overnight stays at Polymath Park homes start at $299 for the Blum and Balter houses and $399 for the Duncan House; 877-833-7829, www.polymathpark.com.
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