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Touring the Frank Lloyd Wright houses in the Laurel Highlands

Fallingwater house Frank Lloyd Wright fall colors changing leaves waterfall
Fallingwater house by Frank Lloyd Wright. Image provided courtesy of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.

Even if you’ve never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece home Fallingwater, you most likely have at least seen pictures of it.  The iconic cantilever design is an architecture photographer’s dream, boasting multiple angular terraces jutting out over a sizable waterfall along the meandering Bear Run creek.  The view from downstream is perhaps one of the most easily recognized architectural perspectives in American design history.

While Fallingwater is without question the most famous of Wright’s buildings in Western Pennsylvania, it is not the only home in the Laurel Highlands region built by the world-famous architect.  In addition to the Kaufmann family’s seasonal residence, you will also find the Hagan House at Kentuck Knob and the Duncan House at Polymath Park very close at hand.

Ship's Prow balcony at Hagen House on Kentuck Knob
The “Ship’s Prow” provides excellent lines that lead the eye to the woods beyond the Hagan House at Kentuck Knob

My experience touring the Frank Lloyd Wright houses

There are plenty of excellent analytical articles available online, providing in-depth architectural critiques about the composition of the various elements within the houses and buildings that Frank Lloyd Wright designed.  This is definitely not one of them.  Before taking an in-depth tour of all three houses this September, I had not even heard the term Usonian before.  I am certainly not an expert on architecture in general, nor Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs in particular.  My intent is to simply describe the experience I had, both on the properties and within the homes, and the things I saw, heard, and felt at each…. which will hopefully be sufficient to encourage you to get out there and see them for yourself.

I wrestled for a while with how to organize my “review” of each, and ultimately decided it would be easiest to write about them in ascending order, finishing with my favorite.

Duncan House

It was hard to place the Duncan House “last” of the three…. but someone has to be here.  A typical Usonian home, the Duncan House is intentionally simple and practical, allowing it to be more marketable to the middle class homeowners for whom Wright was intending the design.  It incorporates some building materials and elements from its original surroundings, but also uses more conventional materials than one would typically find in a Wright home.

Somewhat unusual for a Wright design, the house features the most “traditional” layout of the three – an L-shaped ranch home with a full walk-out basement.  There’s lots of open space, especially in the combined kitchen and dining area and in the airy sunken living room, which is bordered on two sides by floor to ceiling windows and glass doors.  There are very few narrow hallways or spaces in the home.   Though we didn’t go down into the basement, it is completely finished living space, a rarity in Wright-designed houses.

Duncan House Frank Lloyd Wright Laurel Highlands
Image of the Duncan House provided courtesy of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.

Of the three houses I toured, the Duncan house is the least distinctive by a significant margin.  Setting aside the low roofline, prominent stonework chimney and cantilever-style carport, had I not known in advance that it was a Wright design, the Duncan house could easily have been a stereotypical 1950’s ranch house in middle America….  which is, of course, somewhat of Wright’s intent in creating the Usonian “line” – to develop a design that would appeal to a far broader audience.

The Duncan house does have one particular element about it, however, that makes it significantly more unusual than the other two Wright homes in the area:  You can actually stay there overnight.  That’s right, you read that correctly – the Duncan house is open to the public as a short-term vacation rental.  Even though the cost of staying there is between $300-500 per night (depending on when and how long you stay), and is already booked fairly far out in advance, the Duncan house would be a unique experience for a family holiday or romantic getaway, or perhaps as part of an adventure weekend for a small group of friends!

Kentuck Knob

Kentuck Knob is a curious design by Frank Lloyd Wright.  Like Fallingwater, Kentuck Knob (technically, the Hagan house at Kentuck Knob, as most of Wright’s dwellings were named after their original inhabitants) is situated far back off the road.  In this case, the house is nestled into the side of the hill it is named after.  Local legend has it that the hilltop was nicknamed Kentuck Knob not long after the Civil War by the soldier who had received the property as part of a post-war land grant, because the area reminded him so much of his beloved home state.  The property is home to one of the most magnificent vistas in the state, at least of all of those that I’ve witnessed:  The Youghiogheny River Overlook.

Youghiogheny River overlook Kentuck Knob Frank Lloyd Wright house
This picture definitely doesn’t do the view justice – I cannot recommend strongly enough that you make the trip to witness it yourself.

The house itself sits up a long, winding drive from the visitor’s center.  Situated near the crest of Kentuck Knob, the house is built into the side of the hill, wrapping itself most of the way around a large open driveway and carport.  Very low-slung with a minimalistic roofline, the house has locally sourced sandstone walls and chimneys, and tidewater red cypress woodwork throughout.  Hexagons dominate throughout the design of the house, such as the skylights on the balcony and several of the windows… and even as the footprint of the silo-esque kitchen!

The house thoroughly incorporates Wright’s concept of Compression and Release, perhaps excessively so:  in order to enter the more spacious areas of the home, whether it’s the lengthy living room, the bedrooms, or even the kitchen, one must first pass through an oppressively narrow space.  In other words, you must first be compressed in order to be released.  In this case, it means small doorways and extremely narrows hallways leading from the kitchen to the bedrooms; so narrow, in fact, that I could not walk normally to the bedrooms and had to turn myself sideways to get through.  I cannot fathom what it must have been like moving furniture in and out, or navigating the walk to the bathrooms during parties!

Sandstone balcony Hagan House Kentuck Knob Frank Lloyd Wright
The flagstone balcony of the Hagan House

The living room is easily my favorite room in the house, and there’s no surprise why:  It’s wide, spacious, and inviting.  Massive windows allow plenty of light into the room, and there is a rather remarkable “invisible” window at the far end of the room that has no visible frame or bulkhead, allowing it to blend seamlessly into its surroundings.  The design gives one the perception that there isn’t even a window in the space;  instead, it appears that it’s open to the elements.  The room is lined on the side opposite the balcony with Wright’s famous built-in seating, and centered in front of the wall of windows is the solitary figure of Mr. Hagan’s desk.  The row of benches allows visitors and residents alike the opportunity to sit at any point along the far wall of the room and take in a slightly different perspective of their surroundings.

Several doors lead out of the living room and onto the brown and gray flagstone balcony outside (as seen above).  The balcony towers nearly 20 feet above the yard surrounding the house, and while the stone walls and floor are quite thick and reassuring, taking a peek over the edge made my knees a little weak!  The balcony is mostly covered by Wright’s beloved cantilevered roof design, though in this case the architect included numerous hexagonal skylights throughout to allow light to shine through.  The balcony itself comes to a rather pointed end, jutting out from underneath the cover of the roof into what has become known as the Ship’s Prow.

Hagan House Kentuck Knob Ship's Prow Bow
The Ship’s Prow at Kentuck Knob. Photo by Ron Cogswell.

The Ship’s Prow is just one of several unusual exterior design elements Wright utilized in what technically was considered one of his “affordable” Usonian homes.  In addition to the massive stone wall and balcony and the cantilevered roofline with hexagonal skylights, Wright also included a working waterfall fountain on the terrace outside of the Hagan’s master bedroom windows.  The Hagans were good friends of the Kaufmann family, who owned Fallingwater, and were so inspired by Wright’s design of the Kaufmann home that they commissioned him to design their own home.  The waterfall is not only an obvious nod to the overall design of Fallingwater, it also allowed the Hagans to have the similar experience of hearing the peaceful sound of water flowing down over the stones from inside their bedroom.

While I found the design and layout of the Hagan House at Kentuck Knob to be both intriguing and captivating, with many curious elements that one could spend days pondering…. I don’t think I could live there.  Even with the expanded dining area and the vast openness of the living room, the house is intensely impractical.  There was only one doorway into the home with access to the road, and it was a narrow one at that.  As I mentioned before, the hallways were virtually impassable, especially for someone like myself who has wide shoulders.  Wright intentionally designed the house to have minimal storage space, as he found having too many possessions to be a frustrating waste of space and source of clutter in otherwise very clean, crisp areas.  So, while I could spend hours examining all of the nooks and crannies of the home … and I especially loved the amazing view of the Yough River valley just a few steps from the back terrace … I just couldn’t see myself being happy living there.

Fallingwater – a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece

All of this brings us, of course, to the most famous house of the three:  Fallingwater.  This beautiful home, and the amazing property that surrounds it, could easily be the subject of its own 1500-word blog.  Though it is by far my favorite of the three houses, I had previously only toured the grounds without ever going inside.  I was itching to finally get a look inside the alluring geometric oddity that sits atop one of my favorite natural elements:  a rushing waterfall surrounded by the forest.

Fallingwater house over Bear Run creek and waterfall, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
Image provided courtesy of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.

Even with the multi-year wait (and accompanying build-up of both excitement and expectations), the inside of the house did not disappoint.  It hit on many of the things I love most about homes, especially older homes:  I could envision the Kaufmann family hosting Mad Men-style cocktail parties in the large areas of open living space, or relaxing peacefully near any of the loads of massive windows which let in tons of light and cool forest air (and in this case, the sound of water rushing over the rocks below), and marveling over the nearly endless individually designed and hand-crafted features that cannot be found anywhere else.  Wright tied those features together throughout the house with such a brilliant and enjoyable flow that I couldn’t quite contain my enthusiasm for taking it all in.  I must have looked like the kid in a candy store, bouncing around from corner to corner and room to room, peaking into and around and behind things, absorbing as many of the details as I possibly could on our tour.

I live a fairly charmed life;  I consider myself to be wise enough to recognize and appreciate that fact.  I’ve seen and done and experienced a great deal in my lifetime, things that many people will never get the opportunity to see or do or experience.  I am quite intentional about taking advantage of new opportunities whenever they present themselves, and as such also try very hard not to be jealous of anyone, no matter what their station in life.

But I’m jealous of the Kaufmann family.  I’ll openly admit it.  I’ve had indications that this would be the case in my prior trips to the grounds of Fallingwater:  this was clearly a special, magical place.  There’s no question about that.  Seeing the inside of their home, however, completely sealed the deal for me:  these folks worked extraordinarily hard to build up a hugely successful business for themselves, and they not only had the wisdom to recognize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build and live in a home that was truly a piece of art, but they had the audacity and the means to actually do so.  In its heyday, Fallingwater was an extremely special place to visit and live, and the Kaufmann family had the vision and wherewithal to carry that dream to its complete fruition.

Fallingwater house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
The open and airy living room of Fallingwater is almost completely surrounded by glass walls and doors, and sits underneath the massive terrace the elder Kaufmanns could enjoy off their glass-walled master bedroom.

The house itself truly is a marvel to behold.  As I mentioned before, I’m no engineer or architect, so I’m not going to get into the nuts and bolts that went into fleshing out the brilliance that was Wright’s maniacal design.  What I will say is that the era in which the home was built was completely different than our current epoch:  travel was far more limited, difficult, and time-consuming, so there was a fair greater focus on the family home (or vacation home, were you wealthy enough to have one) because that was one of the key places that people spent their time.

Nowadays we are keenly focused on minimizing footprints and the “tiny home” movement, but in Wright’s day, having a large and diverse space in which multiple opportunities to entertain could take place throughout the course of each year was critical.  While Wright was perhaps a bit ahead of his time with his limited-storage designs forcing a minimalistic lifestyle upon their inhabitants, he also often made his homes organically enjoyable:  centralized massive stone hearths create a very warm and welcoming atmosphere in many Wright-designed homes, all of which were intentionally crafted to blend with their surrounding natural environment.

Nowhere is this particular concept more brashly achieved than Fallingwater:  instead of removing one of the massive boulders in the side of the hill upon which the house is built, Wright designed the home to be quite literally built around it.  The boulder is still in its original position, and it juts out into the living room adjacent to one of the coolest stone hearths I’ve ever seen in my life.

Fallingwater Hearth
The stone hearth at Fallingwater, with its massive tea-kettle ball, supported by the original boulder Wright incorporated into the floor. Photo by Christopher Little, Western PA Conservancy. Source: WTTW Chicago

The hearth at Fallingwater, seen above, includes a massive ruby red cast-iron and enamelware tea kettle ball set into the stone masonry surrounding the fireplace.  The ball itself is hung on industrial hinges, allowing it to be swung out and be suspended directly over a roaring fire, heating up whatever tasty beverage your mind could come up with.

Quirky elements like the hearth’s kettle ball abound throughout the whole house:  insanely low toilets, the ship’s-hatch-based sliding glass windows to the creek steps, built-in desks with semi-circles cut out to allow windows to swing open, the maze-like stairs and hallways, and one of my personal favorites, the corner wall of windows in Ed Sr’s study.  The windows and screens are all built on individual hinges that swing in opposite directions (window out, screen in), such that when completely open, there is no frame in the corner.  I spent a good five minutes staring at the window setup, dreaming of where and how I could build such a crazy design into my own home – a fairly common thread of daydreaming throughout my tour that day.

I could go on and on about the various things I loved about Fallingwater;  I haven’t even really addressed one of the key features of the home, one of my favorite natural elements… the constant gentle rush of water roiling over the rocks below the home.    I could have easily spent hours on any of the terraces, relaxing in an Adirondack chair drink in hand, listening to the water flowing by below my seat.

But here’s the thing about Frank Lloyd Wright and the homes he built:  All of those daydream-inducing features he thought up and worked into his designs are beyond brilliant.  The man clearly was an architectural savant.  No idea was off-limits for him, and if it made sense to incorporate into the construction, he found a way to get it done.  He found ingenious solutions to work around problems that most designers were satisfied to simply bulldoze their way through.  He intentionally incorporated the elements surrounding each home into his work, and was very upfront about his commitment to organic design and building.  His designs are immediately iconic, recognized world-wide for their ingenuity and superiority, and still have relevance and aesthetic appeal nearly a century later.

Visiting the Frank Lloyd Wright houses

If you would like to organize a tour of all three homes in a similar fashion to the experience I had recently, please contact one of the friendly sales staff at the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.  They will guide you through the process, and help you to best organize your trip!

NOTE – scheduling a tour in advance of your trip is critical.  If you do not have a tour scheduled in advance, it’s very likely you will not be able to get into the properties.  Walk-in spots are virtually non-existent.

To schedule a tour, meal, or overnight stay at the Duncan House, click here.

To select and schedule tours at Kentuck Knob, click here.

To schedule tours at Fallingwater, click here.

5 thoughts on “Touring the Frank Lloyd Wright houses in the Laurel Highlands

    1. Thank you! That’s great! If you ever make it out to the Pittsburgh area, I cannot suggest it strongly enough. There is so much to see and do in the Laurel Highlands, you could probably spend a week there and still want to stay longer!

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