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Duncan House ‘Wright’ fit for Acme park

Pittsburgh Tribune ReviewBy Richard Robbins
Friday, June 15, 2007

A house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright was unveiled Wednesday in Mt. Pleasant Township, a transplant from Illinois that joins two nearby Wright designs, Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob.
Duncan House, a prefab from Wright’s Usonia period of the 1950s, is typical Wright: a low-slung, linear affair with a spacious interior open to nature.

The house, which arrived unassembled in Westmoreland County in three tractor-trailers a year ago, is slated to become a guest house at $385 a night. Its owner and CEO, Thomas Papinchak, of Greensburg, and his sister, Laura Nesmith, of Unity, are opening the house to weekend tours as well.

It is especially hoped Fallingwater visitors, 72 percent of whom need overnight lodging, will rent Duncan House as a way of enhancing their Wright “experience.”

Fallingwater director Lynda Waggoner, who attended yesterday’s ribbon-cutting, said that was an excellent possibility. Waggoner gave Duncan House a thumbs-up, saying the setting, deep in country woods about four miles from Route 31, was perfect.
“I don’t think a better setting could be found,” Waggoner said. “It will be terrific for the 135,000 (annual) visitors to Fallingwater.”

Duncan House was originally constructed in a Chicago suburb in 1957 for Donald and Elizabeth Duncan. Wright hoped to create housing for middle-income Americans. It didn’t work out that way, said Tom Schmidt, of the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy in Chicago.

Schmidt, who lives in Pittsburgh, said yesterday that Wright could not control costs and his dream of affordable, durable yet superior housing was never realized.

At the same time, the Duncans dwelled in their Wright-designed house for four decades. With the Duncans dead and the house in decline, it looked as though their home — one of only 11 remaining prefabricated Wright-designed structures in the nation — would fall to the wrecking ball.

It was then that the Conservancy came to the rescue along with Tim Baacke, of Johnstown. But Baacke’s plan to reassemble Duncan House in Johnstown never materialized. Papinchak stepped forward at that point, with financing help from the state and The Progress Fund, a nonprofit lender.

Papinchak said he sank a lot of his own money in Duncan House. A custom-design Greensburg contractor, Papinchak said putting Duncan House back together was no harder than working a jigsaw puzzle.

“It took us a year, I thought it would take six to eight months,” he said yesterday.

Duncan House is the centerpiece of Polymath Park Resort, a 125-acre spread near Acme that contains two Wright-inspired homes by Wright apprentice Peter Berndtson. Berndstson, Papinchak said, laid the groundwork for a 24-house development in the 1960s. Only the Balter and the Blum Houses were built.

More than a few Wright aficionados attended yesterday’s event. One was Karen Rich Douglas of Greensburg.

“I like the clean lines (of the house),” Douglas said. “I like its setting in nature. I like the way it nestles among the trees.”

A friend, Nina Lewis, of Greensburg, said she travels the nation to view Wright designs.

“I like the art deco stuff,” she said by way of explanation, “and the simplicity.”

Richard Robbins can be reached at or (724) 836-5660.

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