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Overnight in a Wright – Our architecture critic visits the Duncan House and discovers the delights of a mid-century modern Usonian

Pittsburgh Post GazetteSunday, August 05, 2007
By Patricia Lowry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Garden is watered, cats are fed, family is squared away. It’s Mom’s overnight out, a solo retreat on which my only companions will be a few good books, including my old, yellowing paperback copy of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “The Natural House,” because I’m going to stay in one: The Duncan House, a plywood prefab built in the 1950s in a Chicago suburb.

But I’m headed east out of Pittsburgh, at 4:09 on a Monday afternoon. As I pull onto a crowded parkway, I’m hoping the gas in my tank will get me to the town of Mt. Pleasant, where they still pump it for you at no extra charge. Just as I pull into a gas station there, my warning light comes on. “Fill it up, please,” I say, getting in a 1950s groove.

So it isn’t until I’m almost to Kecksburg that I feel that I’ve shed the city and things-I-must-do. As I come up over a rise, the countryside spreads out before me, patches of green under a cloudless blue sky, with a farmhouse and barn in the distance and horses grazing in a small pasture to my right.

When selecting a home site, “The best thing to do is go as far out as you can get,” Wright, a notorious anti-urbanist, advises in “The Natural House,” published in 1954 as a guide to building the Usonian house, the acronym he coined for the United States of North America. Usonian houses were affordable, single-story dwellings for the middle class; over his long career he built more than 100 of them, including the Duncan House.

At 5:30, I pull onto the private road leading to the Duncan House. There’s a pickup truck crossing the one-lane bridge up ahead; the driver is Tom Papinchak, the house’s owner. We wave and I follow him through the dense, deciduous forest up to the house, a long, low ranch in a clearing at the end of a winding road.

“I’m ready for my night in the woods, Tom,” I say, gravel crunching underfoot as I follow him through the side door under the carport. This old screen door with its patina of scuffs and scratches must have been the one Don and Elizabeth Duncan used every day, not the big double doors at the main entrance.

The Duncans built this house in Lisle, Ill., in 1957. Fifty years later, I’m walking into their kitchen on a hilltop in Western Pennsylvania’s Laurel Mountains. No time-space warp at work here; just old-fashioned ingenuity — and a vision to link four houses in the Laurel Highlands with Wright associations.

A low-key resort

After Don Duncan’s death at age 95 in 2002, his estate sold the house and its 15 acres to a developer who didn’t want the building but agreed to work with the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy to find a new location for it. In April 2004, the 2,200-square-foot house was deconstructed and moved to Johnstown, where it was to become an educational center for 20th-century architecture and design on the grounds of a proposed botanical garden at Sandyvale Cemetery, the town’s oldest burial ground. Papinchak, a young Westmoreland County home builder and carpenter, would be the general contractor.

He and his wife, Heather, had an interest in Wright; they had purchased 125 acres near Acme, Westmoreland County, that held two Wrightian weekend houses designed in the 1960s by former Taliesin apprentice Peter Berndtson for Pittsburgh businessmen James Balter and Harry Blum.

When the Johnstown plan fell through for lack of funding, a new one evolved — move the house to the Papinchaks’ land and open it as a guest house that also would accommodate tours and seminars. The state helped with a $200,000 First Industry Fund tourism loan, and many suppliers donated materials.

“Why wouldn’t I want to do this?” says Papinchak, who led a small crew in the yearlong reconstruction. “I already had the land and the company to build the house.”

What he didn’t have were construction plans, although there were detailed photographs and drawings documenting the deconstruction, and each piece had been lettered and numbered.

“Once we caught on to the system, we were all right,” he said. “I was like, ‘Give me a 2AF1!’ ”

Berndtson’s 1962 master plan for the site had called for 24 houses, each set within a 300-foot circular clearing in the woods, but only the Blum and Balter houses were built. Today the property, laced with about five miles of hiking trails, is a low-key resort called Polymath Park, the name given the land by its previous owner and which Papinchak retained. Lodging is available in the Duncan and Balter houses; the Blum House will serve as the visitor center, cafe, spa and gift shop when it opens later this month.

Close to two other Wright houses — it’s about 15 miles to Fallingwater and 30 to Kentuck Knob — the Duncan House is one of only six Wright houses in the country that accommodate overnight guests.

Because of Wright pilgrims, “We’ve been full almost every night,” Papinchak says.

An open plan

The place is decidedly more homey than it was at the ribbon-cutting on June 14. There are towels in the bathrooms and a microwave, small fridge, toaster oven and hot-and-cold water dispenser in the breakfast room off the kitchen. A note left on the kitchen island, surfaced in the original red-linen laminate, advises against using the house’s cooktop range, dishwasher, big pink refrigerator and oven, “to preserve the historical integrity.”

But look, there’s a bowl of fruit on the table in the breakfast room, a nice, welcoming touch. I make a beeline for the grapes.

Plastic! What a letdown. Then I laugh. Very 1957. I heat up my leftover soup in the microwave, then paw through the basket of snacks on top of it, settling for a small bag of “fruit crisps.” Very 2007.

And that’s the way it is throughout the Duncan House: One minute you’re in the 1950s in the kitchen, fantasizing about what Elizabeth Duncan cooked and looked like, and the next President Bush is commuting Scooter Libby’s sentence on MSNBC in the master bedroom. Happily, the living room is TV-free, and the overall ambience, furniture-wise, is mid-century modern.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s enter the house like the guests we are, through the double doors. Here Wright is up to his old tricks, compressing space overhead in the entrance hall before opening it up to the great expanse of the sunken living room. Three steps down and we’re in it, marveling that a room that feels this big could be contained in a house that, from the outside, looks so small. Straight ahead, there’s a view of the stone-walled terrace through a span of glass-paneled doors.

To the right is the stone fireplace wall, where the living room flows into the dining room, which flows into the cork-floored kitchen, unusually large for a Wright house.

With a small kitchen, “We have more money to spend on spaciousness for the rest of the house,” he writes in “The Natural House.” But in the Usonian houses, Wright saw the kitchen as an extension of the living room.

“Back in farm days there was but one big living room, a stove in it,” he wrote. “And Ma was there cooking … .”

Well, Ma’s not cooking tonight, so let’s get on with the tour, back through the living room and up the three steps to the long hall Wright called the gallery, which runs along the front of the house and is lined on one side with built-in cupboards designed for storage within and display above. Off the gallery are two small bedrooms and a bath; another bath is on the opposite side of the master bedroom, located at the end of the gallery.

Downstairs, but off limits to overnight guests, is a conference room with its own stone fireplace and terrace.

Concrete to stone

I plug in my laptop at the kitchen table and start to write. The house is wireless, so I curse myself (again) for not having a wireless card. Then I curse the cursing. Relaaaax, I tell myself. There was no Internet in 1957.

At 8:30, the sun is dipping below the tree line and throwing golden rectangles on the stone fireplace wall. There were no stones in the house when the Duncans owned it; they opted for the less expensive concrete block. But the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy told the Papinchaks that stone would be an appropriate upgrade, if they could afford it. It also would be a better fit with the house’s rugged, rocky new surroundings.

The house was full of natural light in late afternoon.

“Orientation was a key factor,” Papinchak said, adding that the house is south-facing, the same way it was in Lisle. But with the sun going down, it’s time to turn on some lights.

Artificial lighting, Wright writes, should be “as near daylighting as possible.” He used recessed lighting in ceilings to create the effect of natural light. But the Duncan House rooms are too evenly illuminated at night; for me they lack drama and hominess. The Papinchaks have provided some table lamps, but the house could use more, especially in the bedrooms. My reading-in-bed plan thwarted, I veg in front of the tube until I fall asleep.

At 5 a.m. I wake to a brightening sky and bird songs. I should get up, but I roll over. At 7:30 I’m faced with two choices — the master bath with a glass-walled shower facing the woods or the windowless bath next door. I opt for the warmer, cave-like bath.

After breakfast I visit the nearby Blum and Balter houses, separated from each other by a broad meadow with a view of the Laurel Ridge.

And after a lingering look, it’s time for my reluctant return to the city.

First published at PG NOW on August 3, 2007 at 12:11 pm

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