The Wright Way to bring nature inside: Iconic architect’s work worth the two-hour drive
Editor’s Note: This story is part of an occasional travel series by Mirror staff writer Cherie Hicks.
MILL RUN — Art, architecture and nature merge on these wooded mountains like nowhere else.
One of the most iconic residences in the world — built over a waterfall, of all things — isn’t the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in the area.
Just a 15-minute drive to the south is a home that Wright married to the mountain, and a half-hour drive to the north is a growing conservation park that is home to a Wright-designed house you can spend the night in.
More than 400 buildings designed by the 20th century architect are still standing, and three of them are clustered only two hours from Altoona: Fallingwater, Kentuck Knob and the Duncan House in Polymath Park.
With a little advanced planning, you could easily fill a weekend with visits to all three. A lot is needed if you want to sleep in the often-booked Duncan House.
Even if you have seen Fallingwater, you still may not appreciate the depth of Wright’s legacy. That manse is among 10 in a collection of his works, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, that have been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status. The United Nation’s cultural arm typically favors vintage sites like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello or natural ones like the Galapagos Islands — not modern marvels.
To get inside Fallingwater, you have several options when it opens for the new season this Friday after being closed as usual for January and February. You must be part of a tour to enter, and the basic one costs $32. More expensive options include in-depth and brunch tours.
You can chance getting tickets at the admission booth, but buying in advance is encouraged. Arrive 30 minutes prior to tour time to check in, park and walk to the visitor center where tours begin. Displays there detail Wright’s life and work, as well as that of Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar Kaufmann, who commissioned the design of this weekend residence that was donated by Kaufmann’s son in 1963 to the nonprofit Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
Use the facilities at the visitor center, as bathrooms in the house are off-limits. Some accommodations are made for those needing accessibility, but this tour includes a lot of walking on uneven terrain and stairs. Because of tight spaces, large bags are prohibited, as are children younger than 6.
A tour last fall included a dozen people from all over, including Israel and Portugal. We learned that the color of the house exterior made from local sandstone isn’t tan; it’s ochre, the same color of the underside of rhododendrons leaves that dot Fallingwater’s 1,543 acres.
It is just one example of how Wright used “organic architecture” — a phrase he coined to promote harmony between human habitation and the natural world. Another example is the 5-mile long tributary of the Youghiogheny River running under the house.
A glass hatch opens to “floating” stairs that lead to Bear Run just before it tumbles down a series of falls.
That style also is evident in boulders that protude through the floor in front of an oversized living room fireplace. To the side is a large kettle, rigged to rotate over the fire and in the color of Cherokee Red, Wright’s favorite that can be found in every room of the house, according to the guide.
It was raining, and the guide couldn’t hide the water trickling in. She noted that Mrs. Kaufmann once complained that the flat roof was leaking over her husband’s desk.
“Move the desk,” Wright supposedly responded.
The cantilevered design of the house, in which structural elements are anchored on only one end, didn’t just allow for construction over the creek. It also allowed for the use of casement windows without corner supports, a liberal use of glass to bring the outside in, the guide explained.
The tour includes an outbuilding with a theater that once was a four-bay carport.
“A car is not a horse,” Wright supposedly said in nixing Kauffman’s desire for a garage. “It doesn’t need corralling.”
He thought garages were like basements, inviting the flaws of hoarding and clutter.
Fallingwater, which could not be constructed today because of building codes, was completed at a cost of $155,000 in 1937 when Wright was 70 years old, said the guide. He went on to design another 200 homes before he died at the age of 91 in 1959.
When booking tickets, allow at least two hours for Fallingwater before considering the 15-minute drive down Mill Run Road, through scenic Ohiopyle to Kentuck Knob.
It is no coincidence that Kentuck Knob is only four miles south. It has been called a “child of Fallingwater.”
In 1953, I.N. and Bernardine Hagan bought 80 acres in the mountains,- and the dairy-business owners often visited the Kaufmanns at Fallingwater. They fell in love with that home and commissioned Wright to design a house for them on their property.
He designed it without visiting the site except once during construction, which was completed in 1956.
“It looks like a prow of a ship coming out of the mountain,” said Mary Ann Perkins, manager of operations and visitor services.
The Hagans filled the mountaintop farmland property with tree seedlings so that today there is a forest on one side; the other side provides a sweeping view of the Youghiogheny River Valley. The couple lived there for nearly 30 years before selling it to Lord Peter Palumbo of London as a vacation home and repository for his art collection, including Wright furniture obtained at auctions, after the Hagans took the originals.
The Palumbos added a sculpture meadow that can be reached via a path through the woods, and they opened the property to the public for tours.
Like at Fallingwater, Kentuck Knob closes for the winter and will reopen this season on March 10. Advance tickets (starting at $18 for students and $25 for adults) also are encouraged and children younger than 6 are not allowed.
Park in the lot off Kentuck Road, check in at the visitor center and await a bus to shuttle you to the main house made of tidewater red cypress, glass and native sandstone. Topped with a copper roof, the original cost was $96,000.
As you approach the front, notice the small Wright-signature tile in the color of Cherokee Red. The foyer inside uses a common Wright technique to divide spaces, called “compress and release.” The ceiling in the entryway is only 6-foot-7, but your eyes are pulled to the right to the grand living space and its 11-foot ceiling at the peak.
A 28-foot banquet sofa — attached to the walls, or the Hagans would have taken it — would provide rest to look out an expanse of windows across the back of the house — but you can’t sit down here. The fireplace shows how Wright laid out the house on a triangular and hexagonal grid.
A row of skylights on the cantilevered terrace are trimmed with dentil moulding that matches throughout the exterior. Sunbeams shining through their openings act like sundials.
The small kitchen has the original flip-down stove burners by Frigidaire.
Wright allowed for a small basement so the Hagans could stock up in case of a blizzard. But he never would have allowed the screens they added to the windows later because, while they may have kept out critters, they diminished the view.
Kentuck Knob employs some of the ideas of Wright’s Usonian architecture, another term he coined which means uniquely of the United States and utilitarian. But at 2,200 square feet, it’s bigger than his typical Usonian houses that he designed at 1,200 to 1,600 feet.
The Duncan House, about 30 miles due north, is one of those and today is located in Polymath Park north of the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Acme.
The architectural park was created when Wright apprentice Peter Berndston was commissioned by two Pittsburgh entrepreneurs, the Balter and Blum families, to design two summer houses in the Pennsylvania mountains in the early 1960s.
They bought 130 acres of farmland with views of the Chestnut Ridge and forest. Berndston envisioned a Usonian-style community development with shared common areas and 5-acre lots for each homeowner. But the two families chose to keep their co-owned land private.
The Balter house came with a cantilevered, screened porch that still juts into the woods; the Blum house still takes advantage of a meadow setting. Both used native stone for fireplaces, concrete floors were dyed Cherokee Red, large windows were installed and the “compress and release” idea of space was employed.
The families enjoyed the houses for nearly three decades.
Meanwhile, in 2000, local builder Tom Papinchak and his wife, Heather, bought and moved to a nearby house. Three years later, they bought Polymath Park and its two houses with no specific plans except to keep the land from potential development.
“We have a passion for preserving history,” Heather Papinchak said.
In 2006, they had the opportunity to buy a Wright-designed home that had been built in 1957 in Lisle, Illinois, for Donald and Elizabeth Duncan. Slated for demolition, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy stepped in and bought it, and the house was loaded onto trailers and hauled to Polymath Park after financing for a deal to move it to Johnstown fell through.
The Papinchaks agreed to pay the costs of relocating and reconstructing it and they set up a nonprofit organization to operate and maintain it as well as the two Usonian houses. All three were opened to tours and overnight lodging, and the couple repurposed their own house into a restaurant they call Treetops, the name Berndston had planned to call the community.
With the blessings of the FLW Conservancy, the couple acquired another Usonian home two years ago, and the 1952 Lindholm House arrived in trailers from Cloquet, Minnesota, last year. It will be reconstructed and opened for tours and overnight stays later this year.
Basic guided tours of the three houses start at $24 for adults and $17 for children ages 6 to 12 — younger children aren’t allowed. For a little more, combine tours with lunch, dinner or a wine tasting.
Polymath Park, which also opens for the season this week, partnered with Fallingwater last year for tickets so you can buy tour tickets online at www.fallingwater.org. If you want to book the house overnight, visit www.FrankLloydWrightOvernight.net, but keep in mind there are some restrictions, such as no using the stove or the fireplace in the Duncan House. Conveniences such as microwaves, coffeemakers and the like are provided.
The furniture isn’t original but most pieces are period furnishings, including an Eames chair.
You can see Wright’s “compression and release” and board-and-batten designs. But these are not nearly as fancy as Fallingwater or Kentuck Knob. The Usonian houses were created for the middle-class public, and to sell them, Wright had to offer options he didn’t like: garages, basements and pitched roofs. They were advertised in magazines, which is how the Duncans discovered them.
Only 11 Usonians were bought, and nine had a pitched roof like the Duncan House as Wright’s flat roofs had gained a reputation for leaking, according to a guide. They also ran over budget and the project didn’t take off as Wright had thought.
Staying at the Duncan House today is pretty pricey, starting at $399 a night; the apprentice houses are a bit cheaper, starting at $299. But it is a rare opportunity, Heather Papinchak noted. She said the park takes advantage of its proximity to Fallingwater, where 180,000 people visit annually.
“Our draw, like Kentuck Knob, is Fallingwater,” she said. “Visitors come to Fallingwater and then they find these other Wright houses are so close.”
Each property promotes the others.
“Each one is very different, but all are Frank Lloyd Wright,” said Perkins of Kentuck Knob. “It can be a day trip or it can be overnight. You’ll see the Usonian influence at Duncan and make that connection with Kentuck Knob here.
“You’ll see the interaction of architecture, art and nature at all three.”
And, you will go home with a rare experience, wondering whether you can live in smaller, more functional spaces and whether carports and basements truly are clutter magnets, Perkins said.
“Visitors will leave energized. They will leave with just a different outlook on how to live their life,” Perkins said. “They will consider, ‘How can I incorporate nature more in my life?'”
Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.
If you go
Fallingwater: Opens Friday, March 9, for the season, 1491 Mill Run Road, Mill Run, PA, 15464, www.Fallingwater.org, (724) 329-8501
Kentuck Knob: Opens March 10 for the season, 723 Kentuck Road, Chalk Hill, PA 15421, www.KentuckKnob.com, (724) 329-1901
Duncan House at Polymath Park: Opens March 10 for the season, 187 Evergreen Lane, Acme, PA, 15610,www.FrankLloydWright Overnight.net, (877) 833-7829
(For GPS, use full addresses, including zip code, and take care as there are a number of roads with the same name in Pennsylvania)