Polymath Park Resort, Pennsylvania
A handful of weekend retreats designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and open to the public sit in the wooded Laurel Highlands, an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh. Thanks largely to Fallingwater, the famed mansion that cascades down a hillside and hovers over a waterfall, the area attracts its fair share of architecture enthusiasts, but most are day trippers missing what ought to be the main attraction. To truly understand Wright’s work, you have to spend time inside it. To that end, Polymath Park Resort gives travelers the keys to modernist marvels, allowing visitors to sleep inside a masterpiece.
In his 1962 master plan, Wright apprentice Peter Berndtson envisioned the 125-acre Polymath Park property as a summer colony of 24 Usonian (Wright’s “middle-class” design style) homes, but only two were ever built there. These were the Blum and Balter houses, which languished in obscurity until the early 2000s, when builder and Wright aficionado Tom Papinchak moved in down the road and discovered them by chance. Just two years after buying and restoring the Berndtson homes, Tom read in the news about plans to relocate yet another Usonian, the Duncan House, which was scheduled for demolition in Illinois. To save the Duncan, he volunteered Polymath Park as the home’s new site, and before he knew it, he was rebuilding the structure himself. It was a daunting task – every beam, windowpane, and cat-hair-coated appliance had been stuffed randomly into trailers – but the reassembly was a success, and the home has become one of a handful of Wright homes available for overnight stays.
Like Wright’s best Usonians, Duncan offers a rewarding sense of expansion into each bedroom and, thanks to Tom’s choice of site, encourages visitors to gaze outside. Elsewhere at Polymath, the Wright-inspired Blum House boasts long views of the mountainous Laurel Highlands, and Balter House, which Berndtson designed, is cantilevered into a forest. Entering the living room, with vaulted, skylit ceilings, stone fireplace and columns, and three walls of windows, visitors can feel what Wright was trying to accomplish by marrying modern concepts with the organic. Tom describes the main living space as “the best room on the entire property,” but there is plenty of competition from bedrooms thrust into the forest.
After a night at Polymath, enthusiasts can make the short trip south to Wright’s Kentuck Knob, which was built in 1956 for a local couple who knew Fallingwater’s owners and longed for a Wright home of their own. An oversize Usonian that emerges gracefully from a windswept bluff, this home is less exalted and fussy than Fallingwater, and its rewards are quirkier: a career-spanning medley of Wright’s own woody furniture, an absurdly tight hallway, a line of art deco-inspired hexagonal skylights on the terrace roof, and a sweeping valley view.
Dotted across the property is a prestigious sculpture collection (Harry Bertoia, Andy Goldsworthy, Claes Oldenburg) amassed by its current owner, an eccentric British lord who had visited Fallingwater in 1985, heard from a tour guide that the home was for sale, then dashed over and bought it. The sculptures are a reminder that this quiet corner of Pennsylvania has been a humble high-art destination for the better part of a century.
More information: A stay in any of the Wright homes at Polymath Park Resort will cost roughly $200 a night. Be sure to book in advance, especially if you plan to visit for a weekend. The fastest route from Pittsburgh is along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
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