The Wright Stuff

Fallingwater, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, was built in 1935.

We all know that traveling involves a bit of role-play, an escape, of sorts, from the mess of one’s real life. At home, most of us are encumbered—necessarily cluttered—with well-worn belongings and quotidian responsibilities (dishes to wash, oil to change). When we travel, we can borrow a sleek place to stay (just plunk those dirty dishes in the hall) and, if we choose, a sporty new car to take on the drive.

That’s precisely what my boyfriend and I had in mind when we got an irresistible offer last fall: the chance to borrow, free of charge, the brand new Audi RS5—a compact five-speed, turbocharged bruiser—and test it out on the open road for a whole weekend.

The RS 5 is no sweaty, eager boy-racer, but a luxurious rocket for grown-ups. Such design! The automatic transmission appears to know what you want before you do—it never fails to shift at just the right moment. The steering is precise, delivering detailed road-feel. The challenge, of course, was to find the right destination. A place worthy of the vehicle’s combination of luxury and function. We chose Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in western Pennsylvania, where we could continue to revel in the freedom and order embodied in great design. And for the hotel? We picked the Stone House Inn, a recently renovated roadhouse about 20 minutes away on Route 40.

I love to unpack when I travel (metaphorically and otherwise). It’s satisfying to place just the right number of socks and underthings in a drawer, lay neatly folded cardigans on a cupboard shelf like a pristine display at the Eileen Fisher boutique. (As we return to the chaos of real life, wouldn’t it be nice to bring back the essence of those perfectly stacked sweaters?) So first thing, I did just that; then we headed off to meditate on the modern beauty that is Fallingwater.

Well-designed spaces don’t have to be grand. This one is not. More than shape and style make the home a work of art. There’s also a sense of serenity, enhanced by the constant gurgle of water flowing around its walls. Fallingwater was built in 1935 on top of a waterfall, the three levels of living space (and the adjoining guest house) a sleek amalgam of glass, concrete and steel.

Touring the house, one can’t help but envy the Kaufmann family, owners of the eponymous department stores. Liliane Kaufmann no doubt had plenty of gowns, furs, books and knickknacks back at home in Pittsburgh. Maybe she collected dolls or cigarette cases. I picture her husband, Edgar, returning each day from his job— which was all about the accumulation of stuff—to his own stockpiles. And for all I know, their son, Edgar Jr., made model airplanes or was obsessed with baseball cards.

In my fantasy, the Kaufmann family left all that behind when they came to their weekend house, where Wright left the boundaries between nature and human habitation famously blurred.

The architect added an organic-feeling reading corner, breakfast nook and low built-in bench with deep rectangular cushions for reclining or chatting. He designated low upholstered hassocks and coffee tables carved from tree stumps for extra derrieres or trays of strong coffee. He even left specific spots—between steel shelving, stone pillars and all those windows—for the art collection (about which Wright also expressed a strong opinion).

Frank Lloyd Wright designed these rooms with such meticulous plans for their use that the Kaufmann family probably didn’t have to make many decisions when they came to Bear Run. They showed up, lit a fire in the hearth, poured whiskey and watched the sky darken while they waited for dinner to appear.

Fallingwater is in Fayette County in the Laurel Highlands section of the Allegheny Mountains. It’s a popular destination for architecture buffs, but also for outdoor lovers. The Youghiogheny River runs through Ohiopyle State Park, great for whitewater rafting. There are also plenty of opportunities for cycling, on the south section of the Allegheny Passage, and hiking on the Laurel Highlands Trail. Along with campgrounds and motels, local lodging options include the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, a luxury hotel with a spa and golf course, about 20 miles from Fallingwater.

A required addendum to the Falling-water tour is a peek at another Wright home, Kentuck Knob, about seven miles away. Like its more illustrious neighbor, this usonian (or middle class) house seems to bloom organically from its setting on the side of a ridge. Isaac N. and Bernardine Hagan owned a dairy company in western Pennsylvania, and, friends with the Kaufmanns, enlisted the then-famous architect to design their home. Wright created the plan for the house, but was so busy with other projects—notably the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York—that he designed from a distance.

Never mind. His mark is clear in the open floor plan, expansive windows and native materials of red cypress and sandstone. The owner, Lord Peter Palumbo, collector of both art and architect-designed homes (he once owned Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House outside of Chicago), opens the house for tours when he isn’t in the U.S. Palumbo has installed a sculpture walk adjacent to the house, where you can wander among Andy Goldsworthy’s Wall, a circular construction of carefully placed stones, Claes Oldenburg’s giant apple core and Ray Smith’s Red Army, a regiment of more than 1,000 red steel silhouettes blanketing a meadow. There’s even a graffiti-scrawled remnant of the Berlin Wall.

We experienced an elegant (and, OK, ultimately unrealistic) merger of form and function throughout our stay at Fallingwater—and our ride home kept pace. You can throw the Audi RS5 into corners with authority, confident that the all-wheel drive and stability control will have your back. Acceleration is instantaneous. Don’t tell, but when David took the wheel, he had the car up to 115 mph on I-70 and the engine wasn’t even breathing hard. 

Neither was I. In fact, I barely looked up from my book.

Stone House Inn
Stone House chef Jeremy Critchfield.

Spirit: We happened to show up at the Stone House at the tail end of co-owner and chef Jeremy Critchfield’s 42nd birthday festivities. We sat at a picnic table, sampling barbecue from the smoker he’d set up in the parking lot and helped him work on his birthday bottle of Jack Daniel’s. “That was the first National Highway,” he said, gesturing to busy Route 40. “All the settlers moving west passed right here.” The 197-year-old inn, according to Critchfield, “is one of the birthplaces of American hospitality.”

Space: The 12 guest rooms and one three-room suite in the newly renovated inn are comfortable and reasonably priced; they’re named for historic figures, like Lincoln and Harriet Tubman (whose room has a Jacuzzi). We unpacked in the Titlow room, with its pencil post bed, private bath and ivy-printed wallpaper, named for a local landowner from days gone by.

Taste: Critchfield, who has run massive kitchens from The Greenbrier in West Virginia to the nearby Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, became a partner in the Stone House Inn in 2012. He’s designed a comfort food menu to appeal to travelers and locals alike. “The folks who live around here won’t go to the Nemacolin,” he told us, “but they’ll go to Olive Garden.” His goal is to compete at the fast casual price point with high-quality home cooking done with local ingredients.

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