Let me start by saying that I did not label this “Part 1” in anticipation of continuing in my next blog post. It is optimism on my part that I will be able to travel and visit many more Frank Lloyd Wright sites and write about them. This post is about the three sites I was able to visit on my road trip to the Northeast last summer, Kentuck Knob and Falling Water in Pennsylvania and Westcott House in Ohio.
I will try to do these homes justice but you really cannot appreciate the brilliance and artwork that is a Frank Lloyd Wright house without seeing it in person, which is why this trip inspired me to try to visit all his homes you can tour in the US. Another reason to visit them is that the Westcott house is the only one that would allow you to take pictures inside. That’s why for the two in Pennsylvania, my pictures are all exterior and grounds. However the grounds are a big part of the story and history of any FLW home because he designed his homes to fit the space they were to be built on, as opposed to how most homes are built, by designing a home and clearing a lot to accommodate it.
My first stop was at Kentuck Knob in Chalk Hill Pennsylvania. I would note that if you plan to visit this area then you should plan to see this house and Falling Water, they are less than a 30 minute drive from each other. While most Wright houses you can visit are operated by the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, they each have a unique story of ownership and history. Kentuck Knob is owned by British property developer, Peter Palumbo, and he has used the grounds as a location site for a large portion of his art installation collection. Even before getting to the house, the grounds are a beautiful place to visit, but no, the bird houses were not designed by Wright, although I think he would have approved of the design.
Like most FLW homes, you cannot see Kentuck Knob from the road. To access it you take a shuttle bus, up a hill and back into the woods on the property. When you finally reach the house it has a very classic FLW feature you will come to recognize in his homes, the front is kind of underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, the stone and wood work are beautiful, especially for the time this house was built. However, the entrance is simple, low and unassuming, which was intentional to make the architecture blend into the environment. The low ceiling of the carport and doorway was also a technique he used to lead you away from the places you don’t necessarily want to congregate and into the main features of a home.
In the case of Kentuck Knob the true beauty of the home can be seen from the main living area, in that it makes you feel like you are part of the landscape and view from the back porch. One the things Wright is know for being ahead of his time on was bringing the feeling of being outside, inside, and the back of this house does that in many ways. As you enter the main living area, you see the back of the home through a long wall of glass doors, with Wright’s owns design for screens attached to each one. This makes you feel like you are in the middle of the woods, from the main living area, as well as making the expansive porch feel like and extension of the house. To help facilitate the feel of being outside, Wright created these amazing, mini skylights all along the ceiling of the porch, whose intricate woodworking is a work of art in themselves. The desire to create this feel of being a part of the landscape can also be seen by the fact the the built-in dining table was designed and placed so that when the doors were all opened, half of the table is actually sitting on the porch.
The views from the porch and the house also show the intention that he used when designing and placing homes on a site. While the entrance feels low, the placement of the site gives you the feel of being high above the landscape from the back. It also makes you want to spend time in this outdoor setting. There is also a short path off the back porch that leads to an amazing view of the valley.
Off the dining room there is an exit to a back yard area. While this side of the roof does not have the skylights, it does have the intricate wood work showcased throughout the house. Although it was not working when I was there, there a small water feature outside the master bedroom that was no doubt placed at that spot to provide a calming ambiance for sleeping. An interesting note on the bedrooms is the size. There is no greater contrast in this house than between the main living area and sleeping areas. While the main living and dining areas are large, open and airy, to get to the bedrooms and bathroom you have to pass through a narrow hallway, with low ceilings, which sets the tone for the entire wing of the house. Learning about Wright’s life and beliefs, you find this stems from a believe in the importance of family and the home being the gathering place for family and friends. He believed that bedrooms and bathrooms were necessities but should not be designed to spend extensive amounts of time in them. The focus should be on the family areas of the house and making them a desirable place to stay and spend time.
Like many FLW homes, not only is the best view from the back, the most impressive view of the home can be seen there too. As you exit the house, via the path from the back yard area, you get more of a view of the way the home was built into the landscape in a beautiful way. As you move along the path, your view of the house changes, until it takes on the look of a massive boat’s stern, anchored into the side of the hill. While it is large and demands your attention, it also feels like it fits there and the brick and stones are an organic part of the hill.
While dogs were not allowed on the tour, they do have a nice little store and eatery, as well as an expansive field on the hill you can hang out in, as a paid tour goer. Bella and enjoyed lunch in this field while she enjoying rolling in the grass.
My second stop was Falling Water. I made my reservations on the same day but allowed plenty of time to make it a leisurely day. The grounds and entrance of Falling Water are bigger than Kentuck Knob and they have a designated bus/RV parking area. Like Kentuck Knob though, the actual house is very secluded. The conservancy has set up a welcome center/gift shop/cafe/waiting area that is easily accessible but, be warned, if you plan to visit this house, be prepared for a hike.
While it is quite a hike to the house, it is a beautiful one. The trail takes you through trees, and along exposed rocks, and at one point opens up to a field of picnic tables you can eat and hang out at. But it is a very strange feeling to be heading to see what is considered one of the modern engineering marvels of our time, on a hiking trail, in the middle of the woods. You expect to find things like that in the middle of the city, where more people can see it on a daily basis.
When you do make it to the house, the initial view is more impressive than Kentuck Knob, but still not the most impressive part of the house. Falling Water was actually built first, but they both have the same principles of lower, more simple entrances to lead you to the best parts of the house and site. In classic Wright style, the house appears to fit into the site, while also being massive and modern. The layout and shapes give it the modern feel, but the use of bricks and nature colors make it feel like part of the landscape. Even without the most famous feature of the house, it was still an amazing, modern home for it’s time.
At the time I was there, you could not go inside due to Covid restrictions, but you could visit the numerous balconies around the house. It’s once you make it up onto them, that you really appreciate the genius that Frank Lloyd Wright was. When designing houses, he made them to sit on the site without making major changes to the landscape, but also in a way to utilize nature to cool and heat the home. This was seen in the locations of windows and stone, and how and when the sun would shine on them, and at Falling Water, he used the waterfall. The home was built in a way that the balconies and patios were placed over the edge of water itself. While it was probably done in a big part as showmanship, it also achieved the enviable goal at that time, of cooling off the house. I visited in September and when I made it to the balconies there was a noticeable coolness coming up from the waterfall. On the bottom floor there is actually a set of stairs that goes directly into the water and you could feel it get cooler, the closer you got to the water. Although I could not go inside, a tour guide pointed out another set of steps, you could see through the windows, going to the water from the main living space that could be opened to achieve the same goal.
As you leave the house, you have to make a little more of a hike to see the true beauty of this home. In the typical Wright style, the path that leads you there is low and dark and creates suspense and intrigue, as you walk around the house and away. The pictures below show how the house, how you see, and how it looks in the landscape, changes as you walk down the path.
The really interesting thing about this house is that you can see it all along the path that has been made around the grounds, but there is actually only one place you can see the entire house, waterfall and water, that gives you the iconic view. It is a little ledge along the stream, with a very small footprint. One note on it being such a small space is that there are a limited number of people allowed, due to the fact there is a short ledge and steep drop off, but it does frame the house in an amazing way.
As you head back to the visitor center, you continue in a big circle and get a 360 degree view of the home and all it’s amazing aspects. Even though you are metered, at a self tour start time, one great thing about the site is that you can stay as long as you want at each point and take your time on the hike back. I would like to go again when I can go inside, but I would probably only visit this site and plan to spend longer on the grounds.
The last home I visited was on my way home, going through Ohio, The Westcott House in Springfield. This house was a very different experience from the first two, for many reasons. First, it is in the middle of the city, on a main street. This is partly because it was one of his earlier houses, before he had fully perfected his style, and partly because the city has grown around the house, that was originally a little more private. While it still has many classic FLW architectural aspects, and has the Mid-Century Modern details we have come to associate with Wright, it is much larger than his later works and did not have the big difference in space between the main living and bedroom areas. Looking at his work over his lifetime, his progression and movement towards minimalism, highlighting living spaces, use of outdoor areas to expand living spaces, and building customized furniture that adds functionality to each individual home, I am certain that if he were alive today, he would be a tiny house builder. His progression of beliefs in the role of a home and how he put those into his design are completely in line with what is being done in the tiny house movement.
Another big reason this house is different is that it’s a complete restoration. Falling Water and Kentuck Knob have required regular maintenance and upkeep over the years, and owners have made some changes, but they are largely the same as when Wright finished them. The Wescott House is a completely different story. It had been sold multiple times and at one point was converted into apartments. The conservancy was able to buy it and did a multi-year restoration to take it back to as close to what Wright designed and built as they could.
I won’t tell you all the details on the restoration, what’s original and reproduction, because it would ruin the tour, but I will say, that if you visit the house, you will certainly be impressed with what they were able to do. Even if it were not a Wright site, it’s a treasure of early, mid-century modern designs and craftsmanship, and the fact they were able to reproduce some of those elements, in ways that make it hard to distinguish them, is pretty impressive.
Although this house is more traditional than his later works, that more define his style, you can definitely see his style beginning in this house. Mainly in the use of geometric shapes and patterns in the design and the effort to bring the outside, inside. In this home however, the brining the outdoors in, was in a more traditional way with a rooftop garden and terrace, that from the street, look like part of the house. Although it’s not the typical style you expect from FLW, it was still a beautiful space. Another big take away for me on this house is that even though it’s an early work, you can still see so much influence from the Japanese style, which he used a lot in his later works.
Although I was only able to visit 3 houses, like I said in the beginning, it has given me even more desire to make his works a travel destination. It has also inspired me to read more about his life and study his other work, which is an interesting and complicated story. I would encourage you to make his buildings and homes a priority to visit too and support the Conservancy, especially at a time when we are in danger of loosing a lot of our historical art works in the US, due to a lack of funding to maintain them.