2017-06-23 Frank Lloyd Wright and Peter Berndtson

Today we visit more architecture!  And a bit of history.  Three houses are on the agenda, but these are different than the two we saw yesterday; they are all within a park preserve not far from Fallingwater.

The site is called Polymath Park, and it is an 125-acre preserve dedicated to these significant houses.  The site is surrounded by private forest in the Allegheny Mountains and features three architectural landmarks: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Donald C. Duncan House and two others by Peter Berndtson (1909–1972), who was one of the original Wright associates at Taliesin.

In 1962, Berndtson master planned the 125 acre property for 24 dwellings, each sited in a circular clearing in the forest. Only two houses, however, were actually built: the Balter House in 1964 and the 1965 Blum House.  The development plan never progressed, and eventually the Blums and the Balters sold their houses.  Many years later, Thomas and Heather Papinchak purchased the property, and began a dream project to restore and preserve these two houses, plus more.

Frank Lloyd Wright developed a systems-built concept to bring his unique design ideas to modest, production-style houses. These “Usonian” houses were available as pre-cut kits, to be shipped to your site and assembled by local labor. FLW himself would site your house if you sent him a topographical survey of your property. The buyers of these kits were not allowed to communicate with FLW directly.

One of these Usonian kit houses was built in 1957 in Lisle, Illinois, for Donald and Elizabeth Duncan,  After the Duncans’ deaths the house fell into disrepair, and was constantly being damaged by the flooding of its site. The house was sold and deconstructed in 2004 and put into storage, waiting for a new site to be readied. When the deal for the new site fell through the fate of the Duncan house was in question.

However, when Thomas and Heather Papinchak heard about it, things started moving rapidly. The Duncan house was shipped to Polymath Park and reassembled in 2007. Today, the Duncan house, The Blum house, and the Balter house are all open for tours; in addition, a fourth FLW house is being moved to the site; foundations are currently under construction.

We began our day by driving in the rain to this remote location. However, unlike yesterday, the rain never let up. We met our tour guide in “Treetops”, the original house of Thomas and Heather Papinchak, adjacent to Polymath Park. Our tour guide drove our group in the little shuttle bus; first was the Duncan house., then Balter, then Blum; after our tour, as we drove back to Treetops for lunch, our guide told us a story:

At Fallingwater, the Kaufmans had a long-time cook. In fact, she is still alive today, at age 104. When the Kaufmans would put on a large party, additional help was needed. The cook asked her best friend to come assist, and this friend would also bring her small son, who would play around the kitchen and staff rooms of Fallingewater.  At one such event, Frank Lloyd Wright was in attendance, and FLW playfully interacted with the small boy for a few minutes.

This small boy was our guide’s grandfather… He told us that he only heard this story after he had started giving tours at Polymath Park… And now you know the rest of the story…

But back to the houses:  These were very modest, affordable, middle class, 1950s houses. But the design features, the settings, the details and the materials are artfully designed and integrated into simple and beautiful houses…


The Duncan House:

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The Balter House:

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The Blum House:

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All in all a very fun day, learning about more than just FLW houses.  We hope this neat little park will eventually be filled  with these great houses.









2017-06-22 Our 43rd Anniversary; more Frank Lloyd Wright: visiting Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob

What better way to celebrate a marriage than to see world class houses and world class architecture?

Five years ago we celebrated 38 years by seeing the Stahl House in the Hollywood Hills – sometimes known as Case Study House #22; it was designed by Pierre Koenig, built in 1959, and is the subject of probably the most famous house photograph in the world, shot as a double exposure by the photographic genius Julius Shulman.  I can’t post that photo here, but here is a similar shot when we visited in 2012:


This year we are at the most famous and beloved house in the world:  Fallingwater. Lynda and I preyed upon some tourist to take our picture there…

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Because it had been raining and the sun had just broken through, this photo looks surreal… a little like Shangri la…

Fallingwater was built as a weekend and summer house for the Kaufman family, owners of a large, successful furniture and department store in Pittsburgh.  If you think of Pittsburgh in the 1920s and 1930s – the air and water pollution were horrible – you can see why Mr. and Mrs. Kaufman wanted a weekend escape in the country, to enjoy fresh air and just being in nature.  Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Wright had a great love-hate relationship – they argued over money, design details, and just about everything else, but Mr. Kaufman kept giving Mr. Wright other commissions – his office interiors in Pittsburgh, and various other things around their Pittsburgh home and store.

The house is amazing.  I have read books and poured over photographs for years, but being there is impossible to replicate.  The major rooms of the house felt protecting and cave-like on one side, and wildly exuberant, thrusting you out onto cantilevered decks atop the waterfall on the other side.  The trees and rocks are ever-present, as is the sound of the waterfall. You cannot see the waterfall unless you walk to the edge of the balcony and look over the edge down below.

It was raining when we arrived, and we carried umbrellas with us as the tour started, but once we got inside the house the rain had stopped.  It was a small group, maybe 10 people, and this was the extended, or photography, tour – we were permitted to take photos inside the house, unlike many other house museums.  We spent 2 hours seeing the three floors of the house (plus a small utilitarian basement), plus the two-story guest house and servants quarters just up the hill from the main house.

Since I’ve already said that photographs don’t do this house justice, I won’t post all 129 pictures we took; but I will post a few that I find remarkable…

The approach is via the driveway, across the bridge, over the creek…

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Once you are on the bridge you see the house, with the stairway down to the creek; the house is literally perched on the stone bank of the creek, and tied back into the rock behind the house…

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The original stair was suspended from the deck above. It was destroyed by the raging waters of the flooded creek in the early 1960s. The rebuilt stair you see here is supported on steel columns that extend down into the creek bed.

The driveway wraps around the rear of the house, between the house and the rock wall of the hill; a trellis ties the house structurally into the rock, and visually connects the house to the rock, providing a sense of protection as you approach the front door.

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The rock seeps and drips water, in a reference to the much larger waterfall beneath the house…

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Where is the front door, you ask?  Here I am, looking for it…

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Yes, Frank Lloyd Wright always liked to hide the front door, and he always had a very low ceiling at the door, using his signature “compress and release” concept to bring you through the door and into the main space of the house.

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Note the concrete beam that curves around the tree…


The main Living Room…

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It is much more than just a living room – it includes not only the living space with two distinct sitting areas, but also includes dining space, study space, fireplace and hearth, access to the stair going down to the creek, plus the opportunity to see the view and walk out onto the terrace.


Here is the hatch to the stair that goes down to the creek…

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The Terrace, which cantilevers over the waterfall…

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And the waterfall itself…

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Some of my favorite details:

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The desk in the master study has a cut-out to allow the window to open; FLW loved to put circles inside squares.


There is a small pool adjacent to the creek.

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There are also exterior stairs leading up from the pool to the bedroom level above…

The story goes that they would climb down to the pool in the morning, have a quick dip in the icy water, then run back upstairs, jump into bed, and ring for the maid, to be served breakfast in bed… While that story may not be true, it certainly might be apocryphal…


The typical shot of the house projecting over the waterfall.

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The Kaufmans wanted a house near the falls so that they could view the falls from the house. Wright believed that having the falls constantly in sight would render them commonplace. So he placed the house atop the falls; you always know the falls are there, but you need to walk over to the edge to see them… The Kaufman family members enjoyed the house for 25 years before donating the house, the surround land, and an endowment, to have the house opened to the public in 1964.  It was the first FLW house opened to the public on a full time basis.

While we regretting leaving this spectacular place, we had appointments to keep…


Mr. and Mrs. Hagan ran in the same social circle as the Kaufmans; after seeing Fallingwater many times over many years, they decided they needed a FLW house of their own.  They bought 80 acres (Fallingwater is set on over 2,000 acres…) about seven miles from Fallingwater and retained Frank Lloyd Wright to design them a small, modest, full time house. (Fallingwater was a weekend house…) The house is named for the hill on which it sits: Kentuck Knob.

The house was completed in 1956, and the Hagans lived in it for over 30 years. It was sold to a British man who owns it today. He has brought in his large art collection, and the house is open for tours.

Kentuck Knob is not just more modest than Fallingwater; it is a 1950s house, to suit the more modern lifestyle of the Hagans. Mrs. Hagan loved to cook and entertain, so the kitchen is not relegated to a rear, closed-in space for the servants, but is a centerpiece of the house. It is a one-story house, a typical example of Wright’s Usonian houses.

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The house sprawls across its site, with the carport on the left, and the entry in the center. The wide roof overhangs keep the front in almost constant shade.


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The entry door is again very short, allowing the experience of compress and release as you enter the much larger space inside.  The clerestory windows are filled with wood cut-outs of the various forms in the house to filter the light.  Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take interior photos…


The terrace overlooking the forest wraps around the rear of the house. This was wide open land when the Hagans had the house built. They planted hundred of trees, so today the views are almost all obscured by forest…

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Note the hexagonal “skylights” that cast a pattern of light that moves across the terrace as the day wears on…


Here is the view that the Hagans had when the house was first built…

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The kitchen is in the center of the house; it is hexagonal is shape and it has a huge skylight over the entire room. The hallways and doorways within the house are all very narrow, following the compress and release concept, but the house is very livable, and was certainly ahead of its time in the 1950s…


All in all, a wonderful day. We returned back to the Villa and enjoyed a marvelous home-made pizza and great wine. A perfect anniversary celebration!


Tomorrow: More houses!

















2017-06-21 Pittsburgh, PA

Once again the Villa is on the move, this time heading into Pennsylvania. Surprise, surprise! You have to go through West Virginia to get to this southwest corner of Pennsylvania; to celebrate, we stopped for lunch…

2017-06-21 Welcome to West Virginia


Then it was on to our RV Park for the next 3 nights – KOA of Madison, about 35 miles SE of Pittsburgh. There were some amazing clouds overhead…



After settling in we drove to Pittsburgh to see what’s happening there. We found the “Cultural District”, right on the river, across from the Pirates’ Ballpark. We walked many blocks looking at wonderful old buildings, new apartment buildings and lofts, and checking out the many bars and restaurants. We’re always suckers for French food, so we opted for Le Lyonaise, and they didn’t disappoint.  We sat at a sidewalk table, had a few cocktails, shared three appetizers, and enjoyed the scene, then walked some more. On the drive back we stopped to refuel.  Another nice, easy day.  The exciting activities start tomorrow!














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