Spend the Night in Frank Lloyd Wright's Duncan House

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Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater building

Lloyd Alter/ Fallingwater

One of the great pilgrimages that all architects do is to Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece in the Laurel Highlands an hour and a half south of Pittsburgh. I never had done it, always hating car trips, but finally did recently. You can't stay in Fallingwater; you can't even touch anything in it, as it is now a museum (and the subject of another slideshow). However, 40 minutes away, you can stay in Frank Lloyd Wright's Duncan House.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ Duncan House exterior

The Duncan House is no Fallingwater (and I am no photographer) but it is fascinating in its own way, and there is much that can be learned from it. It also is available both for touring and you can stay in it overnight, as we did before continuing to Fallingwater. It is one of Wright's Usonian houses, designed to be affordable for the average middle class American family. The intent was that it would cost $ 5,500 in 1953 dollars. (According to this inflation calculator, that's about $50,000 today) They were also designed around the modern American family, who owned cars, modern appliances but did not have servants like so many of Wright's clients did before WWII. The Duncan's bought the plans from Wright and built the house near Chicago. As the suburbs expanded, the house was bought by a developer, who gave the house to local Frank Lloyd Wright fans, who were given 90 days to take it apart.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ Polymath Park

After a long, complicated journey it ended up at Polymath Park in Acme, Pennsylvania (I looked for the anvil factory but couldn't find it) where Tom and Heather Papinchak reconstructed it, on a property that already had two small homes designed by Wright disciple Peter Berndtson. All three homes can be rented. (More information on rental here)

credit: Lloyd Alter/ view from carport in Frank Lloyd Wright's Duncan House

The truly remarkable thing about the Duncan House is how modern it is, how Frank Lloyd Wright figured out how people would live in the new world of the 1950s. And he was designing this house when he was in his nineties! So while there is a fancy front door, most people in the family would enter from the carport, right into the kitchen like they do in suburban houses to this day. And why a carport instead of a garage? Wright explains in his 1953 book The Future of Architecture:

The indispensable car? It is still designed like a buggy. And it is treated like one when it is not in use. The car no longer needs such consideration. If it is weatherproof enough to run out in all weather it ought to be weatherproof enough to stand still under a canopy with a wind screen on two sides. Inasmuch as the car is a feature of the comings and goings of the family, some space at the entrance is the proper place for it. Thus the open car-port comes to take the part of the dangerous closed "garage."
credit: Lloyd Alter/ Living room from main entrance

Wright hated dark spaces like garages and basements, and believed that the car changed everything. People shouldn't live in the city, but should "go to the country or go out in regional fields where the ground is not yet exploited by the realtor" and "an acre is necessary" so that the house can be sited to face the right direction to get the right light. And the house is indeed full of light. And space; the open living room and dining room is very large for such a small house (2200 square feet), and feels larger because of an FLW trick: when you come in, the ceiling in the hall is very low, with a feeling of compression; the living room is down three steps and the ceiling is way, way up.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ kitchen view

Meanwhile, the kitchen is HUGE, well over twice the size of the kitchen at Fallingwater. Wright noted in The Future of Architecture:

Because of modern industrial developments the kitchen no longer has a curse on it; it may become part of the living room by being related to another part of that same room set apart for dining.

The laminate counters are original, proving the point I made in my post counter intelligence that in the long run, plastic laminate may well be the greenest countertop.

credit: Lloyd Alter

The kitchen has just a ton of storage. Surprisingly, there is very little coat storage anywhere in the house, a shallow cupboard by the main front door and a tiny cupboard beside the broom closet in the corner of the kitchen. There is no place for boots; the closet in the main hall doesn't even have a flat floor as it is over the stairway to the utility room below.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ kitchen

The kitchen is totally open to the dining room, yet separated enough that it is clear that they are different spaces. That's Heather, the owner and tour guide.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ accessory room

The space, just off the kitchen, is set up here as a breakfast room, but I am not certain that this is what Wright planned for it. He describes it: "An extra space, which may be used for studying and reading, might become convenient between meals. In such a house the association between dining and the preparation of meals is immediate and convenient. It is private enough, too." So he did not envisage the totally open kitchen that is so common now, but a sort of semi-private one. This is a total transformation from the older, completely separate kitchen, but not yet the wide open one. I actually think it hits the right note.

credit: collected works

Here, you can see the plan of a similar house, (where the client got a garage) where the space is called "family", there is a laundry area off it, and the oven is in a different location. But otherwise it is identical. Really, about the only concession one might make to living today is to have a door from the terrace to the family room so that there is a convenient place for the barbecue. Wright didn't anticipate that trend.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ Dining room

The kitchen had tons of storage, but wait, there's more- the dining room is lined with it. The house had no basement to put stuff, but still, there is a remarkable amount of storage for a house that was supposed to be so inexpensive. I personally thought that the dining room table was in the wrong place, making circulation awkward, but in fact another plan of a Usonian house showed it in exactly this spot.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Also surprising in such an economical house is a touch like this- a custom heating vent.

credit: Lloyd Alter

The Papinchaks finished the wall around the fireplace in stone; in the original Duncan House, it was concrete block with a struck horizontal joint between the blocks. They have a photograph of it, and I think they should have stuck with the block. The house was supposed to be really economical and it had a more modern look and feel.

credit: Lloyd Alter

There are also perhaps some issues with the furniture, which does not all quite fit. In fact, in the New York Times, Steven Heyman wrote that "the mix of shabby vintage furniture and second-rate modern appliances gives the whole project a slightly amateurish feel." In fact, that is a feature, not a bug, that makes it accessible. This is a house that a guest can feel comfortable in, can feel at home in. You can sit on the furniture. I helped contribute to the shabbiness by spilling some wine on the carpet. And Heather admitted that she is, in fact an amateur and is learning on the job, still looking for the right pieces of furniture. The house is almost sixty years old and has been lived in, and doesn't feel like a museum piece. That is a great part of its charm.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ corridor

The "gallery" or corridor to the bedroom has even more storage, and changes in width, narrowing and compressing as it heads to the master bedroom. Walls are all plywood, with a triangular wooden batten emphasizing the horizontality.

credit: Master bedroom

The bedrooms are comfortable but not large, but are in fact larger than the bedrooms at Fallingwater. Wright thought bedrooms were for sleeping and needed a bed and storage, not much else. He describes them as "small but airy." He put his square footage into the living spaces.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ master bathroom

The bathrooms are true museum pieces, right down to the fixtures, the fifty gallon flush toilet with a seat that weighs twenty pounds. The shower that poured out more water than anyone has enjoyed for decades. And it is twice the size of any bathroom at Fallingwater; Wright notes that "the fixtures are placed to have the economy of close connection but the compartments themselves are large enough for dressing rooms, closets for linen, even wardrobes."

credit: Lloyd Alter

It was such a study in contrasts, going from the Duncan House to Fallingwater. They are separated by twenty years of Frank Lloyd Wright's thinking about houses; by the many millions of dollars separating the Kaufmanns from the Duncans. But there are many similarities too, the horizontality, the compression and release as you move through the spaces. But the most remarkable thing about the Duncan House is how comfortable it is, how Frank Lloyd Wright, who had such a long, tumultuous life, was able to really distill how people would live in the age of the automobile. It is a perfect family house, as comfortable and well proportioned as any house today. Tom and Heather Papinchak deserve so much credit and praise for rebuilding it, and for letting people stay in it. This is no museum; it's a home, and a very comfortable one at that.