Travels

The Wright Houses – Polymath Park

I capped off my weekend Wright trip last April with a stop at Polymath Park, a half-hour drive from Fallingwater.

It had snowed the night before and snow still glisten from the tree tops. Driving through the Allegheny Mountains felt like entering upon an enchanted winter wonderland. Little wonder the rich and powerful of Pittsburgh had made these hills their vacationing grounds.

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Polymath Park is comprised of three houses. Two are original to their location and were designed by Peter Berndtson, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, and built as summer houses for the Balther and Blum families, successful businessmen from Pittsburgh who had bought the land together with the intent of developing it into a resort community for the well-to-do of Pittsburgh. The last is an Usonian house designed by Wright once belonging to the Duncan family from Lisle, Illinois which had been painstaking dismantled from its original location (developers there had slated for the house to be torn down) and re-assembled brick by brick at Polymath Park in 2007. All three houses are available to book for overnight stays during the summer months – a perfect adder to a Wright vacation!

I begin in chronological order.

The Duncan House was built in 1957 off of a standard Wright Usonian design with minimal customization. This particular Usonian was manufactured by Wisconsin builder Marshall Erdman, who created fewer than a dozen of these houses.

Building upon his earlier Prairie School houses which featured large open floor plans built around a central hearth and filled wight natural light, Wright’s Usonian designs show greater concern for compactness, and affordability.  The philosophy was to create houses that could be mass-produced and afford the average middle class American family with sensible, classic living spaces suitable for modern life (ie: life without servants but with heating, lighting and electrical appliances).

Recognizing also the changing landscape of America from rural to increasingly urban, Wright wanted to encapsulate as much nature into the home as possible. As such, a strong visual connection between the interior and exterior spaces is an important characteristic of all Usonian homes.

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Yet, like all Wright designs, the Duncan House went over time and over budget. Originally priced at $5,000 to $7,000, it ended up costing $37,000.

The main double-doored entrance leads directly into the living room. We entered though, like the Duncans would have, via the side-door adjacent to the carport, leading straight into the kitchen.

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Well-suited to the needs of a 1950s housewife, the kitchen is almost “modern” in appearance with an island counter, electrical burners and carve-outs for the refrigerator and oven.  The red formica counter tops and much of the vintage appliances are original to the house.

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Walking out the kitchen, one enters a hallway. Here already, one can see the “Cherokee Red” floor –  a rich warm red that was Wright’s personal favorite and also prominently featured at Fallingwater on all metal and ironwork elements, including the window bars. (Check out my post on Fallingwater for visuals.)

Curving around, one reaches the open expanse of the living room featuring none other than a grand stone hearth. Even though by this time a majority of houses were equipped with baseboard heat, Wright still believed in the importance of having at least the visual of a hearth – the beating heart of a home.

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Other features typical of Usonian houses include horizontal lines which helped to connect the home with the land outside, and use of natural materials such as brick, glass, and wood. One can see too, how in an effort to reduce costs, rather than having walls made of stone, owner could elect to place in an external stone veneer over the plywood.

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Note too, how even the windows are broken by horizontal lines, giving a strong linear feel despite the 13-foot high ceiling. This is accentuated by the flat, walled-in patio which extended the livable area of the house outdoors and pushed against the boundaries of nature.

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Typical also is the furniture and lamps, designed by Wright which came built-in with the house.

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Snuggled in the “quiet” side of the house are 3 bedrooms and 2 baths – all filled with windows and light. It is so commonplace now that one is apt to forget how before Wright’s Prairie School style houses, not only were open layouts unheard-of, but the use of windows were sparse with rooms barely containing any natural light.

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Next up was the Blum House, completed in 1963 of what were to be 24 homes designed by Peter Berndtson.

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Stepping into the house, the Wright legacy is clearly visible. For starters, like Wright’s Usonian houses, the floors are made of colored concrete in the shade of “Cherokee red”. The house also boasts a beautiful stone fireplace – the central hearth – made from stones harvested from the property and placed in a dry stack formation.

Yet, the chef d-oeuvre is a ceiling to floor glass wall that spans essentially the entire length of the living room, opening unto to a meadow with views of Chestnut Ridge Mountains in the distance.

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One would be forgiven for trying to walk straight on through the glass to the nature that beckons outdoors.

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The Balter House came next in 1964. Tucked into the woods at the edge of the forest, the house features a large cantilevered porch echoing a tree house.

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Here too, “Cherokee Red” is featured prominently on the concrete floors. California Redwood is used on both the interior and exterior of the house as vertical board walls and highlight beams.

Like the Blum House, the large stone fireplace is built using sandstone harvested on the property. The only different being the selected stones are more jagged and uneven – adding to feeling of being deep in the middle of the woods.

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A fantastic example of organic architecture and design, exposed redwood beams play upon the tree house theme, growing vertically from the ground and branching to hold up the ceiling.

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Furthermore, the light and airy bedrooms feature French doors which open up to patios extending into the woods.

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