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Getting a personal glimpse of house the Hagans built

Saturday, June 23, 2001

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Dear Family and Friends,
"For some time now, you have been telling me that I should make a record of how the Frank Lloyd Wright house known as Kentuck Knob came to be built ..."

So begins "The Story of Kentuck," the working title of an unpublished memoir by Bernardine Hagan, who, with her husband, the ice cream manufacturer I.N. Hagan, commissioned Kentuck Knob and lived there for 30 years.

Kentuck Knob is constructed of Tidewater red cypress and native fieldstone and built on a hexagonal grid. Wright designed it for ice cream makers I.N. and Bernardine Hagan. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette Photos)

Hagan, now 92, wrote it over two weeks in the summer of 1997 at Chautauqua, N.Y., where she has vacationed for 25 years. The memoir is a posthumous collaboration with her late husband, who took most of the photographs she plans to use in the book.

Last year, the University of Pittsburgh Press published Kansas City architecture critic Donald Hoffman's book, "Frank Lloyd Wright's House on Kentuck Knob," a small, scholarly history of the house and an analysis of its design.

Hagan's memoir is more personal, like a chat with old friends, and filled with stories of the Hagans' interactions and negotiations with Wright, how the Hagans made the house a home and much more.

"We started working on the [Kentuck] property before we started to build," Hagan said in the living room of her Uniontown home. "It was a fringe of trees and below that, nothing. It was a horrible-looking location."

They planted 8,800 seedling trees -- oaks, poplars, maples and pines, each about a foot tall -- from the entrance to the top of the knob.

"This had all been cornfields, and we wanted woodland," Hagan records in the memoir.

She also wanted a garden.

"The first thing I did was cover the hillside [off the dining room terrace] with daylilies to hold the soil."


Tours of Kentuck Knob and Fallingwater are offered from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and selected holiday Mondays. Admission is $10 at each house during the week, $15 on weekends and holidays. Reservations are suggested.

In-depth tours of both houses also are offered daily at 8:30 a.m. by reservation. Cost is $35 per person ($40 on weekends) at Kentuck Knob and $40 per person ($50 on weekends) at Fallingwater. Kentuck Knob also offers $75 private tours by special arrangement. During the winter months (December-March), tour times vary.

Information: Kentuck Knob, 724-329-1901, http://www.kentuckknob.com Fallingwater, 724-329-8501, http://www.wpconline.org/

A related article

Kentuck Knob edges out Fallingwater as more livable home



Later, she planted the terrace with dwarf, creeping, flowering perennials, creating an undulating carpet of pink, lavender and blue.

Kentuck Knob was the first (and only) house the Hagans built.

"We thought you would just put it up and there wouldn't be any problem," Hagan said.

Herman Keys, their builder, knew better. While Kentuck's floor plan has been alternately described as based on a hexagram or parallelogram, Hoffmann discovered that it was based on an equilateral triangle -- the only shape that could generate the others. Composed almost entirely of acute and obtuse angles, the house would be a bear to build.

"Herman Keys didn't want to do it," Hagan said. "That house had 58 [interior and exterior] corners, and every one they had to locate before they started everything."

Keys, who was 73 when he started working on the house, was up to the task and then some, convincing Wright that his roof needed more support. Father-and-son masons, both named Jesse Wilson, completed all the stone work in less than a year.

"We had permission to use stone from the [Edgar and Liliane] Kaufmanns' quarry but we didn't," because it was too expensive to haul from that distance. Instead, "We took split-boulder stones from our own woods," several miles from the home site.

"When we took the plans out to Mr. Wright and told him we were going to use our own stone, he told us to push the boulders against the house and did a drawing of it. They tried to duplicate that as best they could."

The Hagans made five visits to Wright's studios at Taliesin and Taliesin West, in Wisconsin and Arizona, respectively, to resolve design details.

"When we were visiting Mr. Wright, I.N. asked if we could we have a big fireplace like [the one at Taliesin West]. Well, it's beautiful, but when you really build a fire in there, you draw all the heat out of your house. We would build a little teepee fire."

With or without a fire, "The house really was very comfortable in the winter," Hagan said. "It wasn't hard to heat," with hot-water-filled pipes embedded in the concrete floor. It was a wonderful heating system."

Isaac Newton Hagan was always called I.N., even by his wife. "Or sometimes Hagan. He liked to be called by his last name. He was named for his grandfather, and he hated it."

The house's floor plan was the inspiration for the angular cutouts in the clerestory, and also inspired the incised pattern in a four-panel cypress folding screen with inlaid stained glass, designed and built at Taliesin.

Bernardine Hagan describes the cozy kitchen in Kentuck Knob as "lovely-to work in." Wright "allowed" her to arrange the kitchen's fixtures and choose her own colors and appliances.

"They made it for us, but Mr. Wright liked it and kept it. We didn't get it until he died," she said, gently laughing at the memory. "We used it in the living room and bedroom."

Hagan had her way in the hexagonal, stone-walled kitchen, installing a cork floor (rather than red rubber tiles) and stainless steel countertops (rather than red Micarta plastic).

"In order to get a refrigerator that looked right, I took it to an auto body shop and they sprayed it [tan]," Hagan said.

"That kitchen was lovely to work in. I measured my cabinet space. I had much more than in my farmhouse, which had five doors. It was extremely efficient" and illuminated by a skylight.

"Our kitchen was so bright we had to have a screen made. At 12 o'clock when the sun was right overhead, you could really get a sunburn."

For a while, the kitchen also served as her studio.

"I like to paint, and the only place I had to paint was the kitchen," she said. Eventually they turned the pumphouse into "the art room."

Wright, who liked built-in furniture because it was "client-proof," advised the Hagans on their interior, recommending they go to New York and look at the new Scandinavian furniture. They bought three chairs designed by Hans Wegner and an armchair, two-seater and stools by Finn Juhl.

While they were in New York, The Times published a story about a Japanese woodworker named George Nakashima, and the Hagans decided to visit him in New Hope, Bucks County, on their way home.

"We immediately loved the pieces we saw there," Hagan writes. The natural, free-form contours of Nakashima's tables were a complement to Wright's organic architecture and a relief from his angular, hard-edged, built-in furniture. The Hagans ordered a coffee table for the living room and later replaced their dining room table with one by Nakashima.

"George had a table out of English oak that was the exact color of our cypress. I said, 'George, could you make up a table out of that so we don't destroy the Wright table?' The plywood dented easily," Hagan said.

Nakashima also built eight English walnut dining room chairs with woven grass seats, three stools and a chest for the entry hall.

The Hagans moved in on their 26th wedding anniversary, July 29, 1956, and lived at Kentuck until I.N. became ill with Alzheimer's in 1985.

"I was afraid he would wander away from the mountain," she said.

They moved into his late father's large, Craftsman-style house in Uniontown.

"I was so worried he would want to go back [to Kentuck]. He never asked to go back, which I thought was amazing." He lived with Alzheimer's for 11 years.

Hagan, who is looking for a publisher for her memoir, these days visits Kentuck Knob only on special occasions.

"I try not to make a nuisance of myself," she said with a smile.

Did she ever think her home would be open to the public?

"Never in my wildest dreams."

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