A Frank Lloyd Wright Masterpiece Gets a Second Chance
Now open for tours and overnight stays, Mantyla was designed by the famed architect and shipped in pieces from rural Minnesota and rebuilt at Polymath Park in the Laurel Highlands.
In 1952, Ray and Emma Lindholm — influenced by their daughter, who had visited the Idea House Exhibit at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and fell in love with Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs — commissioned the famed architect to design a home in rural Cloquet, Minn.
The Lindholms, who immigrated from Finland to Cloquet — where there was a large Finnish population — drove to Spring Green, Wisc., to talk to Wright, then in his 80s, about the project. It would be one of three visits with Wright about the home they eventually would name Mantyla, Finnish for “among the pines.”
“They found Mr. Wright to be very receptive to their ideas and quite anxious to get started, which wasn’t always the case,” says Peter McKinney, the couple’s grandson.
As it turned out, that was the easy part. The Lindholms soon found that a Wright-designed home wasn’t a standard project in the early 1950s.
McKinney says finding a contractor for the job, according to impeccable records his grandparents kept, proved difficult.
The Lindholms, in fact, approached eight contractors about the project, which featured a large cantilevered roof overhang with a prow similar to that of a ship, a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows and numerous sharp angles. They were routinely turned down.
One builder said the foundation didn’t go far enough into the ground and would slide down the property’s slope. Another said the terracotta tiled roof would cave in with snow.
“At least one of the contractors called it a crazy house,” McKinney says. “I guess they had trouble accepting Wright’s design. Those contractors weren’t able to think outside the box.”
Eventually, the Lindholms petitioned Wright for help. In response, Wright sent Joe Fabris, one of his apprentices at Taliesin — Wright’s personal home, studio and school in Spring Green — to oversee construction. Building got underway in 1955, but, much to the Lindholms’ disappointment, they weren’t able to be in their home by Christmas as they had hoped.
“In going through their correspondence, I think [Fabris] was sensing my grandparents’ disappointment. And so, in the closing of a letter, he wrote, ‘Hang on, it’s worth it,’” McKinney says.
The line is one that McKinney and his wife, Julene — whom he married on the terrace of Mantyla — would one day joke about after they purchased the home and raised their son, David, there.
It also applied to the trying period when they were trying to figure out Mantyla’s future. Both now in their 60s, the McKinneys say maintenance of the home was becoming too much for them. Mantyla’s radiant heat flooring system had failed, and replacing it was difficult and cost prohibitive. Although David loved Mantyla, as an outdoor cinematographer based in Spokane, Wash., he was unlikely to return to take over the home because of his frequent work travels.
The biggest problem though, was the commercial development — including a Super Walmart — encroaching on the property.
“When it was built in the 1950s, my grandparents were out in the country. The city grew up around us,” McKinney says.
Unable to find the right buyers for Mantyla, the couple reached out to the nonprofit Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy for help. After multiple attempts to keep the house on the property, as well as preserve its integrity for future generations, the McKinneys made the difficult decision to dismantle the house and ship its carefully labeled pieces across the country to Polymath Park in Western Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands.
It was worth it.
MEET POLYMATH PARK
On April 29, Polymath Park owners Tom and Heather Papinchak officially opened Mantyla for tours and overnight guests. The couple’s 130-acre woodland retreat in Acme also is home to the Wright-designed Duncan House.
Saved from impending demolition, Duncan House originally was built in the Chicago area. After a complicated process, the Papinchaks acquired the house, then in pieces, which Tom and a small crew reassembled on the property.
In addition, the park features two original 1960s-era summer homes designed by Wright apprentice Peter Berndston that once were owned by the local Balter and Blum families.
“The original master plan for the park had 20 to 24 home sites on it, but the Balters and Blums never wanted that,” Tom says.
Although the couple’s original plan was simply to preserve the Balter and Blum houses, things changed once they obtained Duncan House.
“From that point, I knew having that piece of architecture, an authentic Frank Lloyd Wright design on the property, would change the whole dynamic,” Tom says.
In 2007, they opened all three buildings to the public.
The retreat has since made its name as a way for Wright fans to get up-close-and-personal with the visionary architect’s style. Guests travel from across the world to take in Wright’s work, sometimes in conjunction with tours of Wright’s more well known Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob. The couple currently is in the process of relocating from Minnesota a fifth house, Birdwing, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright Jr.
Like the other houses on the property, Mantyla represents Wright’s Usonian style, a term born of the architect’s desire to house the post-World War II, middle-class American masses in an affordable, yet fine, way.
“Fallingwater is wonderful to tour, but people can’t see themselves living in that space because it’s so organic, such a work of art,” Tom says. “It’s beautiful to enjoy and to visualize, but coming and staying in Duncan House or Mantyla really sets the tone for what Wright intended for his clients.”
The couple also owns Treetops restaurant — once their private home on the property — where Heather serves as head chef. The busy couple — parents of two active daughters — say they had no intention of adding a fourth house to Polymath Park. Then an unexpected phone call changed their minds.
“I always say that a phone call can change your life in a positive or negative manner, depending on who’s on the other end of the line,” Tom says. “This began with a phone call.”
Architect John Thorpe, a since-deceased Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy board member, was returning an old message to Tom regarding a question Heather had about Duncan House. Instead, they wound up talking about Mantyla, which the McKinneys at that point were willing to donate to an organization that would preserve its legacy.
Two weeks later, Tom flew to Minnesota to get a better feel for Mantyla.
“My brain was going, I can do this. I can move that.” Tom recalls. After all, he had done it once before.
Although there were other candidates in the running, the McKinneys quickly decided the Papinchaks were the right people to protect Mantyla’s history. The conservancy arranged the legal paperwork for the donation to the Papinchaks’ nonprofit, Usonian Preservation Inc.
“At the end of the day, Tom and Heather were heads-and-shoulders above the other candidates,” McKinney says. “It was unanimous. We agreed, let’s go with them.”
MANTYLA’S NEXT CHAPTER
In February 2016, Tom, a former home designer and builder who also found success owning restaurant chains, returned to Minnesota, this time to perform what he calls “architectural surgery.”
Aided by a dedicated three-person crew — and buoyed by unexpectedly good weather in an area known for snow and cold — Tom spent seven weeks meticulously taking apart Mantyla, cataloging each piece, and carefully storing them in three shipping containers.
“They camped out, literally camped out in that house,” McKinney says. “I visited them daily. They were sleeping on air mattresses…. From sun up until the wee hours, they would work, work, work. It was just amazing.”
To guide in rebuilding the home, the McKinneys provided the Papinchaks with Mantyla’s original blueprints. The conservancy also helped to document the pieces.
Minnesota-based architect Tim Quigley, a board member of the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy, says the organization also holds an easement on Mantyla to ensure the integrity of the house is preserved.
“That means Tom and Heather can’t paint it pink or add a second floor,” Quigly jokes. “Our job is to look after the building. The building is always first and foremost in our mind.”
The packaged materials were then transported 1,000 miles across the country. Not one of the irreplaceable pieces was damaged.
“We went through thousands and thousands of sheets of packaging material and shrink wrap,” Tom says. “That was a process in itself for making sure everything was in place.”
After carefully choosing a location at Polymath Park that would best enhance Mantyla’s design, including a long driveway that builds anticipation leading up to the house, the Papinchaks broke ground in 2017. Thus began the equally meticulous process of resurrecting the 3,000-square-foot, three-bedroom house, which included numerous pieces of soft cypress, intricate cypress-trimmed windows and 7,000 interlocking terracotta tiles.
Heather recalls how several Japanese architecture students volunteered for the arduous task of removing pine tar and lichens from the tiles. As the name suggests, Mantyla was indeed situated under a cluster of pine trees.
“They were awesome,” Heather says. “They were here for about a month. It was a lot of hard work, but they really cared about the project.”
Inside, Mantyla features Wright’s signature compression and release technique. In a wow-worthy moment, guests enter the home through a small, low-ceilinged foyer that leads to an expansive living space with floor-to-ceiling windows that help blur the line between indoor and outdoor living. The doorways between rooms, particularly leading to the bathrooms, also are quite narrow.
“I think [Wright] compressed certain areas of the home because he wanted to push you through to the next side,” Tom says. “It’s not for hanging out. He wants you to move on, and the release creates that.”
The centerpiece of the open-concept living area is a massive cinder block fireplace at a dramatic, M-shaped 120-degree angle. The dyed concrete floors are Wright’s signature Cherokee red.
“It’s not a huge house, but every bit of it is way cool and architecturally rewarding,” says Quigley, who notes one of his favorite design aspects is being able to see past the dining room and fireplace to the terrace beyond. “This is a real thoroughbred — just a blue-ribbon house, and almost no one has seen it before.”
The McKinneys donated the Lindholm’s original Frank Lloyd Wright-designed low-profile banquet seating, artwork and other pieces of decor, as well as their books for the built-in bookshelves, to the Papinchaks.
“We believed the house would not have the same feeling if it did not have the furniture in it,” McKinney says.
To keep with the home’s authenticity, the Papinchaks outfitted it with era-appropriate, yet functional appliances, including a retro Smeg refrigerator and an oven Tom found in California.
The exterior of the home features a cantilevered roof and overhangs, more Wright signatures. The wide terrace where the McKinneys married is still there, now surrounded by landscaping and a bucolic pond Tom built.
Everything about the home encourages its inhabitants to embrace nature, and the view from the tall windows is one of the things the McKinneys miss the most.
“Winter snowstorms there were the greatest,” McKinney says. “You’d flip on a floodlight and you literally felt like you were in a snow globe looking out. It was incredibly beautiful.”
The McKinney family got their first look at Mantyla’s new home at the grand opening in April. The reveal, caught by “CBS Sunday Morning,” which accompanied them on their reunion with Mantyla, was full of emotion.
Although the setting was different, once they settled into the built-in seating, it still felt like home.
“The single most important moment for me was the first time David saw it,” Julene McKinney says. “He said, ‘Mom, this is perfect. This is going to be great.’”
The couple already has plans to revisit Polymath Park, including a reservation in June of 2022 for their 30th wedding anniversary.
“Even though our story ends here, fortunately Mantyla’s continues,” Peter McKinney says. “The next chapter is for others to enjoy it.”