Day 40, Friday, August 24, 2018
When I toured Fallingwater, I had the option to add on a second tour of Frank Lloyd Wright homes nearby; Polymath Park. I hadn’t heard of it, but why not?
Later in life, Wright was having a hard time making the rent, so to speak. His homes had always been elaborate, time-consuming and costly, plus he was strict with his demands for how his clients could decorate their finished homes, so as a result he never really had all that many commissions. He decided to design a series of “Usonian” homes; pre-fabricated kit built homes that could give people the prestige of owning a Frank Lloyd Wright home, without the cost of commissioning a project. And Wright would get a much needed influx of cash.
It is also important to know that Frank Lloyd Wright took on architecture students, teaching them in his image, and ensuring that there were an increasing number of Frank Lloyd Wright “style” homes out in the world. Polymath Park is the new name for what was originally a retreat for two wealthy Pittsburgh Jewish families, Balter and Baum. Apprarently, even in the 1960s, the gentleman’s clubs and hunting and fishing camps of the area were not welcoming to Jews, so Balter and Baum decided to create their own. They commissioned Peter Berndtsen, one of Wright’s more successful students, to build them each a home in the woods of the Laurel Highlands near Fallingwater.
In the early 2000s, the current owners purchased the Balter and Baum homes with the intention of saving them from redevelopment. They decided they wanted to open them to the public. This labor of love led to the purchase and move of two additional Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian homes. One was moved from Illinois, and the other from Minnesota. And then there were four. The owners rent these homes out as overnight lodging, and run a restaurant out of their nearby home. They also give tours, showing the homes, and giving a bit about the history of Frank Lloyd Wright, his students, and these unique pre-fab homes.
Each tour takes you to three of the homes; when I visited the fourth home had been purchased but not yet moved to the site. You are treated to a blast from the past, with the characteristic Wright style design, but with more utility and cheaper materials. It was interesting to be surrounded by so much mid-century modern!
Sadly though, as interesting as the history was, I wouldn’t recommend this tour. You only get to go inside one home, and it’s one that they rent out to overnight guests (apparently that’s part of the agreement to stay there – they do the tour right around you). Awkward! I felt that was a bit of a bait and switch, because they aren’t clear in their advertising that this is largely an exterior only tour. You aren’t allowed to take photos inside the home you get to go inside either! The other two homes were “exterior only” views – brief stops, without even a walk around the outside. For me, it wasn’t worth it for the price of the tour. There are enough Frank Lloyd Wright homes that I could look at the outside of for free.
You win some, you lose some!