Wright house right setting

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The road that leads to Kentuck Knob - a home designed almost 50 years ago by Frank Lloyd Wright - climbs steadily and is flanked by hundreds of trees. The house, which is atop a scenic mountainous knoll in southwestern Pennsylvania's Allegheny Mountains, does not come into view immediately. Instead, a visitor catches intriguing glimpses of the masterpiece through the woods.

Kentuck Knob, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is a perfect illustration of the celebrated architect's comment that a house should be "a noble consort to man and the trees."

In reality, though, there were no trees on the property when Wright was asked to design the home in 1953.

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That year, Bernardine and I.N. Hagan were living in a farmhouse on two acres in Uniontown, Pa., and purchased a little more than 79 acres on which to build a new home.

Mrs. Hagan recalls: "There was not a tree on the entire property; it was all planted with corn." Eventually, the couple planted 8,000 tree seedlings on the grounds, which converted the farmland into a forested, private getaway.

"We never had the slightest idea we would ever build a home like [Kentuck Knob]," Mrs. Hagan says. "My salary as a teacher, when we got married [during the Depression], was $900 a year."

But the Hagans owned an ice cream company, which had prospered, so they were financially well-off by the '50s. They had also become friends with the Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh, owners of Fallingwater, one of Wright's best-known designs.

Fallingwater, used by the Kaufmanns as a weekend retreat, was located about seven miles from the Hagans' new property. So it was natural for the Hagans to be invited for a visit one August Saturday, and when they spent time at Fallingwater, they fell in love with the house.

Would Wright build one for them, the Hagans wondered. Edgar Kaufmann Sr. offered this piece of advice on dealing with the renowned architect: Telephone him with the request; don't write him a letter, because he won't answer mail.

Feeling a bit diffident, Mr. Hagan ignored the advice and wrote a letter to Wright: "It has been our fond hope that we might someday confer with you about the construction of a house for us in the mountains. We have acquired some land and are ready to explore the possibility of building."

When he received no reply, Hagan finally called Wright, who agreed to their request because of their friendship with the Kaufmanns. Within days, the Hagans were traveling to Wright's studio at his Teliesin estate in Spring Green, Wis.

Mrs. Hagan vividly recalls meeting Wright for the first time. Before contacting him, the Hagans had read a biography of the famous man, which turned out to be a good introduction. Mrs. Hagan's impression of Wright was of an outgoing man who enjoyed talking "about anything under the sun. And everything I'd read about him was true, right down to the cape swung around his neck," she says.

The Hagans spent the day with Wright. She recalled his attentiveness to what they required in a house, as well as their hobbies and interests. "We told him," she says, " 'We want a house with three bedrooms and two baths, all on one floor.' "

The Hagans later requested a few changes from the original plans that Wright and his apprentices sent them. Concerned about being 15 miles from a grocery store, Mrs. Hagan explained to Wright her need for space to store groceries and other supplies.

"He consented, and allowed us to expand the basement to accommodate a freezer," she says. The original plan had called for a smaller basement, where the mechanics of the house were located. Wright also agreed to another request to enlarge the living room, dining room, and kitchen, which made Kentuck Knob larger than most Wright houses of that period.

Photographs and topographical maps of the property were needed for Wright to begin the house. The architect chose two potential locations. One was down in what is now the woods, and the other was on the edge of the hilltop overlooking the mountains.

The Hagans preferred the hilltop spot.

"I would be in the home alone most of the time, and wanted to be able to see and hear things," Mrs. Hagan explains. "Wright told us many of his clients are either 'perchers' or 'nesters' on their property, and he said we were perchers. We liked to be at the top. We thought it a strange expression."

Wright visited the site only once - at the onset of the construction - and was pleased with the proposed location for the house. The Hagans enlisted Herman Keys, a local builder, to construct the house. Wright conferred with Keys throughout the building of Kentuck Knob and was satisfied with his work.

The house was completed in the summer of 1956, after three years of construction, when Wright was 89 years old. The Hagans moved in on July 29 and celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary there.

The house, defined in hexagonal and triangular shapes, has a spacious gravel courtyard as its point of entry. Regarding the hexagonal shape, Wright once remarked that it is "at the core of how nature builds." That concept was based on his discovering and observing how beehives are built and how cactuses grow.

Long, low horizontal masses of the exterior of the house and carport are quickly visible. The horizontal comes into play with the entry steps, the clerestory, and the fluid lines of the copper roof.

The exterior is constructed of massive amounts of local golden-brown fieldstone. The interior and exterior woodwork, all exposed, is Tidewater red cypress. Wright loved cypress wood and called it the "wood eternal."

Because it lacks Fallingwater's low ceilings, Kentuck Knob does not have the enclosed feeling of its counterpart. Instead, the hilltop house has high, angled ceilings, no curtains, and no air conditioning.

The house is heated with forced hot water through a maze of pipes coiled on a bed of broken stone underneath the flagstone floor. This arrangement did its job very effectively. "We loved it," Mrs. Hagan says. "My feet would always stay warm, and [therefore] that would hold true for the rest of my body."

The living room, a long unbroken expanse, captures attention with its angled ceiling and long sofa placed to offer a panoramic view of the mountains to the south.

Narrow corridors of fieldstone lead to the three bedrooms, where red cypress dominates in the furniture, ceilings, and walls.

Wright conceived much of the built-in furniture, which still is there today. American woodworker George Nakashima of New Hope, Pa., designed 15 pieces, mostly in walnut, for the Hagans. The scale of the furniture is reduced by using twin beds.

Chairs by Danish designer Hans J. Wegner and Moroccan rugs from Kaufmann's Department Store in Pittsburgh were also used in decorating.

Wright was fond of the color red, and proposed red rubber tiles for the kitchen floor. Mrs. Hagan chose cork instead. Rather than agree to Wright's recommendation for red Micarta (a plastic) kitchen counters and sink, Mrs. Hagan selected stainless steel.

Wright didn't object to these changes, since they in no way compromised structure and form.

Mrs. Hagan was an avid gardener and artist while at Kentuck Knob. A room at the end of the carport became her studio. In 1964, the Hagans bought a greenhouse that belonged to Fallingwater and relocated it to Kentuck Knob. They used it to start seedlings and grow plants. Today the greenhouse is still there, now filled with orchids.

Many visitors to nearby Fallingwater are unaware of Kentuck Knob, its younger and equally impressive sibling. Although geographically close, the two houses are totally different in site, outlook, and construction.

Fallingwater, a weekend retreat and showplace, reveals Wright in his most emphatic mode. But his genius is not diminished in Kentuck Knob, a livable year-round home.

The property was named by the original owner. Supposedly in the late 1790s, a pioneer named David Askins headed for Kentucky, but decided to settle in Fayette County Pennsylvania, where he dubbed his parcel of land Little Kentuck.

In 1986, due to Mr. Hagan's failing health, Kentuck Knob was sold to Lord Peter Palumbo of London, who opened the house for regular tours. (See details at end of story.)

An art and architecture collector, Mr. Palumbo also owns the Mies van der Rohe house, Farnsworth, in Plano, Ill.

The Pennsylvania house is a part-time personal residence for him and his wife, and when the Palumbos come to Kentuck Knob, the visitors' center is notified in advance that the house will be closed to the public. So it is wise to make reservations before you visit.

The Palumbos have added outstanding outdoor sculpture by artists such as Sir Anthony Caro, David Nash, Andy Goldsworthy, Claes Oldenburg, Wendy Taylor, Ray Smith, and George Rickey.

It hasn't been easy for Mrs. Hagan to reconcile herself to the fact that her former home is open to anyone who wants to visit.

"At times, it's upsetting to think the home [is] open for everyone," she says. "That was our home."

She remembers when her husband inquired of Edgar Kaufmann Jr., son of the original owner, about his decision to turn Fallingwater over to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963. Hagan asked: "How could you give that away like that?"

Kaufmann's reply was: "There are just some things that need to be opened to the public."

Reflecting on that comment from years ago, Mrs. Hagan muses, "Maybe that's the way I should feel."

For more information on Kentuck Knob, see www.kentuckknob.com. Regular tours of Kentuck Knob take place Tuesday through Sunday of each week, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Reservations are required for in-depth tours, which take place at 8:30 a.m. and 4:15 p.m. Candlelight tours of the house are offered in November and December. For details and reservations, call (714) 329-1901 or e-mail information@kentuckknob.com.

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