The Laurel Highlands comprise four counties of southwestern Pennsylvania—Cambria, Fayette, Somerset, and Westmoreland—that include a wealth of recreational activities (I’ve done the Class III whitewater rafting trip on the Youghiogheny River), but a recent visit focused on architecture and history (later this week).
Finally, I visited Fallingwater, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Kaufmann department store family of Pittsburgh, and nearby Kentuck Knob, commissioned by the Hagan family, which owned a large dairy operation in the area.
Fallingwater is perhaps Wright’s most ideal integration of site and structure. The Kaufmanns purchased the heavily wooded property traversed by Bear Run with the intention of building a house where they could see its lovely waterfall. Wright refused. He said they would tire of the view in time and even cease to notice it, whereas the higher location he recommended, pervaded by the sounds of the gushing stream, would be preferable in many respects. They came to agree with him. The expansive window walls in many rooms and cantilevered terraces over the falls make the viewer feel part of the landscape, not merely an observer.
Disagreements between the architect and the homeowners continued, though in the end, they were on cordial terms. One problem was that Mr. Kaufmann wanted a bigger desk. But if the desk were enlarged, the adjacent window couldn’t be opened, and Wright refused. Kaufmann reportedly said, “Well, I need a big desk, because I’m going to be writing a very big check and I believe it will have your name on it.” Wright solved the problem by cutting a semi-circle from the desk surface so the window could swing open.
The Kaufmann family occupied the home as a weekend residence from the time of its completion in the late 1930s until 1963, when Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., the family’s only son, donated the property to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Several million people have visited this remote gem since the conservancy opened it to the public. I especially admired the way the stone, obtained from a local quarry, was laid in alternating wide and narrow courses (photo below).
As you may know, Wright balked at recommendations to strengthen the supports for his bold cantilevers, and the terraces began sagging immediately. Over the years, the problem increased, reaching a critical state in the early 1990s. A massive reconstruction plan began in 1995. The repairs, which took a number of years to complete, are now invisible to visitors.
Kentuck Knob, located just a few miles away at the top (“knob”) of Chestnut Ridge in the Allegheny Mountains, is a much smaller, less light-filled home. On the approach, it looks like a ship emerging from the land. From its grounds, the visitor can see three states—Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. Much of the view is obscured by the thousands of trees the Hagan family had planted, which make the site almost as forested as Fallingwater. In the house are many charming features, as well as some that reflect Wright’s well-known disdain for livability (the too-hot kitchen, for example). The house is privately owned, but made available for tours and now includes a sculpture garden in the meadow below.
This architectural sojourn was complete with a house tour of Clayton, the Gilded Age mansion of Henry Clay Frick in Pittsburgh, one of the last surviving houses from the city’s once-grand “Millionaire’s Row.” The tour focused on Frick’s interest in collecting art, and some of his earliest acquisitions are in the house. You will know his name—and his remarkable eye for European art—from The Frick Collection at Fifth Avenue and East 70th Street in Manhattan. Quite an unexpected passion for a man from the Laurel Highlands who began his career supplying coke to Pittsburgh’s steel mills.