Touring Wright’s Vision for the Masses
By Thomas Shess
West Coast Craftsman Founding Editor
Frank Lloyd Wright’s other South Central Pennsylvania residential masterpiece hails from the icon architect’s Usonian period in his career. Called Kentuck Knob, the home was designed when Wright was in his 80s for I.N. and Bernadine Hagan in the mid-1950s. The couple was influenced by Wright’s other work in nearby Fallingwater (see North Park News, August 2011). By definition, Usonian Wright (invented acronym from United States of North America), was Wright’s version of tract housing and he built many during his career using that style.
Earliest Usonian designs appeared in the 1930s when the great Depression called for inexpensive housing. Of course, Wright could not create cookie cutter design and today the supposedly common man Usonians are now museum quality and appropriately pricey. A great collection of these homes appears in Diane Maddex’s book : “Frank Lloyd Wright, Inside and Out,” (Barnes & Noble Books).
First of all, the Usonian Kentuck Knob is far different from internationally acclaimed Fallingwater, which is eight miles away via idyllic tree-lined, two-lane roads. This is good or bad depending on your perspective. It’s akin to comparing siblings — some things are similar but more often the differences prevail. Don’t compare: just enjoy.
Kentuck Knob (kentuckknob.com) is nonetheless a masterpiece because it is a Wrightian accomplishment. Countless others have penned elegant and thoughtful essays praising this Pennsylvania Usonian. I leave the intellectual surfing to you. Suggest starting by reading architectural critic Donald Hoffmann’s excellent work, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s House on Kentuck Knob.” (Barnes & Noble Books).
As an architectural tourist from North Park, I like the traditional floor plan of my family’s Craftsman bungalow better. Wright was in love with great room design, meaning the entire home is served by a huge living room dwarfing bedroom, kitchen, bath, hallways and closet spaces. Heaven help you if you wished to move a Morris chair through a Wright Usonian hallway. But if we discuss Wright as a so-so space planner, we are missing his genius for site selection and working with natural materials. (For a huge selection of Usonia, go to Google and type in Usonian House and dozens of images will appear.)
By the 1950s, many of Wright’s Usonian architectural principles were influencing post-WWII architects, especially those post and beam mid-century modernists. So, in that respect Wright did accomplish his goal to provide more affordable housing for the middle class in America.
Adding to the architectural tourism adventure is being able to find interesting lodging. Thanks to a tip from Julia Donovan, the marketing director for Laurel Highlands (a successful three-county tourism promotion consortium in southwest Pennsylvania), we stayed at a well-run bed and breakfast inn.
A late afternoon check in will give you time to explore the rustic grounds of the Inne at Watson’s Choice Bed & Breakfast near Uniontown, Pa. The Inne, whose original buildings date back to the early 1800s, is owned by area natives Bill and Nancy Ross. Later in the evening, wander into Uniontown to dine in the historic Caileigh’s restaurant, a converted Federalist architecture brick home that serves excellent regional cuisine. A summer night back at the Inne will find you swinging on an old-fashioned swing or chasing fireflies. From this pastoral B&B, trips to Wright’s two amazing homes — Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob — are only minutes away.
The Inne combines its historic heritage with modern times (hello, wifi). It’s both comfortable and practical. Having lingered too long with the genial innkeepers, we visited Kentuck Knob, Ohiopyle State Park and Fallingwater in one day given (must) advance reservations at both Wright sites and an early start. Kentuck Knob is open year-around, but Fallingwater isn’t and the latter is closed one day during the week, which has been to the chagrin of Wednesday arrivals. But, if you do yourself a big favor and make advance reservations for Fallingwater, you will miss the dark day.
• Kentuck Knob (kentuckknob.com)
Current homeowners have turned the grounds of this early 1950s home into an outdoor sculpture garden featuring works by renowned contemporary artists such as Anthony Caro, Andy Goldsworthy and Claes Oldenburg.
• Fallingwater (fallingwater.org).
Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Kaufmann Family in 1936-38, Fallingwater has been called the best example of residential architecture by the American Institute of Architects.
• Ft. Necessity National Park & Battlefield (nps.gov/fone)
Built as a small outpost by British troops commanded by a young George Washington, this 1754 compound was the site of the first shot fired in the French and Indian War. Nearby Mount Washington Tavern is an example of an 18th century roadhouse.
• Ohiopyle State Park (discoverohiopyle.com)
On Highway 381, between Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, is Ohiopyle, a beautiful state park. Its name derived from a local Indian word for river rapids. The source of the whitewater is the Youghiogheny River gorge, which is a prime source for waterfalls, camping, hiking and whitewater rafting.
• Inne at Watson’s Choice (watsonschoice.com)
Located in the village of Balsinger on Route 21 outside of Uniontown, this 11-room B&B (suggest the Laurel suite) is a functional combo of quaint and modern. But let’s get to the important matters: breakfast. For starters, we were served a fruit cup with juice and homemade pastries and local baked bread. Our blueberry pancakes were served with local maple syrup and Fayette County-made sausage.
When to visit:
This hilly region is splendid in spring and in fall when the leaves begin to turn. Summers can be hot and humid. Make a vacation out of it by flying into Philadelphia for the historic sights and sites. Rent a car, travel west to Gettysburg (150th anniversary year); continue west to Fallingwater (75th anniversary year) and Kentuck Knob, then wrap it up and fly home from amazing Pittsburgh. The ‘Burgh hasn’t been the smoke-choked Dickensian nightmare it once was for decades. Now, it’s foody, friendly and sports fan based.
If you go now
About 50 miles north of Fallingwater, in the same Laurel Highland region, is Shankstown, where nearby is the Flight 93 Memorial to those brave souls who perished in 2001. On Sept. 11, President Obama is scheduled to speak at the dedication of the Flight 93 memorial’s first phase. Our divided nation could use another Gettysburg-type address (nps.gov/fini).