Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob

As we have only three months left to live (here in DC, that is), we have compiled a list of things we must see/do before we move.

Very high on the list was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, which is in southwestern Pennsylvania (closest large town is Uniontown, hometown of my dear friend Susan). Fallingwater is one of his most famous works, if not the most famous. Only a few miles away is another home he designed toward the end of his career, called Kentuck Knob.

Today we took a day trip to see both. It took us about 3 hours to get there, up to the Maryland/Pennsylvania border, across the tiny sliver that is northwestern Maryland, then up across the border into Pennsylvania. It was an easy drive with little traffic on a Friday morning.

As we neared Fallingwater, we drove through Ohiopyle, a cute adventure town on the Youghiogheny River. I had flashbacks to a whitewater rafting trip I took with some WIC folks about 10 years ago here on the Yough. Even though today was a grey day, the whitewater was tempting me back.

We got to Fallingwater around 11:30 am. When you arrive, you drive onto the grounds and come to a gatehouse. Here is where they take your money. You are then directed to a parking lot a few hundred yards later, which is in front of a visitor’s center. There you find the tour booth (where you schedule the tour that you already paid for), the cafe, the gift shop, and the restrooms. Once we got there, we oriented ourselves, then ate a quick sack lunch in the car (no picknicking on the grounds).

Then we poked around a bit before putting in for a tour time. There is a short nature path that loops around from the visitor’s center, and from the midpoint you find a fairly nice view of the front of Fallingwater. In a somewhat concentric semi-circle is another path, which goes from the visitor’s center, past the house, to a little spot called “The View” (not to be confused with the ridiculous TV show) where you can get the “signature shot” of the house, and then back up to the parking lot. We spent some time taking all this in (and Dave took MANY photos) before heading back up to get our tour time.

Our tour group was about 14 people, which was a manageable size. The tour guide was okay but not stellar – he gave us a pretty straightforward tour of what was there, and didn’t offer a lot of architectural teaching or trivia about either Frank Lloyd Wright or the Kaufmanns (the original owners). Though the tour was not educational as far as learning much about Wright or his process, the house itself pretty much speaks for itself.

Fallingwater is built on top of a waterfall. My favorite feature of the house is a stairway that goes from the bottom level of the house (the main/living/dining room) down into the stream. Not to the side of the stream – right into the middle of it. Very cool. Dave’s favorite part of the house was also in the main room – the fireplace. Aside from being a huge, cool hearth, the fireplace is an amazing example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s tendency toward organic architecture. Rather than move natural features out of the way when building a home, he would design around them. In this case, a large boulder seems to come up out of the floor in front of the fireplace. On the other side of the wall, it protrudes in a natural way from the outside of the house.

The tour lasted about an hour long, taking the group through most of the rooms in the house, as well as the guest house above it. It ended with a video explaining why the house had been donated by the Kaufmanns to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and why we should give them money. I don’t know why I was caught off guard by the plea for money, but I was completely not expecting it. It wasn’t terrible, though.

We poked around for a bit more and Dave took a few more photos of the exterior (no indoor photos were allowed). Then we talked to the lady in the tour booth and got ourselves a reservation for the 3 pm Kentuck Knob tour.

It was a short drive back through Ohiopyle and up a hill, and we found ourselves on the grounds of Kentuck Knob (aka Hagan House, after the original owners; aka Chalk Hill, after the location). We bought our tickets and had about 15 minutes to kill, so we poked around in the gift shop. Then a shuttle bus took the tour group (about 10 people) up to the top of the hill and dropped us off in front of the home.

Kentuck Knob is quite a bit different from Fallingwater, but no less cool. It is situated near the top, but not quite on top, of a hill. Apparently Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t believe in placing houses on top of hills (where they would dominate the landscape) but instead liked to build them into the hill (where they would be an organic part of the landscape). Even with this design concept, though, Wright created beautiful vistas throughout the home.

This home is actually still privately owned, but the owners allow the Conservancy to use it for tours. They don’t live there, but use it sometimes for parties. A lot of their belongings are still in the home.

Kentuck Knob is a lot quirkier and more homey than Fallingwater. There’s not a square room in the house, the design of which instead incorporates hexagons, parallelograms, and trapezoids. A geometry teacher’s dream! There were a number of beautiful features that are difficult to describe, particularly the “invisible window” in the main room, which does an amazing job of bringing the outside in, and vice-versa. I also loved the hexagonal kitchen, which the rest of the folks on the tour group seemed to think was very small, but for me and Dave was spacious, and had a ton of cabinet and counter space!

Our tour guide at Kentuck Knob was not only very good about sharing knowledge about the house and Wright’s work in general, she was also very intentional about getting everyone’s names. At the end of the tour she thanked us all by name and asked us to enjoy the rest of the day.

The original owners of the home were avid art collectors, and they had a number (and variety) of sculptures they had situated around the grounds, including a “sculpture meadow”. We walked down from the house back to our car near the visitor’s center and enjoyed the different pieces. The most fun was called “The Red Army”. There were also a couple of panels from the Berlin Wall – one of which was a bit buried in the woods, but the other was part of the sculpture meadow and could be viewed up close.

By this time were were TIRED. We left Kentuck Knob around 4:30 pm, and Dave wanted to take a few photos of the Yough before heading out. We stopped briefly at a spot called Cucumber Falls and took a few photos. Then we drove back to Ohiopyle, where Dave took a bunch of photos of the falls there, while I imagined how much fun it would be to be rafting the Yough. Alas, not for me today. =(

We headed out by 5:30 pm and drove home, stopping in Hagerstown for some Chick-Fil-A (as the cows say in the ads, “Eat Mor Chikin”). We finally got home around 9 pm. A completely doable trip in a day.

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