A Night With Mr. Wright


Frank Lloyd Write, exterior of the Duncan house, Polymath Park, Pa

What is the most expressive geometric form? The well-ordered rectangle? The dependable square (uncool associations notwithstanding)? The elegant ellipse? Or maybe something more unexpected— the hexagon, perhaps. That was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorites. He used it in several of his houses.

But there was one form Wright prized above all others, a simple, unadulterated one that is really just the whisper of a shape. The horizontal plane.

“The horizontal line,” Wright wrote, “is the line of domesticity.” A house, he said, should be “a companion to the horizon.”And so it is in a modest 1957 prefab that sits serenely among the woods of the Laurel Highlands in Pennsylvania, a 3 1/2-hour drive from Baltimore. Duncan House is now the third in what amounts to a Holy Trinity of Wright-designed houses all within a 30-mile radius, the other two being Fallingwater and the less famous but equally spectacular Kentuck Knob. But Duncan House has one advantage over its architectural companions— you can spend the night there.

We’re not talking about just walking through it gingerly on a guided tour, careful not to touch any of the furnishings. You can actually sleep in a bedroom Wright designed, eat in a kitchen he outfitted, wander through rooms he laid out with full-length glass windows that bring trees and trails and sky inside.

Fireplace Duncan house, Polymath Park, PaDuncan House is an exemplar of the style called Usonian, a term Wright coined to describe the new, modern type of architecture he believed was appropriate to the “United States of North America.” Characterized by a simple L-shape with a covered carport, and incorporating solid yet inexpensive building materials, Usonians were single-story houses meant to be affordable to everyone. The components could be manufactured elsewhere and shipped all over the country to be assembled on-site at a homeowner’s preferred location. Wright envisioned thousands of them, though fewer than 100 were ever built, and not all of those survive. There’s the Robert Llewellyn Wright House in Bethesda and the Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, but you can’t show up there with toothbrush in hand to spend the night. You can at Duncan House.

Admittedly, I’m more of a frou-frou Victoriana lover and Arts & Crafts aficionado. I live for doilies and peacock feathers adorning curlicued mantels, and densely patterned William Morris wallpaper covering every surface. Those things made Wright retch. But I’m as much a sucker for celebrity as the next person, so as I pull up to the carport I can’t help feeling a little frisson of anticipation.

I’m accompanied by Laura Argenbright, who, with her brother Tom Papinchak, oversees the 125-acre Polymath Park where Duncan House now sits. Though the home looks like it was made for this location, it was, in fact, built in the ’50s in a Chicago suburb by a couple named Donald and Elizabeth Duncan, who admired Wright’s work but never thought they could afford it. Then they read about his new prefab Usonians in a magazine and changed their minds.

Kitchen of Duncan house, Polymath Park, PaWhen Donald Duncan died in 2002, the house ended up in the hands of a developer who didn’t want it, but didn’t want to destroy it either. With the combined efforts of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, foundations and private donors, Duncan House was completely disassembled in Illinois and reassembled here.“The pieces arrived in trailers,” says Argenbright. “Hundreds and hundreds of pieces, all labeled, but just stacked in trailers. It took a while to figure out what went with what.” A year, in fact.

The exterior of Duncan House is a long stretch of creamy, buff-colored Masonite panels punctuated by red mahogany battens, with a red shingle roof that looks like cedar. Those shingles are actually made out of asphalt, a cost-saving measure that’s all the more impressive for how great it looks. The board-and-batten stretch is anchored at one end by a block of fieldstone— Maryland ledgerock, says Argenbright, which is native to this region of Pennsylvania— that houses the kitchen. Stepping into that kitchen is like stepping into a time warp.

Red laminate counters, blond mahogany cabinets, a classic ’50s pink refrigerator, even an old Osterizer blender greet me. The oven is set into the fieldstone wall. An electric stovetop and food-prep island, plus tons of storage space would set any cook’s heart aflutter. (Don’t get too excited—  the only cooking that’s allowed here these days is in the microwave. Otherwise, you can help yourself to the basket of comfort foods, bring a prepared meal— plates and utensils are provided— or have food delivered.)

Living room of Duncan house, Polymath Park, PaBut something is pulling me to the left. It’s the flow, Wright would say. A huge, soaring space is the living area, with a 13-foot ceiling and a wall of glass on one side that looks onto woods and glacier rock. The feeling is one of overwhelming spaciousness, of air and light everywhere, as if you could take it all in just by breathing. The stone hearth is big enough to stand in. And still, the horizontal plane continues, in the bleached mahogany battens that carry the theme from outside inside, running from the living room all the way down the hall— 83 feet in all, to the three bedrooms and two baths. Argenbright leaves me to my own Wright-channeling devices and a key, to boot. Now I really feel like the place is mine.

Undressing in front of a wall of naked windows in the master bedroom takes some getting used to. I know there’s no one but deer and rabbits out there, but still. And no chance of sleeping in here. When the sun comes up, light will pour through those windows and onto the double bed. But sleep can wait. For now, I’m more interested in the massive number of closets and built-in shelves, something a Baltimore rowhouse dweller can only drool over. Wright, it seems, thought of everything.

This is not a luxurious house. It is a house for Everyman. And as much as I admire it, I can’t help but get the feeling that I’ve stepped onto the set of the “Dick Van Dyke Show,” with its Eames-era furniture and throw rugs. I’m not sure I could live here, though clearly I’m in the minority, as comments in the guest book attest: visitors from Germany, Ireland, England, Canada and Japan have come to Duncan House and been swept away by its simplicity, its aura and, they write, its timelessness.

But there’s room for a heretic like me elsewhere on the grounds of Polymath Park in the Balter House, designed by Wright apprentice Peter Berndtson (more rustic, more cozy), and the just-opened Blum House, another Berndtson creation. You can spend the night in both. To please my love of ornamentation, there’s Wright’s Kentuck Knob, with its dazzling clerestory windows, only a few miles away.

Not being much of a cook, microwave or not, I have dinner at another Wright-inspired venue— Falling Rock, part of the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. Designed by architect David Merritt using Wrightian elements like fieldstone, burnished wood, copper and cascading water, the triangle is the reigning geometric form here. And its restaurant, Aqueous, boasts chairs that are exact replicas of the famous Barrel Chair Wright designed in 1937.

But after a rich meal in opulent surroundings, I’m longing for the simplicity of the horizontal line. So I drive the 30 miles back to Duncan House, turn my key in the lock of the kitchen door, and step inside. For tonight, at least, I’m home.

Polymath Park, 1 Usonian Drive, Acme, Pa. 877-833-STAY (7829), polymathpark.com. Rates: Duncan House, $425 per night; Balter House, $395 (a two-night minimum applies); Blum House, $245 to $285. All homes also are open for tours and special events. Fallingwater, Kentuck Knob, Nemacolin packages available.

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