Frank Lloyd Wright houses draw fans to Pennsylvania

October 23, 2005|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

A monthly series about weekend escapes for $500 or less.

Tucked away in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania are two houses that the modern homeowner might not want to live in, but hundreds a day want to see. They are two of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright's designs: Fallingwater and the lesser-known Kentuck Knob.

The houses have no basements, attics or garages because Wright said such things encourage clutter. And the kitchens seem like afterthoughts, probably because Wright didn't cook. But they do have some features that few listings in the Sunday Real Estate section can claim.

The houses, which my friend Doug and I have long wanted to visit, are set along scenic, rural byways in an area known as the Laurel Highlands, about a four-hour drive from Baltimore.

The house tours are most popular in the fall, when visitors flock to see the surrounding tree-covered hills at their most colorful. There are plenty of other things to do along the winding mountain roadways as well, including spa treatments at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and whitewater rafting and hiking in nearby Ohiopyle State Park.

residences, which attracts 140,000 or so people a year, according to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which controls the property.

We were fresh from a big breakfast at our B&B, Country Seasons, which we picked because it was the only inn in the same town as Fallingwater - Mill Run - on the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau Web site.

It was the kind of place your aunt might have in the country, with an oak rocker and a swing on the front porch overlooking a sweeping lawn and fountain. And, as if we were family, when we arrived late Friday night, we found the door unlocked and a note on the kitchen counter telling us which of the four guest rooms was ours. The room had a winter theme, with a homey quilt, snowmen accents and the smell of spiced cider.

Breakfast was at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, so we and the other guests would have time to make our 8:30 a.m. tour. Fallingwater is just a few minutes away in Mill Run, a slip of a town, with a scattering of houses, churches, antiques shops and other small businesses.

Fallingwater

We booked the two-hour extended tour of the house, which is offered only at that hour. It also was the only time when photography is allowed inside. Too much photography is bad for the furnishings, some of which were designed by Wright.

Fallingwater is considered a career-reviving achievement for Wright, who was in his mid-60s when he designed the house. It's built atop a stream that we could hear bubbling over the rocks and see from many of the glassed-in rooms of the house. The odd, almost dizzying perspective from above the falls made you feel like you were actually moving on the water.

The house has typical Wright features, such as window glass that runs directly into the walls with no frames, and pieces of the natural setting - in this case rock - jutting inside the house. Some people on our tour seemed to walk more carefully at first on the smooth, rock floors because they were treated with a shiny coating to look as though they were wet from the falls.

The house was designed in 1935 as a vacation home for the Kaufmanns, a wealthy Pittsburgh family.

It was one of the first American homes to offer what we now know as a great room, and an hour into the tour it was tempting to sit on one of the several sofas there, even though they were all rather stiff looking. In one of the lighter moments of the tour, our guide, Ute-Jutta Murray, said Wright once acknowledged that the sofas gave him bruises.

Our guide was polite but firm. She kept us from lingering too close to the Tiffany lamps and other valuable decorations. And with five other tours in the house at the same time, it would be easy to accidentally merge with another group.

Murray was clearly an admirer of Wright. There wasn't much talk about the house's design flaws, even though Fallingwater had just undergone an extensive engineering fix to keep it from falling into the water.

Bernard Sivak, who was visiting the house from Ann Arbor, Mich., with his wife, Loretta Polish, had to ask about the repairs, which he had supported with a $100 check that day.

Sivak, who said he lived in a "Wright-inspired" house, shared his own lore about the architect. He said Wright was so busy and so far behind on the blueprints for Fallingwater that he scribbled the house's design in 30 minutes as the Kaufmanns were en route to his office one day.

Sivak and his wife were pleased with the house. "It struck me that we were able to walk right up and practically touch everything," Polish said. "Nothing was under glass."

Kentuck Knob

Kentuck Knob was equally accessible. Seven miles down the road, it was, however, a world apart.

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