How to enjoy a Wright pilgrimage

wIt is rare when a friend asks you to join on a bucket list pilgrimage, especially one so unlikely that I never really considered going. Unlike seeing Carnival in Brazil, visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house just required a day’s drive and sharing accommodations already booked. Perfect! We visited 5 FLW designs (2 by apprentices) and got to spend the night in one!

Fallingwater is jaw-dropping in so many ways – especially for 1935 – perhaps the ultimate in site-specific house design! He engineered a slide-back glass hatch to the stairs down to the creek from the main living area – I imagined the cooling breezes coming into the house. Many terraces dangle right over the creek, while the rock of the site protrudes into floors and walls of many rooms – truly organic architecture. There is even a plunge pool about 3 feet above the normal creek level. So many details support his grand vision.

w31Yes, it is way over the top for a vacation get-away for hunting and fishing(!), and monumental like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, yet given a visionary client with deep pockets, what creative artist would not push the boundaries of design language?

w5After lunch we found Cucumber Falls in nearby Ohiopyle State Park, and let Nature refresh us. The water led us down to the Youghiogheny River for a wide vista. Then a short drive to Kentuck Knob for another tour (no inside photos allowed). Also known as the Hagan House, it is a more modest plan designed for a couple who planned to live there year round – their successful dairy is still going ( Wright was near the end of his life and was less iconoclastic and more accommodating to their needs, like having a decent size kitchen and ceiling heights more welcoming to the stature of their family members. I kept smiling as our guide told us of Mrs. Hagan repeatedly insisting on various practicalities she knew she needed more than Wright’s purist design. World famous architect met his match in a dairy farmer’s wife!

His plan used hexagons and their 120 degree corners, with the only two right angles inside a concession to allow the plumbers to set fixtures! All the stone was cut from their property, and the masons were father and son. It found it amazing that they did all that stonework in only two years. The son hung up his trowel after finishing and went into the used car business! When built, the Hagans had a clear view from the house to the rolling hills across a valley. Among the trees now there, I saw a tall metal tower, with an old TV antenna (early 1960’s vintage) on top. Another smile at folks watching TV in a Wright house!

When she finally sold the house, it was bought by an English lord who added modern sculptures along a trail from the house down to the visitor center. He was there with his dog during our visit (he no longer lives there, but his art and furnishings remain).

That night we enjoyed another dinner on the deck at our rented house on SanaView organic farm. The next day we left architecture behind and hung out around Ohiopyle PA (population 50) and celebrated Linda’s birthday. The falls of the Youghiogheny River have long attracted tourists and those with an eye for business. George Washington poled down this river, standing on a flat wooden raft – and called it unnavigable. w122Rafters love it these days, and bicyclists too, for the 71 mile trail converted from the railway. After a hike around a peninsula formed by an oxbow bend in the river, we had libations at a local bar. Linda decided to try something she’d never had – a Jello shot. However, they were sold out from the weekend (this was Wednesday!), so offered her a pudding shot! After dinner, her birthday pie was strawberry rhubarb from Greendance Winery, with Vidal Blanc, their wonderful white.

Our last day in SW Pennsylvania took us to Polymath Park, with 3 of Wright’s Usonian house designs – one by him and two by apprentice Peter Berndston. Our tour was bookended by wonderful refreshments at their Treetops restaurant. Everyone there seemed to embody the spirit of being a polymath – many varied skill sets across different fields.

Wright’s 1957 Duncan House is one of his few prefabricated Usonian houses to be built, and has far more storage than his more dramatic designs. His apprentice Peter Berndston designed the Balter and Blum houses. They were the only ones built here in the 1960’s, of the 24 he planned for a Wright development that did not take hold.

We stayed in the Balter house, and absorbed much of Wright’s design aesthetic by using various spots in the house as intended, with period furniture. The skylights and cantilevered sun room were highlights. w190I even built a fire in the typically large fireplace! A fittingly warm end to an eye-opening tour!

w212I now realize that he influences daily life for me and many others – he championed open floor plans, the idea of a great room, walls of windows, even the carport. His insistence on “organic architecture” was radical at the time, as was his desire for working people to enjoy living spaces tailored to their needs. Thank you and “so long,” Frank Lloyd Wright!


Blaise Kielar received Honorable Mention in the 2022 Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize for an excerpt from his memoir in progress, "Be Heard: The Quiet Kid Who Started the World’s Loudest Violin Shop." He opened Chapel Hill’s first violin shop in 1978 and retired from a music retail career by transitioning Electric Violin Shop into the first worker-owned co-op music store in the United States. He plays jazz violin and clarinet in several bands and leads the Bulltown Strutters, Durham’s community New Orleans brass band.

One Comment

  1. Linda Smith

    Great blog, Blaise! Loved your account of our wonderful trip, but you left out the group’s rendition of Happy Birthday as part of the festivities. Thank you all for making this bucket-list trip AND my birthday such a wonderful experience! Wouldn’tna been nearly as much fun without you and the “top down” rides in your BMW convertible!

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