The Pennsylvania Resort Where You Can Rent a Frank Lloyd Wright House

PunkToad, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
PunkToad, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Eighteen years ago, Thomas and Heather Papinchak purchased a home near Acme, Pennsylvania, as a quiet retreat in the woods. They didn’t know that just a half-mile away were two underappreciated houses with an incredible design legacy: They were built by Frank Lloyd Wright's protégé Peter Berndtson in Wright’s signature Usonian style. Thomas Papinchak, a building contractor, only discovered the homes when some college students threw a rowdy party there and the noise caught his attention.

The couple were already fans of Wright’s iconic architecture, and when the two houses were offered for sale three years later, the Papinchaks snapped them up. That marked the beginning of Polymath Park, a resort where guests can book overnight stays in not just these two houses, but two more designed by Wright himself that have been moved to the southwestern Pennsylvania property.

A USONIAN OASIS

In the 1960s, two prominent Pittsburgh families, the Blums and the Balters, were looking to build summer homes near each other about 40 miles outside the city. Harry Blum was a partner in his family’s metalworking company, Blumcraft of Pittsburgh; James Balter was president of the Morris Paper Company, a leading Pittsburgh firm started by his father. Both were members of the same social circle as Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann, who had commissioned Wright to design his most famous residential work, Fallingwater, in nearby Mill Run, Pennsylvania. The Blums and Balters wanted their houses built in Wright’s style, but the architect had died in 1959—so they turned to Berndtson, who trained under Wright at the Taliesin school in Wisconsin.

Berndtson designed homes for Blum and Balter using Wright’s Usonian design elements, like red concrete floors, horizontal profiles, and an indoor-outdoor plan connecting the structures to the surrounding landscape. He also wanted to build 24 similar houses on the land, creating an entire community in the Usonian style. The two families, however, preferred their privacy and put a stop to Berndtson’s effort.

Balter House interior at Polymath Park
The interior of Balter House in Polymath Park
Courtesy of Polymath Park

The families used their summer retreats for two decades, but sold them in the 1980s to owners who occasionally rented them out—like to the college students who “helped" the Papinchaks discover them. “I was in complete shock when the Balter and Blum houses went on the market” in 2003, Papinchak tells Mental Floss. After buying the homes and their massive lots, the couple decided to keep the previous owners’ name for the property: Polymath Park.

THE DUNCAN HOUSE ARRIVES

While the couple restored the homes, another Frank Lloyd Wright house was on its way to the neighborhood.

In 2004, a group of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, residents had bought the Duncan House, a single-story Usonian home built in 1957 in Lisle, Illinois, to save it from being torn down. They were in the process of moving it to Johnstown in pieces, and Papinchak offered his services as a contractor on the project. When the project's investors decided not to continue funding in 2006, Papinchak bought the house outright to rebuild it at Polymath Park.

As the house was taken apart, every beam and stone was assigned a number that corresponded to a master plan showing the proper place of each piece. Papinchak and his team of four spent a year carefully putting the house back together, refurbishing it as they went along. It wasn't always straightforward reassembly—Wright had used 30- and 60-degree angles within the structure, which required Papinchak to get a little crafty, since most homes feature 90-degree angles. There were also the cantilevers and overhangs, signature Wrightian elements, which required some careful engineering.

“It was truly surreal to personally rebuild Wright’s Duncan House with my small crew,” Papinchak says. “I enjoyed every moment, but didn’t fully realize what was accomplished until the grand opening, when I saw the positive reaction from not only the local community, but the Wright world at large.”

In 2007, the Papinchaks opened Polymath Park to the public. Wright fans could tour the three Wright-related homes on the property and rent them out for overnight stays, which proved popular with architecture buffs visiting Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, another nearby Wright work.

REBUILDING THE LINDHOLM HOUSE

But Polymath Park is not done growing. The Papinchaks are hard at work rebuilding another relocated Wright home— Lindholm House, also known as Mantyla—piece by piece.

“I first became aware of the house about 10 years ago,” Papinchak says. “I had given a tour at the park, and afterwards a gentleman mentioned his neighbor was living in a Wright house that was being encroached on by commercial property.”

Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Lindholm House in Minnesota
Lindholm House in its original Minnesota location, before it was moved to Polymath Park
Courtesy of Polymath Park

Originally built in 1952 in Cloquet, Minnesota, for gas station owners Ray and Emma Lindholm, Lindholm House had remained in family hands for its entire existence. Initially, Lindholm descendants Julene and Peter McKinney weren’t ready to sell the property when Papinchak reached out to them. But maintaining the aging home had become increasingly difficult, and the couple was worried about the house's survival with the commercial development around it.

They consulted the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, an organization dedicated to preserving the architect’s works, and decided that relocating the house was the best choice to protect it. The decision wasn't made lightly—Wright purposefully designed his houses for specific sites, integrating the architecture with the landscape, so moving any of his structures would break Wrightian principles. Only in instances where a building’s survival is threatened will the conservancy consider a move, which is how the Lindholm House qualified for relocation.

With their previous experience in moving a Wright house, the Papinchaks joined forces with a relocation contractor and an architect from the conservancy for the new project, and this time, the McKinneys agreed to send their home to Pennsylvania.

The Lindholm House was dismantled in early 2016, and as with the Duncan House relocation, each and every piece of the home was numbered to guide the reassembly process. After the pieces were shipped to Pennsylvania, the Papinchaks began the process of building the house from scratch according to the numbered master plan.

The newest of the four Wright-related buildings at Polymath Park is scheduled to open this summer, giving guests a rare chance to experience life inside a Wright-designed home—set, as the architect would have wanted, in a quiet, wooded landscape.

“Heather and I are hands-on,” Papinchak says. “We do whatever it takes to further the preservation of these architectural gems.”

13 Facts About Notre-Dame Cathedral

iStock
iStock

Constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries, Notre-Dame de Paris has centuries of French history built into its stone. The Gothic cathedral reflects the prominent role of Paris as an economic and spiritual center in the 12th century, and its scars from the French Revolution are reminders of its long connection with the monarchy—a connection that almost resulted in its demolition. Yet although thousands of tourists enter its doors each day to photograph its rose windows and flying buttresses, this sacred destination still has its secrets. Here are 13 lesser-known facts about Notre-Dame de Paris.

1. A PAGAN CITY LIES BELOW THE CATHEDRAL.

The Île-de-la-Cité on which Notre-Dame de Paris now stands was once a Gallo-Roman city known as Lutetia. The cathedral may have been built right over remnants of a temple: Around 1710, pieces of a sculpted altar dedicated to Jupiter and other deities were discovered during an excavation under the choir (although it remains unclear if this is evidence of an ancient temple, or if the pieces were recycled there from another location). Additional architectural ruins found in the 1960s and '70s, many dating back to this ancient era, lie in the archaeological crypt located beneath the square just in front of Notre-Dame.

2. THERE'S SOME RECYCLED ARCHITECTURE ON ITS FAÇADE.

The Sainte-Anne Portal at Notre-Dame
The Sainte-Anne Portal at Notre-Dame

There are three portals on the western façade of Notre-Dame, each laden with sculpted saints and sacred scenes. One doesn't seem to fit, however—the Portal Sainte-Anne has a much earlier style than the rest. Its figures, such as the central Virgin and Child, look stiffer in their poses and less natural in their features compared to the other statues. That's because this tympanum, or semi-circular area of decoration, was recycled from a previous Romanesque church. A close examination in 1969 revealed that it was not originally made for this space, and had been adapted to fit the Gothic structure.

3. THERE'S A "FOREST" IN ITS ROOF.

The cathedral contains one of the oldest surviving wood-timber frames in Paris, involving around 52 acres of trees that were cut down in the 12th century. Each beam is made from an individual tree. For this reason, the lattice of historic woodwork is nicknamed "the Forest."

4. ITS FLYING BUTTRESSES WERE GOTHIC TRENDSETTERS.

Low angle view of the East end of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral at sunset with flying buttresses
iStock

The cathedral was one of the earliest structures built with exterior flying buttresses. They were constructed around its nave in the 12th century to lend support to the thin walls, after the need for more light in the incredibly tall church required larger windows, and thus greater supports. The exposed flying buttresses became an iconic aspect of Gothic design, and although there's some debate over whether Notre-Dame was the first church to have them, they certainly set the trend in sacred architecture.

5. TWENTY-EIGHT OF ITS KINGS LOST THEIR HEADS IN THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.

In 1793, in the midst of the French Revolution, 28 statues of biblical kings in the cathedral were pulled down with ropes and decapitated by a mob. (King Louis XVI was guillotined earlier that year, and any iconography tied to the monarchy was under attack.) The mutilated stones were eventually tossed in a trash heap, which the Minister of the Interior dealt with by ordering the material be repurposed for construction. It wasn't until 1977 that the heads of 21 of these kings were rediscovered during work on the basement of the French Bank of Foreign Trade. Now they're at the nearby Musée de Cluny.

6. THE TOWERS ARE NOT TWINS.

The two towers of Notre-Dame
iStock

At first glance, Notre-Dame’s two towers appear like identical twins. Closer examination reveals that the north tower is in fact a bit bigger than the south. As with all the elements of the cathedral, they were built over time, and reflect how the cathedral is more of a collage of architectural trends and leadership than the culmination of one person’s vision.

7. ITS BELLS WERE ONCE MELTED DOWN FOR ARTILLERY.

The kings weren’t the only part of Notre-Dame destroyed during the French Revolution. The cathedral, like other churches around France, was transformed in the late 18th century from a Christian space and rededicated to the new Cult of Reason. All 20 of its bells—except the colossal 1681 bourdon called Emmanuel—were removed and melted down to make cannons.

While the bells at Notre-Dame were replaced in the 19th century, the new instruments were not as finely made as the older versions, and made a more dissonant noise when clanging. Finally, in 2013, a new ensemble of bells restored the cathedral to its 17th-century sound, with the deeply resonant Emmanuel still joining in the toll on special occasions.

8. NAPOLÉON AND VICTOR HUGO SAVED IT.

When Napoléon Bonaparte decided to have his 1804 coronation as emperor in Notre-Dame, the building was in bad shape. Centuries of decay as the city developed and changed around it, as well as the vandalism of the French Revolution, had left it on the verge of demolition. For years it had been used as little more than a warehouse. So when Napoléon declared its return to church use, and hosted his grand ceremony within his walls—an event in which he famously crowned himself—it brought Notre-Dame to new prominence.

Nevertheless, the coronation didn’t fix its structural deterioration. Then author Victor Hugo used the building as a personification of France itself in his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris. (The book’s name is often translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, yet the hunchbacked bell ringer Quasimodo is not the main character; the central figure is Notre-Dame.) And Hugo vividly evoked its decrepit 19th-century state:

“But noble as it has remained while growing old, one cannot but regret, cannot but feel indignant at the innumerable degradations and mutilations inflicted on the venerable pile, both by the action of time and the hand of man, regardless alike of Charlemagne, who laid the first stone, and Philip Augustus, who laid the last. On the face of this ancient queen of our cathedrals, beside each wrinkle one invariably finds a scar. 'Tempus edax, homo edacior,' which I would be inclined to translate: 'Time is blind, but man is senseless.'”

The book was a success, and the momentum led to a major restoration overseen by architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

9. ITS MONSTERS ARE MODERN, NOT MEDIEVAL.

Gargoyle and wide city view from the roof of Notre-Dame
iStock

Some of the most popular images of Notre-Dame are from the perspective of its gargoyles or chimera (the carved monsters that don’t act as waterspouts). Few visitors would guess that the fantastic creatures now on the cathedral weren't there until the 19th century; they were added between 1843 and 1864 during the radical restoration overseen by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.

Hugo had described gargoyles extensively in Notre-Dame de Paris, and Viollet-le-Duc was reportedly inspired by this romantic vision of the past. A daguerreotype from before this overhaul shows a building more stark than the one we know today, with no beasts perched on its towers, its medieval gargoyles having long been removed. Unfortunately, many of the 19th-century gargoyles are now decaying; PVC pipes have taken the place of those that have been taken down for safety.

The gargoyles were far from the only fanciful addition by the architect Viollet-le-Duc. Among the 12 apostles he had installed around the new spire, he included himself as the face of Saint Thomas.

10. ITS SPIRE IS A SAINTLY LIGHTNING ROD.

Look way to the top of the spire and you'll spy a rooster. This is not a purely decorative bird. In 1935, three tiny relics—an alleged piece of the Crown of Thorns and some bits of Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve (the city's patron saints)—were secured inside the metal bird’s body. The idea, the story goes, was to create a sort of spiritual lightning rod to protect the parishioners within.

11. THE ORGAN IS THOUGHT TO BE THE LARGEST IN FRANCE.

The Notre-Dame organ involves almost 8000 pipes (some dating back to the 18th century) played with five keyboards, making it the biggest pipe organ in France (although some claim that Saint-Eustache has a larger one). While there are some slashes on the wood of the organ loft—damage from the French Revolution, when its fleur-de-lis symbols were carved off—it was restored in 2013 to mark the 850th anniversary of the cathedral.

12. ALL ROADS LEAD TO NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS.

Point Zero marker outside Notre-Dame in Paris
Jean-Pierre Bazard, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Mostly overlooked beneath the crowds of tourists milling around outside Notre-Dame is a diminutive circular marker with an eight-pointed bronze star embedded in the cobblestones. It’s engraved with the words Point zéro des routes de France, and is the point from which distances are measured from Paris to other cities in France. It was placed there in 1924, although it had to be temporarily dislodged in the 1960s during the excavations for what was intended to be an underground parking garage. Those construction plans were thwarted when workers turned up architectural ruins—now kept in the archaeological crypt.

13. BEES LIVE ON ITS ROOF.

On the Notre-Dame sacristy, adjacent to the cathedral, is a small hive of bees. It was installed in 2013, with Buckfast bees—a strain developed by a monk named Brother Adam and known for its gentleness—living in its hives. Their honey is made from the flowering plants in nearby gardens, including the Square Jean XXIII just behind the cathedral. According to The New York Times, the sweet stuff is given away to the poor.

See What It Was Like to Live in a Secret NYC Library Apartment

YouTube
YouTube

Ever wanted to live in a library? For the dozens of custodians who once helped take care of New York Public Library branches, that dream was a reality. Recently, Sarah Laskow of Atlas Obscura stepped into one of these now-vacant apartments in upper Manhattan and explored it in all of its creepy, dilapidated glory (think falling plaster and unsafe floors—there's a reason the space isn't usually open to the public). Since the branches no longer require live-in custodians to shovel the coal that once kept the furnaces humming, the apartments have all been closed down, and are slowly being converted into new public uses. In 2016, one custodian's apartment in Washington Heights was converted into a teen center and programming space. The secret apartment at the Fort Washington library will also eventually be converted—which means that Laskow's trip helped document a space that may soon be only a memory. You can see more inside the space, and learn more about the history of these apartments, in the video below.

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