In Frank Lloyd Wright Country, Architecture and Apple Pie


Opened in 1959, the Westmoreland unveiled a major renovation at the end of last year, adding a sleek new gallery building cantilevered à la Fallingwater. Inside the museum are minor works by a few big-name artists — Sargent, Cassatt, Winslow Homer — along with a fascinating collection of regional art. I can’t help but contrast the Stygian landscapes of industrial-age Pittsburgh (by Colin Campbell Cooper and others) with the paradisiacal nature scenes of the Laurel Highlands by George Hetzel. No wonder Mr. Kaufmann and other wealthy Pittsburghers spent their weekends in the country.

Touring that country by car is a thrill. The old roads, some of which were first cleared by now-extinct eastern woods buffalo, snake around hillsides, along streambeds and across century-old covered bridges. Autumn here is absurdly beautiful; at the end of the season, the leaves in the treetops turn almost purplish, like an expensive head of cauliflower, before falling away.

We needed caffeine before beginning the Frank Lloyd Wright component of our trip, so we stopped at Sand Hill Berries in Mount Pleasant, a working farm with a bakery and cafe. We drank our coffee and ate a slice of electric-red raspberry pie on a picnic table in a flower garden, where local couples sometimes get married.

There are three Wright homes clustered within miles of one another in the Laurel Highlands — all of which you can tour, although the Duncan House, in Acme, is the only one you can sleep in. The house is a modest, single-story “Usonian” style prefab, a democratic design that Wright hoped he could scale, making his organic architecture accessible to the masses.

The house was actually built in a Chicago suburb in the 1950s but was taken apart piece by piece, carted 600 miles and then painstakingly reconstructed, in 2007, by Tom Papinchak, a local contractor. Mr. Papinchak and his wife, Heather, also own two nearby homes by a Wright disciple, Peter Berndtson, and have opened all of them up — under the name Polymath Park — for overnight stays and tours.

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Raspberry pie at Sand Hill Berries in Mount Pleasant, a working farm with a bakery and cafe.

Credit
Rob Cardillo for The New York Times

The homes are interesting for architecture buffs but I can’t recommend them unreservedly as rentals: the mix of shabby vintage furniture and second-rate modern appliances gives the whole project a slightly amateurish feel.

Like the Duncan house, Kentuck Knob in Stewart Township is Usonian in style but much richer: flagstone steps lead up to an L-shaped, dramatically horizontal house topped with a copper roof and decorated all around with red cypress dentil frieze. On the porch, a row of hexagonal open-air skylights frame tall trees and sky.

While Wright visited the property only once, after construction had begun, the house was purpose-built for its impressive surroundings, recessed into a 2,000-foot hill that offers a spectacular view of the Youghiogheny River gorge.

Wright designed custom furniture for both Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob: bookcases, wardrobes and my favorite piece — the giant Cherokee red wine kettle that swings into Fallingwater’s fireplace, to heat big batches of mulled wine over the hearth. Such furniture was, Wright said, “client-proof”: built into the house, it could not easily be undone or ruined by the dubious decorating impulses of his patrons. Nevertheless, I think it’s safe to say that both these houses were, if not improved, then enriched by their owners’ idiosyncratic additions.

This is particularly true at Kentuck Knob, where the current owner, the British baron Lord Palumbo, has brought in an array of exquisite, museum-quality furniture by the likes of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Gustav Stickley, Carlo Bugatti and Wright himself.

As if that weren’t enough, in a meadow and along a wooded path beneath the house, Lord Palumbo has scattered a preponderance of modern sculpture (by Andy Goldsworthy, Sir Anthony Caro, Claes Oldenburg and others) along with a few British telephone boxes and a slice of the Berlin Wall. The fact that there’s so much to see — and that there are no crowds — makes the experience of visiting Kentuck Knob rival that of Fallingwater.

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The view from Kentuck Knob.

Credit
Rob Cardillo for The New York Times

But of course you’ll go to Fallingwater. Its impact is undiminished by the countless photographs you’ve seen of it. The house’s effect on you accumulates over the course of the tour as you notice things like the small stairway in the living room, accessible via sliding glass panels, that reaches down to a point just above the stream. The stairs are almost cantilevered — they have no supports from below — and flow downward in a way that echoes the movement of the falls and the overall design of the house.

Before you dream of living here, know that ownership was not without its challenges — many of which came from the water’s proximity, and the resulting humidity. (Mr. Kaufmann nicknamed the house “Rising Mildew.”)

The concessions at Fallingwater are fine, but you’ll do better to drive 10 miles south and have a lunch at Bittersweet Cafe, a country store where everything from the creamy cucumber salad to the Pennsylvania Dutch apple pie is homemade. Bittersweet also has a little annex filled with an improbably great collection of antiques sourced from estate sales.

Still high on interior design, and noticing the cheap-as-chips prices, I bought most of the store, including a pair of Japanese teak salad servers that would not have looked out of place in Kentuck Knob’s kitchen and an Amish bentwood rocker that I later found, on 1stdibs.com, for 10 times the price.

Is it cocktail hour yet? Looking at all these weekend homes makes you want to join the party. The Summit Inn, a few minutes from Fallingwater in Farmington, is the place. Built in 1907, it’s one of America’s last great “porch hotels ” — a lovely category that is devoted to lazing about. Past guests have included Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

While the hotel is a bit rumpled today, its patio roof is in pristine shape, and, importantly, full of white rocking chairs. A whiskey and Perrier paired with the astounding view of Chestnut Ridge somehow lets all that architecture sink into the soul.

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Kentuck Knob was recessed into a 2,000-foot hill that offers a spectacular view of the Youghiogheny River gorge.

Credit
Rob Cardillo for The New York Times

IF YOU GO

Reservations are essential to tour the three Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the Laurel Highlands. For tickets to Fallingwater and the Duncan House at Polymath Park, visit Fallingwater.org.Kentuck Knob tickets: kentuckknob.com. To book an overnight stay (from $249 per night) at Polymath Park, go to polymathpark.com.

WHERE TO EAT

Bittersweet Cafe, 205 Farmington-Ohiopyle Road, Farmington; 724-329-4411,mybittersweetcafe.com. Minutes from Fallingwater, this adorable country store and antiques shop is a perfect lunch stop for architecture pilgrims.

The Eastwood Inn, 661 Old Lincoln Highway, Ligonier; 724-238-6454, theeastwoodinn.com. Once a speakeasy, this historic steakhouse mixes classic cocktails and retro entrees like Salisbury steak and lamb chops with mint jelly.

Jamison Farm, 171 Jamison Lane, Latrobe; 800-237-5262, jamisonfarm.com. This farm raises some of the country’s best grass-fed lamb and hosts occasional dinners and cooking classes (from $75 a person). Book far in advance; space is very limited.

The Supper Club, 101 Ehalt Street, Greensburg; 724-691-0536, supperclubgreensburg.com. This cavernous restaurant attracts locavores with a menu featuring western Pennsylvania’s best purveyors, including Jamison Farm.

WHERE TO STAY

The Inne at Watson’s Choice 234 Balsinger Road, Uniontown; 724-437-4999, watsonschoice.com.This newly renovated hotel is built around a 19th-century brick farmhouse and offers traditional guest rooms as well as rustic wooden cabins with kitchenettes (typically for extended stays). Rooms from $105.

Northview Inn, 111 North View Heights, New Florence; 724-235-9472, northviewinn.com. ThisB&B is a bit off the beaten path in a gut-renovated Gothic revival home that’s dripping with choice antiques. The rooms are plush and the comfy parlor contains a fireplace, a chess set and serve-yourself decanters full of port and brandy. Rooms from $75.

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