Inside Polymath Park
A short drive from Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, a trio of restored homes with ties to Frank Lloyd Wright awaits day-trippers and overnight guests in the Laurel Highlands.
Photography by Chuck Beard
When they moved into a home in the Laurel Highlands about 13 years ago, Thomas and Heather Papinchak had no idea their neighborhood included two houses with ties to Frank Lloyd Wright. The Balter and Blum family abodes, built by a Wright protégé, weren’t household names, even though they’re located within 30 miles of Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, the famous retreats Wright designed for the families of magnates Edgar Kaufmann and I.N. Hagan.
The Papinchaks also didn’t foresee they’d eventually acquire the Balter and Blum homes — or that a few years later they’d buy an authentic Wright home originally constructed in suburban Chicago and reassemble it, piece by piece, near the other two in Westmoreland County. Now, thanks to the Papinchaks, the cluster of three restored homes — Wright’s Duncan House and the Blum and Balter homes, designed by Wright apprentice Peter Berndtson — are becoming a western Pennsylvania destination.
The Duncan House is one of only a handful of Wright homes that welcome overnight guests. All three homes offer tours and stays within Polymath Park Resort in Acme, where the Papinchaks ensure the homes stay true to the great American architect’s vision.
Skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows in the Blum House lend lots of natural light.
The 130-acre Polymath Park dates back to the 1960s. Balter and Blum, from two prominent Pittsburgh business families, decided they wanted summer homes in the Laurel Highlands like their friends the Kaufmanns. The two clans knew they wanted something “with a Wright flair,” Thomas Papinchak says.
Both families contacted Berndtson, who was based in western Pennsylvania, through a mutual acquaintance and asked him to create Usonian houses for them. “Usonian” is a word created by Wright to reference the United States of America, and homes built in that style were meant for the masses. Traditionally, they were simple, single-story structures built in Wright’s naturalistic style, with carports and radiant heat embedded in the floors. Berndtson was among the original Usonian architects who studied under Wright, and the Balter and Blum homes he designed incorporate classic Wright characteristics: a flat roof, expansive windows that bring the outside in and Cherokee-red hues.
The two houses were built about a quarter-mile apart as part of Berndtson’s original, never-realized vision to construct a compound of 24 homes interspersed between community facilities. Inspired by the property’s view, Berndtson suggested naming it Tree Tops and Mountain Circles; the name later became Polymath Park.
“The Balter and Blum families remained here about 40 years, just [using the houses] as simple summer homes, and they were content to have that,” Thomas Papinchak says.
In 2001, the Papinchaks bought another, more modern home that had been commissioned as a wedding gift to a Blum son. It was separately deeded from Polymath Park but still within its confines, a short distance down a winding gravel road from the Balter and Blum homes.
“My background is architectural,” says Thomas Papinchak, who owns a construction company. “I’ve always designed and built with the craftsman Wright style — and, of course, I’ve always been a huge fan of Wright.”
One day, Papinchak heard a ruckus through the trees while walking with his daughter through the woods.
“The Blum House was being rented by college students who were having a large gathering there, so I went for a walk and kind of approached the house because of all the noise and music. That was my first introduction to the homes,” he says. “I was definitely star-struck when I saw it. Then one of the college students told us there was [the Balter] House across the meadow. So at that point, I knew I had to get involved somehow.”
He got in touch with the homes’ owners, and when they were ready to sell, he jumped on the chance.
“We were here all this time not knowing,” he says. “I was designing that way [in Wright’s style] and always thinking in the frame of his techniques and living next to two homes that were designed so authentically that you could tell it was [the work of] a direct apprentice.”
Papinchak began to rehabilitate the homes, which had fallen into disrepair, while continuing to rent them.
“I did a lot of maintenance on the property and was content to have that,” he says. “Then the Duncan House became available, and it took off.”
Wright’s Duncan House is a step back in time. Features include the “gallery” hallway to the bedrooms and a back patio that serves as a natural extension of the house.
The Duncan House enters the story around 2002, after the death of original owner Donald Duncan, who in 1957 purchased and built a prefabricated Wright home in Lisle, Ill. The home was one of a series Wright created to fulfill a desire to see his designs mass-produced; the structures came with everything needed for construction, from walls to cabinets. Duncan later brokered a deal with a developer in Lisle to allow modern “McMansions” to be built on property around his home, Papinchak says. When Duncan died, the plan was to demolish the 1950s-style Wright home at the center of the modern development.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, which works to preserve structures built by the architect, caught wind of that plan and stalled it until four people from Johnstown, Pa., offered to move and rebuild the house in southwestern Pennsylvania. Those buyers, echoing Berndtson, also intended to build community facilities, as well as a botanical garden, around the home.
Papinchak says he learned of that plan after his wife read about it in a Johnstown newspaper. He reached out to the four men and offered his assistance as a contractor.
“They hired my company to reconstruct the home,” he says. “I’d never seen the house. I agreed to the project after seeing two photos.”
It was the beginning of an endeavor far more involved than two photos could show. To say the house was in pieces is no understatement. Every wood beam, stone and tile had been taken apart and assigned a number corresponding with a plan that showed where it had been located and where it should go. Those pieces had been loaded into four trailers and transferred from Illinois to Johnstown, where they sat for more than a year.
Then, Papinchak says, the four men who’d hired him ran short on funding.
“At the end of an email, there’s one line: ‘Would you be willing to take it all on yourself?’ My wife said no.”
He said yes.
“I went ahead and did what I wanted, as I always do,” he says. “I began full steam and went ahead with the process.”
Papinchak says he and his crew spent one year transferring, unloading and refurbishing the numbered and labeled pieces of the Duncan House and putting them back together on a plot at Polymath Park. They also had to clear that land, which was overrun with trees and brush. The work was a huge undertaking, and Papinchak won’t disclose the entire cost, instead calling it “priceless.”
The Balter House design gives it a cozy “tree house” feel in tune with nature.
During the last decade, the Papinchaks have restored the Duncan House to livable status, putting it in the company of other Wright homes open for overnight accommodations such as: the Louis Penfield House in Willoughby, Ohio; the John D. Haynes House in Fort Wayne, Ind.; the Seth Peterson Cottage in Lake Delton, Wis.; and the Bernard Schwartz House in Two Rivers, Wis.
All three homes in Polymath Park now are available to rent for a few nights or weeks at a time. Their location in the Laurel Highlands, about 10 minutes off the Donegal exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, makes it possible and appealing for visitors to tour Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob before taking a quick drive to “submerge” themselves in more Wright architecture, the couple says.
“[Wright] was very much about living with nature and organic architecture but also about viewing your home as a part of you, rather than just a boxed space that you’re existing in,” says Heather Papinchak. “In that respect, even if you’re not into architecture or art, when you are actually in one of the houses here, you kind of get that feeling like, ‘Wow.’ You don’t think of living that way if you’re never exposed to it.
“You tour Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, but you can live, if you will, in a house for a night and stay in an architectural masterpiece.”
Her husband is an ideal tour guide, combining a builder’s knowledge and a craftsman’s love. Inside the Duncan House, he points out how the bedroom hallways are set up (Wright called them “galleries”) with cabinets built into the wall to the left and almost-hidden doorways to the right that lend privacy. The storage tucked into the walls evokes the way the homes are designed: From the outside, they seem deceptively small, but the openness inside — enhanced by cathedral ceilings — gives them an airy feeling.
Other classic Wright features are built-in fireplaces in the living room and the frameless glass windows that create a “common corner,” with no sense of separation from the outside world.
Inside the Balter House, the stone pitched roof helps with climate control and gives the structure an organic feel. A skylight in the center stretches from one end of the home to the other, and large glass windows in nearly every wall provide an almost panoramic view, “like being in a tree house,” Thomas Papinchak says. Each stone in the chimney was quarried on the property. “Usonians always used the same material inside as outside,” he says.
The Balter House’s “tree house” feel is evident in a screened-in porch that extends from the living room. Built-in benches line the wall, and windows overlook dense foliage. Another distinctive feature: Every bedroom has its own entrance.
The Blum House “has the best view of the Laurel Highlands,” Thomas Papinchak says, pointing to the little pond in the backyard and an expansive lawn. Skylights illuminate the interior, and a beautiful stone fireplace anchors the living room.
The main door to the Duncan House opens to a compressed entrance with a cove ceiling leading to the sweeping living room. Doors at the far end of the room provide access to a large patio. There are two bathrooms, one with a glass-walled shower and the other with a cozier bathtub.
“Duncan admired Wright but couldn’t afford a Wright home,” Papinchak says. “But when Wright started doing Usonians, [he] had a fair chance.”
The three homes reflect how the original homeowners might have equipped and lived in them.
The oven in the Duncan House kitchen is built into the stone wall, and a vintage Osterizer blender sits on the Formica counter. Atop a central island, pots and pans in red, blue and yellow are ready for use.
The homes’ living rooms are furnished with patterned carpets and upholstery, and visitors may discover that some of the plush chairs turn 360 degrees. Bedrooms contain mid-century dressers and lamps.
Heather Papinchak says she and her husband started offering home tours after they realized they were turning away many people who simply wanted to walk through the structures rather than stay overnight. They added a restaurant, Tree Tops, in what had been their house because guests didn’t want to leave the property to find dining. That house was not designed specifically in Wright’s style, but because it was built as a gift within the Blum family, its all-wood furnishings and large windows suggest Wright’s influence.
The Papinchaks also have finished the basement in the Duncan House to provide more space for private events; the Boulder Room was part of its original design but was never completed in Lisle. A stone fireplace is incorporated into one of the interior walls, and one of the exterior walls is mostly glass.
Thomas Papinchak says he and his wife are committed to retaining Polymath’s vintage feel — he won’t pave the roads, for example — while making room for community education and events.
“We’re trying to keep the back-to-nature feel,” he says. “I call it simple elegance. The materials are simple, but the architecture makes them elegant. All of the houses are oriented to the land to make them one with nature, that’s for sure.”
Carla Johnson and her husband, David Heinbaugh, of Cranberry Township, discovered Polymath Park a few years ago after learning that the restaurant offered Sunday brunch. “We liked Frank Lloyd Wright … and we thought this was so close to home, [so] we need to go and see this,” she says. Now, the couple regularly drives to Tree Tops for dinner or invites friends to stay in one of Polymath Park’s homes for a weekend.
“My husband and I go fairly often, considering the distance it is from our home, but that’s not unusual for us,” Johnson says.
Some friends tell Johnson the 90-minute drive is too far for a casual evening, and sometimes she and her husband anticipate and head off those protests.
“We say, ‘Hey, we’re going to dinner, we’ll pick the place, we’ll drive.’ So we take them over there,” she says with a laugh. “It’s amazing. It’s like an adventure.”
Johnson says she enjoys staying in the Balter House in the summer because of its view.
“When you wake up in the morning in the master bedroom, it has windows on either side,” she says. “All you see is trees all around you. It’s an amazing feeling; my husband and I both comment on that.
“All those homes bring the outside in; they have that feel to them. We really love the whole experience of Polymath. It really is a Shangri-La to me, that’s what it is.”
If you go ...
Duncan House, $325-$399 per night
Balter House, $199-$299 per night
Blum House, $185-$299 per night
Offered Sunday through Friday at 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. Tickets are $22 for adults and $11 for children older than 6 (younger children are not permitted) with advance reservations.