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Three Wrights Don't Make a Wrong

Duncan House
Duncan House (James E. Argenbright)

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By Christine H. O'Toole
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Fifteen-degree temperatures and an overnight snow have shriveled the rhododendrons into skinny spikes. Thick icicles dangle from the rock faces as I crunch my way through the forest toward the sound of a rushing creek. The sun seems higher and brighter than yesterday, inching toward the equinox, and just to confirm the turn of the season, a robin slides across my path. Then suddenly, it comes into view: the cantilevered house, balancing on a waterfall as if it had grown there.

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It's spring, and Fallingwater's open again.

Frank Lloyd Wright's 1936 design is a Zen celebrity, studiously cool and famously one with nature. There's plenty of cool and natural here in Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands, four hours northwest of Washington, and plenty more Wright, too. Within 30 miles, three Wright homes are open to visitors. Fallingwater is spartan and spectacular; the hilltop Kentuck Knob is cozy within and expansive without; and Duncan House, the newest addition to the collection, is a transplanted curiosity where visitors can spend the night.

Sure, it's possible to rush the three tours into a day-long Wright trifecta, as I did on a recent chilly Sunday. But if you want to get inside the architect's head, as well as his houses, take a weekend in the woods.

My first stop in the mountains southeast of Pittsburgh: Fallingwater, looking good at age 72. The old girl's had some work done -- a fresh, light ocher paint job followed a five-year, $5 million stabilization of the beams that hold the cantilevered concrete trays over Bear Run. Fallingwater tour guide Celeste Emerick halts our shivering group of nine on the bridge to the entrance, explaining how engineers tackled the sagging cantilevers. The beams below the main floor have been attached to steel cables that hold the shelf steady. Problem solved, the house looks exactly as it used to: The Wright-designed furnishings and the opulent Asian artwork of the Kaufmann family, who commissioned the house, are intact. There's not a flat-screen or Wii in the place.

Below the bridge, snow frosts the boulders in Bear Run. They're Pottsville sandstone, like the house's walls. The stream elbows them aside on its downhill rush to the Youghiogheny River. Emerick gestures with a gloved hand across the water.

"At five points, boulders support the building," she notes. She points out a single massive rock that forms a basement wall, the living room hearth and a kitchen window ledge. After squeezing up a slender entry staircase, we revisit the same boulder spilling from the hearth. The log fire is burning, and the natural light picks up the subtle, watery waves of the sandstone floor. Looking down, there's more water: the hatch that leads down broad steps to the stream's surface.

Although the Kaufmanns entertained here until 1963, the basics aren't lavish. Hallways are skinny, beds are narrow, and seating is built-in and low-slung. The ceilings are lower than seven feet. But outside, the concrete terraces are expansive. Emerick unlatches the tower windows in the corner of the upper-level library, and the waterfall softly comes to our ears.

Hidden near the bottom of the river gorge, Fallingwater is surrounded by thousands of acres protected by its owner, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. It radiates an alone-in-the-woods vibe, despite its 135,000 visitors each year.

The sun shines more brilliantly as I cut across the Youghiogheny, driving six miles to Kentuck Knob in Chalk Hill. The lesser-known Wright creation sits against the ridgetop at 2,050 feet, but the contrast between Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob is more than elevation. Its shape is hexagonal; its wood is a bright reddish cypress, capped with a copper roof; and its scale is much smaller than its downhill neighbor. And it still belongs to a private owner, British Lord Peter Palumbo.

Wright designed the home in 1953, at age 86. From the stories tour guide Judy Bevans tells us, he had grown more autocratic with age. He fought the clients, the Hagan family, on such issues as the hallways (he insisted they need be only 21 inches wide) and the kitchen flooring (he said linoleum; Bernardine Hagan chose cork). On most points, of course, he prevailed. Clerestory windows rim the house in a horizontal band, backed by a quirky carved pattern that dances like hieroglyphics. Twenty-four skylights cut into the broad overhang of the roof, and, as the sun moves, the squares of light slide across the stone terrace.

With a honkin' Wright-sized hearth at the core of the three-bedroom house and family photos smiling from the walls, the effect is snug rather than sprawling. What's big is the view, a 50-mile vista of the Youghiogheny gorge and the surprising sculpture garden down the hill.

Lord Palumbo's irreverent art collection includes pieces by Claes Oldenburg, Ray Smith and Andy Goldsworthy. "Room," Goldsworthy's circular rock wall, is punctured by slits that seem about as wide as the Kentuck hallways.

The 30-mile drive from Chalk Hill to Acme, the third destination on the Wright tour, is a trip best made on a Sunday afternoon. That's when the 1957 Duncan House is open for individual tours, beginning April 6. Real Wright fans, if they're persistent and patient, can also snag overnight reservations here, one of a half-dozen Wright homes that allow sleepovers.

Kentuck Knob is sometimes described as a grand version of a Usonian home. But Duncan House is a better example of Wright's concept for a simple, U.S.-made dwelling, with concrete floors, wood walls and a huge stone fireplace. More than a hundred of the Wright designs were built; this three-bedroom abode was saved from the wrecker in Lisle, Ill. Painstakingly reassembled here by local builder Tom Papinchak, it opened to the public in June.

The Jetsons would feel at home with these teak furnishings, vintage appliances and carport. Details such as the sleek shadowline battens and an angular chimney add Wright's flair to a familiar shape, and once again he directs the attention outdoors. Twelve-foot-wide windows showcase the Laurel Ridge landscape. The neighbors are other Wright-inspired homes, designed by Wright apprentice Peter Berndtson. On a 125-acre spread now dubbed Polymath Park Resort, the three similarly sleek homes overlook a meadow where the only recent guest was a groundhog bumbling toward a pond.

"Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities," Wright grandly proclaimed. For architecture buffs, seeing his works is a necessity. The chance to see three of them in a weekend, nestled in Pennsylvania's best mountain greenery, is a real luxury.

* The Laurel Highlands are about 200 miles northwest of the Beltway, four hours by car. Info: Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, 800-333-5661, http://www.laurelhighlands.org.


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