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Kentuck Knob edges out Fallingwater as more livable home

Saturday, June 23, 2001

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's hard to tour Fallingwater and not be amazed by the sheer ingenuity of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Fallingwater, one of the two Frank Lloyd Wright-designed houses in Western Pennsylvania, has a living room described as "cave-like," offering a sense of security and opening into the light. The home was built for Liliane and Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. Maintenance worker Albert Ohler stands in the background. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette Photos)

Constructed over a swift waterfall along Bear Run in the 1930s, the multilevel house -- built largely of Pottstown sandstone, concrete and North Carolina walnut -- is an architectural wonder. Many consider it the quintessential example of organic architecture, promoting harmony between man and nature. It's also one of the most famous private residences ever built, visited by nearly 3 million people since it opened its doors in 1964.

But when it comes to a home, pedigree is one thing, comfort another. Would you actually want to live in Fallingwater? It would depend on your lifestyle.

Anyone with small children would cringe at the jagged stone ledges and corners, imagining countless trips to the emergency room. Likewise with the steep, dark stone stairway leading into a 53-inch-deep plunge pool beneath the east terrace of the living room. What baby gate could attach to those craggy walls?

Then there are the bathrooms. The cork walls and floors boast a certain earthy charm while sunflower-sized showerheads in the step-down showers hint at a luxurious bathing experience. But it's tough to imagine using the bizarrely low toilets, especially if you have weak knees. Sunken into deep hollows in the concrete floor slabs, they're a mere 10 1/2 inches above the floor. Most wastebaskets are taller.

Just a few miles south of Bear Run is another Wright-designed home. Though not as famous as Fallingwater, Kentuck Knob is much cozier. Finished in 1956 for ice cream makers I.N. and Bernardine Hagan, the one-story custom house is built mostly of stone and wood and radiates the same organic feeling as Fallingwater.

Perched high atop a bluff overlooking the Youghiogheny River, it seems -- like many Wright buildings -- to grow out of its surroundings. The native fieldstone walls and floors, however, seem less harsh than the ubiquitous rocky ledges in the more famous house at Bear Run. And the Tidewater red cypress woodwork, which spans the living room ceilings and bedroom walls, adds to the house's warmth.


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

Getting a personal glimpse of house the Hagans built



"It's hard to explain how very delightful it was living there," says Bernardine Hagan, who sold the house in 1986 to Lord Peter Palumbo of London after I.N. was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. "It was beautiful before we even put anything in it."

Wright is widely recognized as one of America's greatest architects, and Pittsburghers are lucky that two of his homes -- the only such works in Western Pennsylvania -- are located within four miles of one another in Fayette County's Laurel Highlands. And though he designed them both, they're not equally people-friendly.

Fallingwater would be a great place to while away a lazy, sunny summer weekend and a spectacularly cool house to entertain guests in -- a cocktail party on one of the terraces overlooking the waterfall would surely impress. But Kentuck Knob is a house you can actually imagine yourself cooking breakfast in or folding laundry while you watch TV.

There are many similarities, of course. In addition to their natural building materials, both houses make great use of windows and skylights and feature open floor plans and built-in furniture. The contrast between the rough stone and smooth wood also makes them both very tactile houses. You can't help but want to touch what you see.

In addition, both homes cost a lot more than their owners had anticipated. Liliane and Edgar Kaufmann Sr. originally budgeted $45,000 for the 5,300-square-foot home but ended up spending $155,000 on Fallingwater. The Hagans planned on spending about $60,000 on 2,300-square-foot Kentuck Knob instead of the nearly $100,000 it actually cost.

The difference, of course, is that Fallingwater was never meant to be lived in year-round. And because the Kaufmanns were wealthy and had a staff (cook, butler, chauffeur), most of the attention was lavished on the more public spaces, like the oversized living room.

"It was designed primarily as a weekend retreat, where the Kaufmanns could get a quick fix of nature," says Lynda Waggoner, director of Fallingwater and vice president of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which has maintained the house since it was entrusted to them by Edgar Kaufmann jr. in 1963.

This is Fallingwater's living room terrace, which projects over a stream. The house is considered the quintessential example of organic architecture, promoting harmony between man and nature.

Fallingwater's kitchen, though perfectly functional for the '30s, with its AGA cooker, Cherokee-red linoleum floors and pale-yellow St. Charles metal cabinetry, looks almost drab when compared to the cook-friendly, hexagonal kitchen at Kentuck Knob. There, chic stainless steel countertops, foot-loving cork floors and a 14-foot ceiling topped with a great hexagonal skylight reflect the Hagans' love of cooking and entertaining.

Lord and Lady Palumbo still occasionally stay at Kentuck Knob, even though it's been open to the public since 1996. So when you peek in the bathroom, you'll see toothbrushes on the mosaic-tiled counters and soap on the tub. The many framed family photos (there's even one of Princess Di), art collections and even current books also make the house seem more livable.

Fallingwater, too, once featured such personal items. During the time the Kaufmanns used the house, there was more furniture, including easy chairs. There also were vases of fresh flowers, arranged by Liliane herself, as well as a lot more textiles, which tend to soften a room and make it feel cozy. The raccoon throw on the small couch, for instance, was once a rug.

"But with so many visitors, you can't have rugs," Waggoner says.

To truly appreciate Fallingwater as a home, you have to picture it with all the windows open so the transition between the outdoors and indoors is "seamless," she says. Sit in one of the built-in couches under the windows in the living room or walk out onto any of the terraces and, in addition to the fabulous view, you can hear Bear Run gurgling and birds chirping.

"The house was meant for quiet reflection," Waggoner says. "The Kaufmanns wanted it to be a total sensory experience."

They also wanted guests to feel a sense of shelter, which helps explain the 6-foot ceilings and highly polished sandstone floors. (Wright wanted them to look "wet" like a stream bottom.)

"It's like being in a cave almost," Waggoner notes. "There's a blurring between the man-made and what's part of creation."

Though small by today's standards, the four upstairs bedrooms are a bit more welcoming, due in part to their simple fireplaces and private terraces. Son Edgar jr.'s nook of a bedroom on the third level, for example (originally intended as a study), is particularly cozy, with lots of sunshine.

Waggoner says Fallingwater was clearly an "adult" home meant for outdoor types.

"Anyone who says they couldn't live here has to not love nature," she says.

Kentuck Knob, of course, also was meant for nature lovers. But the Hagans also desired a house that was suitable for everyday use. To that end, they insisted Wright make several changes in his design.

For instance, because their son stood 6 foot 2, they asked for 6-foot, 5-inch ceilings instead of the usual 6 feet. Those extra 5 inches, coupled with the glass wall on one side of the living room and clerestory windows above the room-length, built-in couch, add to the spacious feel of the house. Bernardine Hagan also insisted on having a basement, something Wright as a rule refused, along with attics, to put in his houses.

"I told him, 'Mr. Wright, we're 15 miles from the nearest grocery store and weather here can be drastic,' " she recalls with a laugh. "So he agreed to 'let' me have a small basement." The two small basement rooms house an extra freezer, larder and laundry room.

Wright also allowed her to arrange the kitchen's fixtures and choose her own colors and appliances."It was obviously meant to be used," says Nancy Mahaney, Kentuck Knob's educational coordinator.

The most appealing room in the house is the sun-drenched dining room. Though part of the living room terrace, the Hagans had it enclosed in glass, creating an intimate, serene space for gathering.

The master bedroom, which is tiny compared with today's oversized master suites, was a particularly wonderful room, says Hagan, especially in the winter.

"Snow would slide off the roof and pile up outside the window, and rabbits would make a tunnel and sleep in a little cove," she says.

Kentuck Knob's many windows might make a modern homeowner feel a little overexposed, especially when you consider there are no curtains or drapes anywhere in the house. But the only thing truly bothersome about living there, says Hagan, was pollen in the spring. A little bit of vacuuming, she added, "takes that right up."

So comfortable and cozy was the house, Hagan says, that they loved every minute of it.

"We were there 30 years and truly expected to live there all our lives," she says.

The Kaufmanns, too, enjoyed Fallingwater for a long time. Edgar jr. continued to use the house at Bear Run for several years after his father's death in 1955. In 1963, he gave the house and 1,543 acres surrounding it to the conservancy.

Which brings us back to the house's floor-hugging toilet bowls. According to Waggoner, Edgar Sr. always was trying to incorporate the latest ideas on technology into everyday life. After he read an article that suggested lower bowls were more natural, they became part of Fallingwater's design.

"He thought they'd be healthier," says Waggoner.

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