Copyright © 2016 John F. Oyler
December 1, 2016
Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater has long been a treasured asset of this region and a “must-see” destination for visitors here. Recently a second Wright showplace, Kentuck Knob, has become available for public tours. Located near Chalk Hill on Route 40, east of Uniontown, it was constructed in the late 1950s and has been lovingly maintained ever since.
The I. N. Hagan family, of Uniontown, were close friends of the Edgar Kaufmann family and frequently visited them at Fallingwater. Through the Kaufmanns they were able to interest Mr. Wright in designing a deluxe Usonian house for them on a beautiful 80 acres site overlooking the Conemaugh Gorge.
Despite being heavily involved in designing the Guggenheim Museum the eighty six year old architect accepted the commission and produced another remarkable design, despite seeing the site only briefly during construction.
Wright coined the term Usonian to describe a concept of simple affordable homes constructed of local materials and being an integral part of their surroundings. His goal, in 1936, was to design a house with a floor plan of 1200 square feet that could be built for $6,000. Twenty years later the Hagans’ deluxe version cost $96,000 and provided 2300 square feet of floor space.
For cost comparison, in 1937 Jim Wallace designed and Sam Barzan built our house on Lafayette Street for $5,700. In 1964 my wife and I purchased a very respectable three bedroom house in Mt. Lebanon for $18,500. I suspect $96,000 would have put us in Virginia Manor in those days.
The Hagans enjoyed Kentuck Knob for thirty years before selling it to an English Lord, Peter Palumbo in 1986. Fortunately he has followed the English concept of historic property management by making the house available for public tours.
We had an excellent guide on our recent tour of Kentuck Knob, a young lady who was extremely knowledgeable and courteously patient with all of our questions. What a difference that makes in any tour!
The Hagans originally wanted their house to be located on the summit of Kentuck Knob; Wright insisted on building it into the hillside. He wanted it to be “of the hill, not on the hill”. His vision was vindicated by the final result.
The house consists of two low-roofed wings, meeting at a taller hexagonal central core. The wings are not at right angles to each other; in fact our guide challenged us to find any corner in the house that was at right angles. The core itself enclosed the kitchen. It was not a regular hexagon; I measured one side at nine and a half feet, an adjacent one at twelve feet. The architect was never bothered by orthodoxy.
A flat roof extended, again at an obtuse angle, from one wing, covering spaces for parking vehicles. Our guide informed us that Mr. Wright had coined the term, “carport”. She also showed us a small enclosed room in that wing that had been designed as a studio for Mrs. Hagan, an amateur painter. When she realized it had no windows at all, it was converted into a storage room.
The walls are constructed of Pottsville sandstone, layered in such a fashion that it suggests the natural strata of the rocks in the hillside. Grantsville flagstones make up the floor, with hot water pipes below them providing radiant heating. The woodwork throughout is tidewater red cypress, an exception to the architect’s preference for local building materials. After all, this has been designated deluxe.
One wing is dedicated to living space and features windows along one wall, providing a marvelous view down the hillside. The opposite wall has a continuous bench along it and clerestory windows high above eye level, to provide natural lighting. The wing is filled with different Wright designed furniture, including a chair from the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and a Mission style sofa from his famous Prairie House.
A particularly attractive feature of the house is the deck running the length of this wing, covered by an overhang from the roof, filled with open hexagonal skylights. The integration of interior spaces with the natural outdoor environment reaches its peak here. At the end of the deck there is a seamless transition to a beautiful flagstone patio, backed by a small waterfall.
The architect originally designed the end wall of this wing to be solid, a decision to which Mrs. Hagan objected, wanting to be able to see the long driveway leading up to the house, so she could anticipate the arrival of visitors. Wright compromised by adding an “invisible window”, a sheet of glass with no mullions nor frame. The result is the appearance that there is an unglazed opening in the wall.
The other wing contains an expansive master bedroom and a second bedroom used by the Hagans’ son. Wright had intended to limit the ceiling in the bedrooms to six feet, but relented when he learned the son’s height was six feet, three inches. Apparently the master architect mellowed when he became an octogenarian; he made numerous concessions to the Hagans’ wishes.
The dining room is adjacent to the central core and is also hexagonal. It too has the advantage of the marvelous view to the southeast through the extension of the deck. When the Hagans acquired the property it was mostly open farm land. They planted thousands of seedlings which have become a very impressive forest.
It is interesting to compare and contrast Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob and wonder how much Mr. Wright’s philosophies changed in the twenty years separating their construction. The Hagans’ house is certainly seems much more livable, while Fallingwater seems more like a monument, “a great place to visit, but….”.
At any rate we are quite fortunate to have both these treasures in our region; a visit to Kentuck Knob can be quite rewarding.