a night in a Wright

As we peck our way down our list of visiting early iconic Modern houses, we found ourselves in western Pennsylvania along a small bubbling creek named Bear Run this past weekend. While this was a treat (more later...), the night before was the real gem of the trip:  an evening, overnight, and morning in a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian. In essence, an FLW slumber party!

Rear elevation of design #1

Back in 1956, Elizabeth Duncan read a description about Frank Lloyd Wright’s and Marshall Erdman's prefab homes in House and Home magazine. After visiting the model home in nearby Wisconsin, she convinced her husband, Donald, to build one in Lisle, Illinois, in 1957. 

Spec’d for standard sized bits of plywood, drywall, and masonite and with options for concrete, brick, and/or stone, this pre-fab house could be customized to fit a client's preferences and budget. The Duncans lived in their prefab Wright until they died, Mr. Duncan passing in 2002 at the age of 98. 

Frank Lloyd Wright and Marshall Erdman with a model of their pre-fab home design #1

Wright's original floorplan

An easier-to-read schematic (and rotated from the previous plan)

The model home under construction

The completed model home with a brick core volume

Period interior shots

Press for a one built in New York

The Duncans outside their home

The Duncan house was originally built in rural Illinois just outside of Chicago, but the burbs eventually swallowed up the countryside, including the Duncan house. As the area became McMansioned and as the owner aged, Mr. Duncan's estate sold the property, a chunk of land with space for three large houses, to a developer who intended to tear the Wright pre-fab down. The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy thankfully intervened and was able to find a new home for the house in late 2003 with Tom and Laura Papinchak. The Papinchaks methodically deconstructed the house in 2004 and then lovingly rebuilt it in 2007 at Polymath Park, Pennsylvania, a rural development started by a Wright apprentice southwest of Pittsburgh near Wright’s Fallingwater. Polymath Park was originally envisioned to have 24 homes on its 125 acres, but only two were built. The Papinchaks now own Polymath Park and rent out the original two houses and the Duncan House. 

Renting the Duncan House is not cheap ($325 a night [yes, you can rent it for one night!] for a weekday special), but with our plane tickets and other two evening accommodations paid for with points, we splurged. How often do you get a chance to spend a night with Frank?

After passing through a gated bridge and choosing the appropriate fork in the gravel road, we approached the house in a circular clearing up a slight hill. The house greets you with open arms, the bedroom wing with a long ribbon of clerestory windows to the left and a two-bay carport to the right, both radiating off a blocky limestone core. This public facade preserves the privacy of the inhabitants and minimizes thermal loading from the Western sun yet remains inviting with a short Cherokee-red walkway aproned before the front door.

Frank’s fixation on horizontality is immediately evident, not only in the strucuture itself but in the details. The siding is a narrow tan masonite topped with redwood. The clerestory windows methodically match the height of this siding. Even the roof has small ridges that echo the horizontality of the siding.

The masonry core of the house peeks above the roof lines of the wings with (surprise, surprise!) horizontally lain stone, some of which extends out farther to continue the horizontal lines of the siding (although Wright's instructions for stone requested a more random arrangement). The original Duncan House employed concrete instead Indiana limestone or brick to save costs. At first I winced at the decision to not reproduce the house as it originally was, but after seeing photos of the house with the scored concrete, the Polymathers made the (ahem) Wright choice, whose first choice would have surely been limestone.

The original fireplace showing the concrete core

The core of the house as it is today

Despite being a low-cost way to get a Wright back in the day, the house is all Wright (ha!). Given that it is one of Wright's later Usonian designs, perhaps it encompasses all that he learned since the thirties if not his entire career, because the house is stunningly competent.  I was expecting claustrophobia and darkness from a design from a different time, more than 50 years ago. Instead we found a house that was open and light and very comfortable. I could easily live in this house happily ever after.

The front door is a pleasant two-doors’ wide with the classic FLW low ceiling height (6’6”) that carries from the outside of the entry to the inside, an architectural technique called compression and release. Frank liked you to bow down (if you were tall) or feel claustrophobic coming into a space and then have the space open up inside. And inside, that is what happens with this house. The interior is surprisingly spacious: three steps down into the living and dining rooms and comfortable cathedral ceilings angled away from the entry and the far wall. Ceiling heights in the rest of the rooms were also comfortable, with slightly lower heights in the kitchen to create coziness.

Looking into living room from the entry.

Looking from back of living room toward dining area and door to kitchen. Front entry to the right.

Looking from side wall of living room toward fireplace and dining area.

Can see where the ceiling height in kitchen has been purposefully  lowered. Also note evidence of a leaky roof (the roof is flat for the masonry core). It wouldn't be a Frank if it didn't leak!

The three-bedroom, two bath house with a family room takes up a comfortable 1,900 square feet. The kitchen is a good size with good light. The house bristles with built-in storage. Inside walls are clad similarly to the exterior but with more refined materials: white mahogany plywood with triangular battens over the seams. The battens effortlessly carry the lines from the outside to the inside. The stonework also moves into the house effortlessly, with everything lining up as a cohesive whole.

One of the extra bedrooms. Note how the batten on the outside carries into the inside.

Note how the stone carries from the outside into the inside.

Cleverness abounds. The ribbon windows, a design feature right from the Robie House and other late-stage Prairie houses, wrap the front and back of the house giving it a constant connection to the outdoors from the bedrooms and the hallway to the bedrooms. The hallway to the bedrooms telescopes inward (becomes more narrow) the deeper you go into the bedroom wing. This allows the parts of the hallway with greater probability of increased traffic to accommodate that traffic and allows the deeper bedrooms to be bigger. Built-in cabinets line the hallway. The master bedroom is on the far end of the wing. Sure, a longer walk for the homeowners, but the location allows for corner windows around the backside that extend to the ceiling and distance from the hub-bub of the daily household for a quick nap. The bedrooms are small by today’s standards but adequately spacious. 

Ribbon windows in the front.

and ribbon windows in the back

Looking down the hallway toward the master. The hallway narrows twice from this point. Also, note all the storage on the left side below the clerestory ribbon windows. Sweet!

Looking from the hallway back into the living area.

Master bedroom.

Windows in the master bathroom (the right two) and two of the three back windows in the master bedroom (the left two).

The living areas, joined into a single great room and anchored with a solid fireplace, are glorious. Wright jokingly referred to the design of this house as his “one-room house”. The back wall is all door and window with an ample yet cozy patio waiting beyond. A corner of windows, held up with some structural steel, serves as a brightly lit reading nook or desk area.  

Back patio out the back of the living room.

The kitchen is located just off the dining area in its own room--this is before kitchens became the core of a house rather than fireplaces--yet remains connected to the house. A door exits the kitchen into the carport (the better to unload groceries and beer with). The kitchen opens completely into the family/utility room, modernly described as a bonus room, a brightly lit place for the kids to do homework away from dad’s cigar and whiskey breath in the living room. Or perhaps an informal dining area, as the space is used in the house today.

Back of kitchen looking toward utility/family/bonus room

Detail of the wall-mounted oven.

Utility/family/bonus room.

We’ve toured a number of Frank’s superstar houses, but this lowly ~$50,000 prefab has the best and most livable interior we’ve seen. Efficient, elegant, and immaculately detailed. Being able to savor it through dusk and dawn, through dinner and breakfast, through a glass of wine and a cup of coffee, was a real treat. 

All in all 5 to 11 (depending on the source...) of this version of the pre-fab homes were built (Frank designed two other models). Several have the closed-in garage option, which destroys the aesthetics by my eyes. The carport is long and sexy and open-hearted.

If you go, be sure to order dinner (we got it to go) from Laura Papinchak's restaurant at the mouth of the Polymath development. Straight up five-star food. We forgot to bring a bottle of wine: fortunately they had one!

And in case you are wondering: Frank doesn't snore...

Links about the house and pre-fab versions of the house:













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