Once again, Fortune’s wheel has spun. A desire to see Fallingwater again led to the decision to, at long last, make a stop at Polymath Park on the way there, to check another Frank Lloyd Wright house, the Duncan House, off my list–and much as in the concert I attended one week ago (and wrote about here), that decision yielded an unexpected surprise.
I had planned an overnight stay in one of the two Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice-built houses at Polymath a few years ago, but a family emergency on the part of the owners forced cancellation. I hadn’t realized at the time just what a small operation Polymath actually was. Even finding it is an adventure of its own–there is little or no signage as one winds one’s way through the back roads of rural Pennsylvania. I would have been lost without the navigation feature of Google Maps.
Polymath Park is labour of love for a couple, Tom and Heather Papinchak, who started out just under 20 years ago by purchasing a home in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania. In 2003, they learned that two nearby summer homes, once owned by the Blum and Balter families, and the 130 acre property on which they were situated (known as Polymath Park), were on the market. These two houses were designed by Peter Berndston, an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright. The Papinchaks ended up purchasing the entire property, not knowing quite what they were going to do with it other than to preserve the homes.
In 2006, they had the opportunity to add a new home to the property: the Duncan House, an actual Frank Lloyd Wright home, one of three pre-fab designs that were were sold to various clients. As our guide explained, the Duncans ordered the house from builder Marshall Erdman, which would have arrived in pieces to be assembled in situ. They used it as their primary residence in Lisle, IL until Donald Duncan’s death. Our guide went on to describe how the home was carefully taken apart and placed into storage. A group in Johnstown, PA originally planned to move it there, and the Papinchaks expressed interest in assisting. They heard nothing until a few years later, they learned that funding had fallen through, and would they be interested in moving it to Polymath? Of course they agreed, and in 2006, the house was reconstructed on their property. The following year, they opened Polymath Park for overnight stays in the three houses. This is what I was expecting to see when I booked my Duncan House tour. But our guide mentioned we would see only the Duncan House, the Balter House…and another house, the “crowning jewel”: Mäntylä. I’d never heard of Mäntylä….
Turns out, they’d just added a fourth house–a Wright original– to Polymath Park, one that had only been finished six weeks ago. This is the R.W. Lindholm House, which they named Mäntylä (“of the pines” in Finnish), originally located in Cloquet, Minnesota. This custom-designed Usonian home was completed in 1952. Lindholm was also the client for the only Wright-designed service station ever completed during his lifetime. By 2014, the house was deteriorating, developers were interested in the property, and the owners at the time attempted unsuccessfully to sell it. The Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy, worried that the home would be demolished, stepped in in 2016 and offered the home to the Papinchaks (or, more correctly, to a non-profit they have set up to correctly preserve the homes). In 2017, much like the Duncan House, the Lindholm House was carefully deconstructed, each piece numbered, and the entire thing shipped to Pennsylvania in shipping containers. Once onsite, a consultant from the Conservancy helped the Papinchaks and their small restoration team properly orient the home on the property and then to rebuild it to the original plans (one notable change was to revert back to the planned carport, which the Lindholms had replaced with a garage. The home also came with its original furnishings.
We’ll return to Mäntylä in a moment. First, let’s look at the Duncan House:
These are all exterior shots, as photography is not permitted inside. The Duncan House is a basic Usonian house, furnished simply but in keeping with period furnishings. It has a wonderful, expansive, beautifully lit “great room” with a large hearth, a sizable kitchen (not typical), and three bedrooms. One interesting note is that when the house was rebuilt at Polymath, a few steps were taken to make it more like Wright’s original design. The prefab house had options of either tile in Cherokee Red or carpet; the Duncans had chosen the latter. When the house was rebuilt, the floor was done in scored concrete to replicate the look of the tile without the expense. This blogger has a more complete set of photographs of the interior, as well as some information on the house before it was moved.
On to the Balter House:
Once again, no interior shots, but the Balter is essentially a Usonian cottage. Here, the materials are redwood and local limestone, giving the home a rich, rustic feel. The main room features a lovely skylight and a screened porch, which is cantilevered out over the grounds, reminding me a little of a treehouse.
And finally, Mäntylä:
You will notice I grabbed a couple of quick interior shots, almost by accident. (The article I linked to above has a few more of what the house looked like in its original location with the furnishings included). The house will likely look much better once it is better surrounded with the intended pines. As a custom Usonian, Mäntylä got its own cutwork wooden window design (Wright made a different one for every home). This house reminds me quite a lot of the nearby Kentuck Knob, particularly in its “prow” design (seen in the last couple of photos). Because it came with the original furnishings (the last owner was a descendant of the Lindholms), it also has that lived-in feeling of Samara and Fallingwater, where you get a feel for how the owners actually used the house. If you’d like to see more photos, as well as learn about the house and the reconstruction process, this Pine Journal article, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article,and this one in Dwell have lots of details and stunning photos.
Fortune’s wheel has definitely turned for Mäntylä, as it did for the Duncan House in 2006. Perhaps Polymath Park will become a sort of retirement home for Frank Lloyd Wright homes threatened by encroaching development or neglect. In any case, now that I’ve seen these houses, perhaps someday I’ll be able to spend a day or two in one. I may have added two more checkmarks to my list of Wright properties I’ve visited, but there are always new goals. In the meantime, I’ll just revel in the wonderful timing that brought me to Polymath just at the right time.
If you should wish to visit, Polymath Park is about 35 minutes from Fallingwater. I took the basic-level tour (just over an hour long), but there are more in-depth ones available. The man who drives the shuttle that takes you around the park also works at the restaurant as a sous-chef. (The food, incidentally, is excellent, even if I didn’t get the famed brunch friends rave about).