I was not prepared. I don’t know why. I’d read the novel Loving Frank. I’d read a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright. I’d seen many a photo of Fallingwater, the house the famous architect built in western Pennsylvania in the 1930s as a summer home for the Kaufmann family, owners of a Pittsburgh department store.
And standing on the outside, waiting with my tour group for our leader to arrive and looking at the cantilevered concrete balconies jutting out over the waterfall below, I thought, “OK I get it. It’s cool.”
But then we went inside. There was no grand entrance, and I expected this, knowing Wright’s architectural philosophy. I knew we would enter a very low-ceilinged space so that when we got into the main living area, we’d go from compression to release. But what I didn’t expect was how I’d feel.
I’ve seen loads of gorgeous homes and spectacular examples of architecture before, but something happened to me in my first look inside Fallingwater. My skin tingled. It’s possible I gasped. I felt disoriented. And as I tried to figure out why I was feeling like this — I mean, there were Brady Bunch colors, and the space wasn’t even that big — it suddenly hit me: The outside had followed me in.
At first, I wondered if maybe it was just that the windows were super clean, providing clear views to the forest outside. But it was more than that. For one thing, we were standing on rugged rock. Fallingwater’s floors are stone, waxed to a shine, and the walls are stone, too — all quarried from just west of the site. The walls echo nature’s formations, looking uncannily like the sides of the roads I’ve just seen as I’d followed the rural mountain route to the house.
The stone, coupled with the relatively low ceilings, created a cozy, cave-like feeling (Wright’s idea of “release” was based on a scale that seems relatively small for modern sensibilities accustomed to soaring ceilings; he designed for men 5 foot 8 and was known to say that anyone over 6 feet was a “weed.”)
Meanwhile, the windows on three sides of the room pulled me forward, beckoning me toward the vast deck.
But wait, what was this? To my left was a glass box of sorts, covering a set of steps that led straight to the stream below. Our tour guide showed how a simple flip pulled the glass away. The whoosh of rushing water filled the air. I realized you could fish right here from your living room if you were so inclined.
I feel a bit silly saying it, but I was falling: This was love at first sight.
Two Days, Three Houses
I’m not the only person who has wanted to see Fallingwater, Wright’s most famous residence. It landed him on the cover of Time magazine soon after its completion and was named by the American Institute of Architects in 2000 as the Building of the Century. More than 5 1/2 million people have toured the house since 1964, when the Kaufmanns’ son, who studied under Wright, inherited the house and donated it to Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
Fallingwater is the most important Wright house open to the public and still completely intact in its setting and retaining its original furnishings and artwork (including some of the Japanese prints he famously brokered).
But one home tour does not a good vacation make, and the nearest city, Pittsburgh, is about an hour-and-a-half away. I dug into some research and learned that just 20 minutes southwest of Fallingwater is another Frank Lloyd Wright home called Kentuck Knob, and just 40 minutes north of it is yet another FLW home, in a place called Polymath Park.
Ah, I thought, a Wright weekend, and my blueprint became a reality when I discovered the nearby Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, which boasts a AAA Five-Diamond hotel called Falling Rock, inspired by, well, you guessed it, and which also has a list of amenities that made my head spin, including great restaurants, a luxurious spa, wine and art tours, and even, curiously, a sort of zoo.
I booked a room, the house tours, and a 90-minute facial at the spa. It was a plan, and it seemed more than Wright.
The Wright Frame of Mind
At Fallingwater, our guide points out that the skylights over our heads leak. Wright’s homes are notorious for leaking. This is apparently a consequence of having innovative ideas for which materials have not yet been created. We also learn that on the main floor, not enough rebar was put into the house’s concrete skeleton, and the first floor cantilever was, after 50 years or so of the tug of gravity, sagging by about seven inches; in 2002, the entire first level’s stone floor and custom-built furniture (cantilevered sofas and shelving suspended cleanly along the room’s perimeter) were ripped out to reinforce the structure’s foundation.
A small price for perfection, I think, as I flit from floor to floor with my tour group. There is something so primal about this house. If you were the sort of child, as I was, who grew up climbing trees and pushing pine needles into “rooms” on a forest floor, and who slept outside whenever possible, then Fallingwater is a fantasy come true. The rooms themselves are small, the closets marginal, and the bathrooms and kitchen barely worth a look.
But who cares? The house is a delightful warren of surprises, of tight hallways and staircases that lead to nesting spaces and walls of windows that open onto broad decks at each level that instantly reconnect you to the lively river below. We climb ever-upward on the tour, which leads to a guest house perched high on the hill, including rooms for the staff, a freshwater pool and Wright’s signature carpool spaces (garages only encourage clutter, he believed, so he refused to build them).
Details lodge in my mind. The generous stone surrounds for the fireplaces in each room. Wright’s built-in dining table with leaves so it easily expands from seating six to seating 20. The cornerless windows that open outward and startlingly erase the frames that create visual barriers to the outdoors. The low walls on those expansive decks that hang over the waterfall that I imagine would never, ever pass modern-day building codes. And then, the owner’s built-in desk, a by- today's standards sliver of a thing, which Wright only expanded when told that the extra space would be needed to write Wright his big check (though Wright carved a semicircle out of the desk top so a window could still open as planned).
At times, this house feels wildly reckless. A moment later, it feels exquisitely and overly constrained. The tour is over much too fast, and soon we are taking our tourist photos from the spot where the Kaufmanns assumed Wright would build their house, farther downstream, with a view of the falls.
I leave exhilarated and exhausted, my mind swirling with Wright’s ideas. On the way to Kentuck Knob, I stop in a little town called Ohiopyle, a picturesque spot alongside the Youghiogheny River, where enthusiastic souls are carting kayaks toward the white-water rapids. At a roadside restaurant, I refortify with a burger and hot fried zucchini planks. I’m ready for house No. 2.
All the Wright Angles at Kentuck Knob
I.N. and Bernadine Hagan, owners of Hagan Ice Cream, were friends of the Kaufmanns, and they liked what they saw at Fallingwater. They asked Wright if he’d design a year-round home for them. Wright was in this 70s by then, and enjoying the busiest time in his career, designing, among other projects, Dallas’ Kalita Humphreys Theater and New York’s Guggenheim Museum. He was running an architecture school out of his home in Taliesin, Wis., and he’d struck a chord with his Usonian homes, uniquely American constructions that he started designing in 1936. Single-storied, moderately sized and usually L-shaped, they dispensed with formal living areas but had large, open, casual spaces featuring, of course, windows and skylights that connected the inhabitants to the great outdoors.
Wright agreed to design the Hagan house, though he only visited the site once before the house was completed. A quick ride in a van takes visitors up to the hilltop house, which was bought in 1986 by Lord Palumbo of Walbrook, who kept it as a private residence before opening it up for tours. Over the decades, he has continued to enhance the property, known as Kentuck Knob, with his private collection of sculptures.
Our tour guide explains that Kentuck Knob is a “grand Usonian,” and that like many Wright buildings it is almost devoid of right angles — here, there are only two. The house is built with hexagons as a repeating pattern, found in the skylights and even the shapes of rooms: The kitchen, at the center of the house, is six-sided.
The Wright touches are clear: A large window with a flower bed on either side obscures the boundaries between inside and out. While the front of the house is plain, the back features a wall of windows. An open living space features a generous stone fireplace. The skylights and roof edges are adorned with hand-carved dentil work. The house has a careful, geometry-based design that embraces its position in the landscape, playing with light as the day goes on.
In fact, once again, the house is not where the owners thought it might be. They were thinking it would be at the edge of their hilltop with a grand view of the mountains and valleys. But Wright tucked it back into the land, a more sheltered spot where it appears to grow organically from the natural landscape.
The half-mile walk back from the house leads us through the woods and the sculpture collection, filled with unexpected treats like Harry Bertoia’s musical Sonambient and Andy Goldsworthy’s stony Room. A large turtle by Wendy Taylor appears to have just crawled out of a nearby pond. I can’t help but think Wright, even though he didn’t create it, might enjoy this art-meets-nature trail and the way it asks of the viewer a willingness to interact.
Feeling All Wright at Nemacolin
Back in my room at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, I spy a plate of cheese cubes and crispy crackers left for me by my butler, the devil who last night left me warm cookies while I was dining on a lovely steak dinner at Falling Rock’s Aqueous restaurant. Designed as a 42-room clubhouse and hotel by architect David Merritt, who studied at Wright’s school at Taliesin but hails from Dallas, Falling Rock is informed by Wright’s ideas about organic architecture, but is a purely 21st-century luxury. Merritt partnered with Dallas-based WSI Architects to create a refuge at the edge of Nemacolin’s Mystic Rock golf course that would include locker rooms and a pro shop, but also a fine-dining restaurant, bar, workout facility and an expansive pool area with a view of the sunset and the 18th hole.
I hop on one of the vans that run through Nemacolin constantly. One guest disembarks almost immediately at the Holistic Healing Center, a place that offers options from stress-relief massages to sessions on acupuncture and aging skin. Another skips off to view the outdoor animal exhibits, featuring bison and Bengal tigers. Some teenagers take off to the Adventure Center, where they’ll find a climbing wall, arcades, bowling lanes and zip lines. Nemacolin offers paintball, mountain biking, and mini golf, and if that’s not enough adventure, you can sign up for safari tours, dog-sledding, and horseback riding. You can take a Jeep off-roading, go sport clay shooting, take golf lessons, play tennis or hang out at one of the several pools.
We drive by the art studio, where a couple emerges carrying paintings they’ve just completed. We go by the airplane hangar and the “auto toy store,” both showcasing pristine vintage machines in the Hardy family collection.
Joseph A. Hardy III is the man who, along with his daughter Maggie Hardy Magerko, built this one-of-a-kind oasis in the Pennsylvania countryside. The family business is the 84 Lumber Company, but it’s clear that Nemacolin is its passion, as the family has created a wonderland for guests of all ages. I discover that the spa is part of a multi-building complex, all connected by hallways lined with unexpected pleasures. There is a stunning French-chateau-like hotel and another hotel called the Lodge, in which a trainer shows off a sloth performing tricks on a valet cart.
I stumble across the Tiffany library where the artist’s lamps perch, waiting for guests to drop into the comfortable chairs with a book. An Alexander Calder mobile quietly spins down the hall. The Hardy family’s art collection is valued at over $45 million and pieces are found here and there, perhaps next to the nail salon for children, the pub-style Tavern or a boutique stuffed with Lilly Pulitzer.
The spa is internationally acclaimed, and I can instantly see why. The service here, as it has been everywhere at the resort, is phenomenal and the facility is huge and impressive and yet welcoming and private. After my session, I am so deliciously almost-numb relaxed that I settle by the fire with a glass of champagne, not quite ready for the real world.
But then I remember I have one more day with Frank.
Living Wright at Polymath
Polymath Park Resort is an interesting place. Two of Wright’s apprentices, with the last names of Balter and Blum, each built a summer home here in the 1960s, with the intention of developing multiple Usonian homes on the property.
Long story short: Plans fell through and one day, much later, the current owner bought the 130-acre park with the idea of creating a place where visitors could spend the night, reconnecting with nature. As his plans developed, he heard about a Wright-designed Usonian house in Chicago that the owner had sold. The house had been packed up, piece by piece, and was ready to be reconstructed. He bought it, and the Duncan house is now part of Polymath.
A classic Usonian, this Wright home features the signature generous fireplace in a large open living area and a wall of windows across the back of the house. The kitchen, with a laundry area, has cork floors and an efficient use of space. The master bedroom’s en suite bathroom features a glassed-in shower, surely an anomaly when it was designed in 1957.
Built for those with a Budweiser budget, even today this little jewel, though not a masterpiece like Fallingwater, appeals to Dom Perignon design tastes. And it provides visitors with yet another piece in understanding the puzzle of the man who was Frank Lloyd Wright.
So long, Frank Lloyd Wright
As I leave the mountains of western Pennsylvania, I think about how, by all accounts, Wright was a difficult and demanding man, convinced he was always smarter than anyone else in the room. During his lifetime he enjoyed moments of celebrity and success, but much of the time he was just trying to make ends meet. His life was filled with beyond-believable personal tragedies, but he kept starting over, doing what he believed in. And his ideas of organic architecture still remain fresh for contemporary minds in 2016, almost 150 years after his birth in 1867.
I also think about how Wright was right about so many things. I resolve to think more, as he did, about following a life of passion and purpose, and about reconnecting with nature more deliberately. And, yes, I admit I also think about my garage and all its clutter and decide he had a point about that, too. It really does need a good spring cleaning — to be perfectly frank.