There are plenty of opportunities in our country to visit mansions, homes, and other historically preserved gems that are key examples of American architecture and design. But it's a rare thing indeed to be permitted to stay in such a house and, for a short time at least, experience its design, function, and unique qualities. There are only a handful of homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that are available for overnight visits -- there are many more you can tour -- and for the traveler interested in artistry, design, nature, and innovations in construction, it's an opportunity not to be missed.
An original proponent of organic living, Frank Lloyd Wright is perhaps America's best-known and most influential architect. The Duncan House, a prefabricated home designed by Wright and built in a Chicago suburb of Lisle, Illinois, was recently moved to Acme, Pennsylvania, within easy driving distance of two other Wright masterpieces, Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob. The home was taken apart and moved to the town of Acme after the couple who lived there, Don and Elizabeth Duncan, died and the house fell into disrepair. Thomas Papinchak purchased the home and broke ground in June 2006 and opened a year later. Duncan House's location, on the grounds of what comprises Polymath Park Resort (tel. 877/833-STAY; www.polymathpark.com) is fortuitous, as it includes the Balter House, which has been open for overnight guests since November 2006, and the Blum House, which currently operates as the visitor's center. Both of those homes were built for Pittsburgh area businessmen and were designed by Wright apprentice Peter Berndston.
As one of Wright's more than 100 Usonian homes, built for middle-class clients, Duncan House features typical design elements including an entrance hall with a low ceiling, a spacious living room that's three steps down, and a master bathroom with a glass-walled shower facing the outdoors. The kitchen island still boasts its original red laminate, but guests are not permitted to use the range, dishwasher, oven or refrigerator; there is a microwave, however. A television and wireless Internet access are provided. A minimum two-night stay is required and the rates are priced at $385 per night for up to three people. There are three bedrooms in the house altogether and you'll pay an additional $50 for additional person; the home sleeps six. You have access to the entire house, which is full of period-correct furniture in the Frank Lloyd Wright style.
You can opt to stay in Duncan House, or the Balter House, which was designed by Wright's apprentice Peter Berndston and built in 1964 as a vacation retreat home. The design is more rustic, with an enormous fireplace in the open living room (a common Wright feature). At the Balter House, you can use everything in the kitchen; a plus for travelers who like to cook. Much of the furniture is original to the house. Again, a two-night minimum stay is required, and it is priced at $345 per night for up to three people but it, too, can sleep up to six. Children staying in either home must be at least six years old. For either location, it's advisable to book at least two months in advance.
Seth Peterson Cottage (tel. 608/254-6551; www.sethpeterson.org) is located north of Madison, Wisconsin by about an hour in Lake Delton. It can be rented for special events, meetings and getaways; public tours are also given. The cottage, one of Wright's last commissioned works, was also in terrible disrepair, and a group of citizens got together to save it. It's now owned by the Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources, and operated by the Seth Peterson Cottage Conservancy, a nonprofit organization. The property was the first one of Wright's to open to guests, in 1992, on the anniversary of the architect's 125th birthday. Seth Peterson contacted Wright in 1958, when the architect was 90, to design the cottage, but Peterson passed away before its completion, leaving the work to the next owners. Its location in Mirror Lake State Park, which was established several years later, was far from the more developed part of the park. The property was neglected and it too fell into disrepair. A group of residents, spearheaded by efforts of Audrey Laatsch, started a grassroots campaign to restore it, and the cottage underwent a three-year $300,000 renovation process funded by donations.
Akin to other Wright projects, the living room, or great room, is open and surrounded by windows. Slate floors bring the outside in, as do extensive walls of windows. The cottage is small, but economically organized for maximum efficiency. For example, a queen bed folds out of a corner bench seating area. You can prepare a full-fledged dinner in the kitchen, and a stone fireplace forms the room's focal point. A night at the cottage is priced at $275 for stays April-November and winter rates, from December-March, are priced at $275 for Friday and Saturday stays and $225 for Sunday-Thursday stays. A two-night minimum is required and the cottage sleeps four people. Currently, the earliest availability is December; booking far in advance is advisable. For those who want to just visit, the cottage holds an open house once a month, usually on Sundays.
The Louis Penfield House, (tel. 440/942-9996; www.penfieldhouse.com) now owned by Paul Penfield, is located about 20 minutes from downtown Cleveland, Ohio in Willoughby. As with Duncan House, when you stay at this house, which opened to the public for overnights in 2005, you have access to the entire house, not just a room. The home has three bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms and can sleep up to five people. You have access to two under-the-counter refrigerators, a gas cooktop, toaster oven; utensils and dinnerware and cookware are provided, along with linens, towels, and firewood for the fireplace. Situated among 30 wooded acres, the Chagrin River runs through the property -- no surprise there, as Wright wanted his homes as close to nature as possible.
The story of this home is unique and presented Wright with some challenges. The original owner, Louis Penfield, was six feet, eight inches tall, so Wright needed to make adjustments in his design. Consequently, this home does not have the signature low ceilings; the doors openings, too are taller. When his son, Paul Penfield, inherited the home, it needed a lot of work. For example, all of the wood in the home needed to be completely resanded. The windowsills were rotting; the roof was problematic, too. In keeping with Wright's philosophy, Penfield locally sourced cherry trees and used them for furniture and locust trees for the windowsills.
Penfield House is mostly booked over the course of the next couple of months, so it is necessary to plan ahead. The house is available $275 per night year-round. Like the other properties, a two-night minimum stay is required. No pets are allowed, and no smoking is permitted inside the house. A $50 administration fee is added to the payment about 30 days before your reservation date.
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