Wright appeal expands in Western Pennsylvania
Rolling, wooded hills and shaggy farm fields lead the way to a Frank Lloyd Wright home tucked in the woods at Polymath Park Resort, east of Greensburg.
The resort actually is the site of three homes — two designed by Wright apprentice Peter Berndtson.
The third, a prefabricated house designed by Wright for mass appeal, was reconstructed after standing for more than 40 years as the home of Donald and Elizabeth Duncan in suburban Chicago. The reconstruction took more than a year.
The region long-known for Wright’s Fallingwater, near Ohiopyle State Park, also is home to Kentuck Knob, a Wright-designed home that opened to the public in 1996.
The Duncan House at Polymath Park, the most recent addition to the area’s Frank Lloyd Wright attractions, was reconstructed and opened earlier in the year. That home, along with the Balter House, a 1964 home designed by Berndtson, is available for overnight stays.
Patricia Coyle, who oversees tours for nearby Kentuck Knob, said Polymath Park has been a valuable addition to the area’s Wright attractions.
“We’re keeping Frank Lloyd Wright alive in this region,” Coyle said. “Now we have three attractions, and we’re working together.”
‘An interesting story to tell’
The Duncan House was designed in the 1950s in what is known as Wright’s Usonian period.
“This house has an interesting story to tell being here,” said Laura Nesmith, who oversees the not-for-profit resort’s buildings. “It’s not the masterpiece of Fallingwater; it’s not quite as intricate as Kentuck Knob, but it was built for everyday living.
“People can come here and envision themselves actually living in this house.”
It was the quiet of the area that drew the Pittsburgh-based Blum and Balter families east of the city in the early 1960s. The families met while staying at Bear Rocks, a housing community on the Laurel Ridge outside Mt. Pleasant.
The families commissioned berndtson to design homes in the Wright style, Nesmith said.
Nesmith said that after the homes were designed, the architect developed plans for a resort community at what now is Polymath Park. The Balters and Blums were unaware of Berndtson’s additional effort and weren’t planning such a project.
berndtson had planned everything from home placement to association dues and maintenance fees for the 125-acre site.
“He saw dollar signs, basically,” Nesmith said. “And the Balters and the Blums just wanted to come out here for peace and quiet and that was it.”
Berndtson’s plans never went beyond the design stage. They were discoved in a closet of the home the Balters used as a vacation cottage on the property.
The property with the Balter and Blum homes was bought in 2004 by Thomas Papinchack of Greensburg.
The Duncan House was deconstructed in 2002 in Lisle, Ill., and brought to Johnstown, with plans to rebuild it as a regional attraction. After funding for that project did not materialize, Papinchack was offered the house.
Duncan House details
“One of the first challenges was that the house was (exposed to the elements in Chicago) for 45 years — or longer,” said Nesmith, who is Papinchack’s sister. “It wasn’t cared for for probably the last 10 years, so even the pieces that we had had to be refinished, refurbished and brought back to life before they could even begin to be rebuilt.
“We tried to get it back to the original state, or as Wright would have intended it to be, even though over the years, just like any house that was lived in, it was painted and changed.”
One significant change made to the Duncan House when it was rebuilt was the use of stone where concrete block had been used in the original house. Nesmith said 120 tons of Maryland field stone were used in the months-long project.
“The blocks weren’t shipped with the house, so we had to make a choice. But the plans called for an upgrade to brick or stone, and we thought the stone was such a nicer application for our site.
“I think it makes more sense and Wright believed in working with your surroundings, so for this site, I think it’s perfect.”
The stone warms the feel of the house, which strikes visitors as surprisingly modern for a 50-year-old design. An island cooktop in the kitchen has become somewhat standard fare in today’s homes. Wright designed one for his Usonian home in 1957.
Original items from the Duncan home remain in the kitchen, including the refrigerator, stove and utensils. Those who stay overnight in the home are offered a new refrigerator, stove and microwave oven to use in the area adjacent to the kitchen.
The Duncan House living space includes a fireplace, but it cannot be used. A cream and Cherokee red color theme is carried through the home, which is well-complemented with storage areas and tall, cavernous closet space.
“There’s no artwork on the walls,” Nesmith said. “The walls were just to be kept clean lines. There’s no evidence of nail holes or screws in the walls.
“That’s also why the sliding doors were designed into the house. If you used a swing door, it would disrupt the pattern when it was open and also take up space. The closets and the doorways are all the slide doors.”
Documents discovered when the home was unpacked and rebuilt reveal that Elizabeth Duncan was fascinated with Wright. She kept newspaper and magazine clippings about the architect. It was Elizabeth who championed the purchase of the home, which cost $47,000 when it was built — the equivalent of $350,000 today.
“He was designing this to market to the masses. It was one of his last efforts to try to reach a greater demographic of people. It was meant to be a house for everyone, but not everyone could afford it. You just can’t build a house like this inexpensively,” Nesmith said.
Balter and Blum homes
While Wright did not design the Balter House, his influence is evident. With more of a “lived-in” feel, the home includes original furnishings and more built-in furniture than the Duncan House.
“Each of the three houses has a very different setting; very different feel, even though they’re on the same property,” Nesmith said.
Highlights of the Balter House include a galley kitchen and the layout of small, efficient bedrooms at the east end of the house. The common living area at the west end includes a screened-in porch and built-in storage similar to that of the Duncan House.
Nesmith said that there are plans to open the Blum House, which is used for entertainment events and as a gift shop, as a site for overnight stays. Another building on the property — not related to the Wright designs — must be renovated for use as a gift shop and public-use area before the Blum House is returned to its residential purpose.
Nesmith said that while Polymath Park has garnered international attention, she is interested in seeing more local interest.
“I had a 92-year-old couple drive down from Ontario and find us. But when I’m doing a dinner or an event and I’m talking to my friends in Latrobe and they’re going, ‘Oh, it’s so far.’ Or you go a mile down the street and nobody knows about it.”
She said many visitors to Fallingwater don’t know Kentuck Knob and Polymath Park exist, despite their close proximity.
While private stays at Polymath Park can be expensive, public tours of all the facilities cost $22, although visitors should call to make reservations.
What: Seasonal Sensations Progressive Dinner — an evening of caroling, carriage rides and food
When: 5 p.m. Sat.
Cost: $95; $90 per person in groups of six or more
A holiday tour of the three homes at Polymath Park, outside Greensburg. Carriage rides through the wooded site of Usonian-style, Wright-designed Duncan House, along with two Wright-inspired homes, the Blum and Balter houses.
Carolers will be in each house, with a dinner course served at each.
Musical entertainment in the Boulder Room — in the basement of the Duncan House.
Details: 877-833-7829, ext. 2 or by e-mail .
Winter tour schedule
Tours of the three homes at Polymath Park are available with registration at 1, 2 and 3 p.m. Sundays
Duncan House tour $16, approximately one hour
Polymath Park Resort tour $22, approximately two hours
Children 6-12, $8 for the Duncan house tour; $11, Polymath Park Tour
Children younger than 6 are not permitted on house tours.
Group tours may be arranged for any day of the week, based on availability.
Visitors have come from around the world to stay at the Duncan and Balter homes — including guests from Germany, Norway and Spain, as well as guest from across the United States and Canada.
The Duncan House is available for two-night minimum overnight stays at $385 for as many as three people and $50 for each additional person.
The Balter House is $345 per night for as many as three people and $50 for each additional person for as many as six people.
From Exit 91 of the Pennsylvania turnpike at Donegal, make a right onto state Route 31, go 2 miles and turn right onto Clay Pike Road. Follow Clay Pike for about 4 miles, then turn right onto Dillon Road. Bear right at the Y in the road, and proceed 1/2-mile to entrance.
There is a gate at the entrance. Driving lanes at the park are gravel.
The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy’s Frank Lloyd Wright house, Fallingwater, will be open 11 a.m. to 3 p. m. weekends through December. It is closed in January and February and re-opens for tours in mid-March.
Clinton Piper, assistant to the director at Fallingwater, said the house will be closed Wednesdays in 2008. Patrons have been staying in the region through Monday, Piper said, while Wednesday visitation has been down.
For more information about Fallingwater , call 724-329-1441.
Kentuck Knob is open daily year-round. Regular tours are available 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Monday tours are at 12, 2 and 3 p.m. Reservations are required. Details: 724-329-1901.