Overnight With Frank Lloyd Wright
THE Duncan House in Acme, Pa., crowns a gentle rise off a secluded country road. Long and low, it shouts out its horizontality with stripes of red-painted wood against soft yellow siding. A wide stone chimney signals the fireplace that Frank Lloyd Wright considered the proper center of any family home.
Walk in the front door and down three wide, shallow steps into the cathedral-ceilinged living room, and light and space explode. Oblique angles are everywhere, subtly repeating themselves; so are wood, stone and glass. Beyond French doors, a terrace with the same red concrete floor as the living room’s flows out so naturally into the landscape of trees, boulders and lichen that even on the snowy weekend last month when my husband and I were there, it seemed that indoors and outdoors were one.
We were inside the work of the master. Like any Frank Lloyd Wright house, this one was immediately recognizable.
And briefly, it was ours. The Duncan House is a vacation rental, one of half a dozen Wright houses where paying guests can move in for a weekend or a few days and pretend to be home.
A Frank Lloyd Wright house is like a Japanese garden. No matter where inside it you stand, or which way you turn, the view before your eyes has been planned — and planned to be harmonious and beautiful. To absorb it and try to understand how it was done, you need to move and pause and double back and look around again, stand and sit and maybe lie on the couch. But the usual way to see a Wright house is on a 45-minute or hour-and-a-half guided tour. As a result, Wright admirers have learned to live with frustration.
Staying over, with time and privacy, we chipped away at ours. Over two days and nights, we dined in the glow of concealed overhead lights, read in a cozy nook under triangular windows, lay in bed in the morning watching gray treetops sway. We padded over concrete floors heated by hot water pipes below. Looking at details and structure, we tried to tease out the mechanics behind the overall effect of effortless serenity.
The Duncan House opened for rental last June, after being moved in pieces to its present site about 35 miles southeast of Pittsburgh from Illinois, where it was in imminent danger of becoming a teardown. Since then, it has been rented nearly every weekend and much of the time in between; reservations should be made far in advance. Most of the other rentable Wrights — all in the Midwest — have been open only a few years longer and are also regularly booked.
The rental arrangements thrill architecture buffs (more than one comment in the Duncan House guest book speaks of “a lifelong dream” fulfilled) and defray costs for owners, which include both families who have inherited Wright houses and nonprofit corporations like the one that runs the Duncan House. Don’t look for a rental at one of the marquee Wright creations like Fallingwater, the famous home over a waterfall, or the other priceless don’t-touch, don’t-linger house museums. The rentable Wrights are all Usonians, smaller, simpler and designed toward the end of Wright’s career for the middle class. They may not be as eye-popping and marvelous as the houses where he spent more time, and the owners spent a lot more money, but Wright was an egalitarian who believed every client was entitled to a beautiful structure. You can start anywhere with his work — at any building, from any time in his career, with any mix of history and details — and still get the picture of what all the shouting’s about.
The Duncan House is one of 11 modest Usonians that were prefabricated by a Wisconsin builder, Marshall Erdman, and constructed on lots chosen by the buyers. (New York City’s only Frank Lloyd Wright house, still on its original site on Staten Island and still a private home, is another of the 11.) Donald Duncan, an electrical engineer, and his artistically inclined wife, Elizabeth, bought their Wright prefab after she read an article about the project in the December 1956 issue of House & Home magazine.
After Mr. Duncan died at age 95 in 2002, the house fell derelict. It was dismantled in 2004, moved in four trailers to Pennsylvania, and eventually put back together, from thousands of numbered pieces, at Polymath Park, a 125-acre tract of woodland owned by a young local builder, Tom Papinchak. He still owns the land under the house and is chairman of the nonprofit corporation that runs and maintains it.
Many visitors use the house to anchor a weekend of Wright immersion. Fifteen miles away, in another peaceful woods, is Fallingwater, the most famous of all Wright houses. Also nearby is Kentuck Knob, a stone-and-cypress hexagon, with a balcony ending in a stone prow, designed by Wright for a local ice cream magnate. The current owner, a British lord, not only lets the public traipse through, but also displays collectibles from Claes Oldenburg sculptures to bullets from Custer’s Last Stand.
For Wright aficionados, it’s a perfect confluence: the masterwork, the quirky house with an unconventional owner, and the Usonian to come home to.
On one level, staying in the Duncan House was a trip back to the 50s. We tried out the period furniture — an Eames chair, a Formica kitchen set — and examined the Duncans’ original Osterizer blender and suitcase-sized Grundig radio, which must have been one of the first with push buttons. But what I found more striking, especially in contrast with memories of other houses from that era, was how much Wright’s designs seem not so much of their time as outside of time.
In a 50s house where I once lived, a cathedral ceiling rose forbiddingly upward, and I remember standing on my ex-husband’s shoulders, as he walked gingerly below, to take down nylon curtains some misguided soul had hung over its clerestory windows. Why did that ceiling feel too high for the room, while this one, with a peak perhaps even higher, felt so perfectly, almost unobtrusively, in scale?
Another house, a family home in Florida, had implanted the idea that carports are ugly. How did the one at this house (and Wright invented the carport, I learned from a book I’d brought along) function so gracefully as part of a harmonious structure?
With a whole weekend in the house, there was time to lie down on the couch, stare at the stones in the fireplace wall, and think about all of that.
SLEEPING UNDER WRIGHT'S ROOF
Duncan House, Acme, Pa.; (877) 833-7829; www.polymathpark.com; $385 a night; two-night minimum.
Louis Penfield House, Willoughby, Ohio; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.penfieldhouse.com; $275; two-night minimum.
Haynes House, Fort Wayne, Ind.; (203) 644-2729; www.hayneshousellc.com; $275 a night, with a two-night minimum.
Seth Peterson Cottage, Lake Delton, Wis.; (608) 254-6551; www.sethpeterson.org; $225 to $275.
Bernard Schwartz House, Two Rivers, Wis.; (651) 231-5303; www.theschwartzhouse.com; $295 to $350.
Muirhead Farmhouse Bed and Breakfast, Hampshire, Ill.; (847) 464-5224; www.muirheadfarmhouse.com; $135 to $155 for the master suite.