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An aristo goes Usonian: Kentuck Knob

April 8, 2012


Deep in the woods of southwestern Pennsylvania, there is a Frank Lloyd Wright house. There is also another Frank Lloyd Wright house. Kentuck Knob, located just four miles from Fallingwater, was built nearly two decades later in 1956. It’s a good (if atypically large) example of Wright’s Usonian homes, which were designed to meet the needs and budget of the average American family.

The original owners, the Hagans, spent 30 years in the house, then sold it in 1986 to Peter Palumbo, a British property tycoon and patron of architecture and the arts. (He owned Mies’ Farnsworth House at the time, and now chairs the Pritzker Prize jury.) Lord Palumbo and his wife created a sculpture garden on the grounds, adding over the years works by Anthony Caro, Andy Goldsworthy, and other well-known artists.

A dry stone wall enclosure by Andy Goldsworthy

The sculpture meadow and woodland are terrific, with some pieces installed in ponds that are only half-visible from the footpath, requiring visitors to hike over if they want to take a look. The curation is a little eccentric, which makes it feel more personal: a cast-iron Parisian pissoir and three red phone boxes join a substantial fragment of the Berlin Wall and one of Claes Oldenburg’s giant foam apples.

Ray Smith’s Red Army

Vintage phone boxes from Surrey, England

There’s also the “witch’s hat”–the reassembled finial from a Victorian building in the City of London that Palumbo himself tore down to make way for Number One, Poultry, designed by James Stirling.

Finial of the 1870 Mappin and Webb building in London, which Peter Palumbo demolished and replaced with James Stirling’s No. 1, Poultry

Kentuck itself is a ranch house designed on the triangle and hexagon, with an uncomfortably narrow hallway–a Wright signature–and some lovely details, like the three-sided downspouts that funnel water from the copper roof through the red cypress overhangs. The owners and Wright lucked out in the skilled local craftsmen they hired. (Photos are not allowed inside the house, and my camera battery died outside it, alas.)

It’s kind of a shame that a home designed for the everyman is now a multimillionaire’s retreat, but what could be a better metaphor for our times? High-quality affordable housing is destined to become unaffordable before long. In any case, Kentuck was a “deluxe Usonian”–a somewhat contradictory enterprise from the start.

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