In western Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, it’s hard for a home to really stand out. Arguably the country’s most famous residential design, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, along with another nearby Wright design, Kentuck Knob, can be seen in the same day after a short drive through mountain ridges and maple trees.
But for fans taking a pilgrimage to see Wright’s masterpiece, another local site offers a more all-encompassing architectural experience. At Polymath Park in nearby Acme, visitors can not only see and tour the architect’s work, but spend a night in one of four homes either designed by the him or influenced by his work, including one house which recently opened after being transported from Minnesota and rebuilt on site. It’s a bit of a Wrightian theme park, and according to the owners, a way for visitors to reconnect with nature as the architect intended.
“For me, it was never about financial gain,” says Thomas Papinchak, who owns and runs the park with his wife, Heather. “This was about keeping it for future generations. We saw a way for the public to experience architecture in a different way.”
The 125-acre resort, once meant to be a community of Usonian homes, now contains two designs by Wright apprentice Peter Berndtson, as well as two relocated Wright homes, the Duncan House (originally from Lisle, Illinois) and the Lindholm house known as Mäntylä (“house among the pines”), which, after being disassembled and moved halfway across the country, just opened for guests earlier this week.
So-named by the previous owner who sold to the Papinchak’s, Polymath Park was initially designed to be a Usonian community, a reference to a Wrightian style of architecture meant to be more affordable and accessible. In the ‘60s, the Balter and Blum families, industrialists from Pittsburgh, wanted to design summer homes in the country, something with “Wrightian flair” like the Kaufmann’s nearby Fallingwater. They purchased property a short drive from the city with views of the Chestnut Ridge Mountains.
Since Wright passed away in 1959, the families decided to go with the next best things and hire Berndtson, a former Taliesin apprentice. He would design homes for both families, as well as a larger, unrealized scheme for a Usonian-style development for the property called TreeTops and Mountain Circle.
Papinchak says the layout of the two homes, with low profiles and backyards that open up to the surroundings trees, gave the families what they wanted, showcasing the Wrightian philosophy of embracing nature, as well as signature touches, such as his Cherokee red paint and stone fireplaces. The original owners never took up Berndtson’s proposal or developed anything beyond their own homes, using the property as a summer retreat until selling it in the mid-’80s.
In 2000, the Papinchaks moved to a home a half-mile away from the Berndtson buildings. Thomas, who owned a construction company, appreciated Berndtson’s designs, and when the previous owner began looking for a buyer he could trust to respect and maintain the properties, offered him the chance to buy. He decided to invest and help preserve the homes. At one, point, he even considered creating a Wright-influenced suburb on the property, in homage to Berndtson. But plans changed.
In 2005, Papinchak saw an article in the paper about plans to move a Wright home in Illinois, threatened with teardown, to nearby Johnstown, Pennsylvania. After inquiring with the buyers, who eventually ran out of money to finish the project, he eventually decided to buy them out and take over the task of preserving the Duncan House, a wide, horizontal home with yellow siding built in 1957. Along with a four-man crew, he relocated and rebuilt the home in Pennsylvania, piece by piece.
The Papinchaks opened Polymath Park in 2007, with their original home near the park turned into a restaurant for guests. The entire family helped run the park, including the Papinchak’s two daughters. Early on, the resort fought for attention, “literally a cluster of homes in the woods” looking for guests.
But renewed appreciation for Wright’s work over the last decade has led more and more visitors to seek out a chance to spend a night in one of his homes, an opportunity only available at a handful of properties. Rates currently run from $299 a night for the Balter and Blum homes to $399 ($425 on weekends) to stay in the Duncan House and $475 per night for Mäntylä, with proceeds going towards the Usonian Preservation Corporation, a non-profit set up by the park to preserve and protect the homes.
Early guest reaction was very positive.
“People kept the house better than we would, cleaning things we wouldn’t,” says Papinchak. “It was impressive how much respect they had for the property.”
Recently, Papinchak added to his Wright collection, transporting the Lindholm House from Cloquet, Minnesota, to Polymath Park. Designed for the same family that commissioned Wright’s famous gas station, the 2,300-square-foot home near Duluth, known as Mäntylä was transported in 2016 as part of a “last-ditch” preservation effort. The family even donated original the furniture.
“It was a microsurgery, taking the house apart piece by piece,” he says. “We took it apart piece by piece, numbered everything, put it in containers, and shipped it here.”
The Polymath Park owners hope the new site will, despite the lack of original context for the home, offer the same experience provided by the rest of the resort. The Papichaks hope their respect for Wright’s designs, as well as the park’s no-wifi policy, can help more people forge a connection with architecture and the landscape.
“It’s more personal,” he says “It’s my wife and I making it come alive.”