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Polymath Park Features Usonian Homes (USA)

Credits: ©2014 Robin Rogers / Solaripedia

Polymath Park was designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice to be a small community of “Usonian” homes in Western Pennsylvania. The 125-acre (0.51 km2) property now hosts three homes, connected by unpaved roads on a mostly wooded site. Peter Berndtson, one of the original Wright apprentices at Taliesin, created a 1962 master plan for Polymath Park that allowed for 24 dwellings to be sited in individual, circular clearings in the forest. Ultimately, only two of his home designs were built on the property and are still standing. In 2007, one of Wright’s Usonian homes was deconstructed in Illinois, relocated to the Polymath site, and then faithfully reconstructed according to Wright’s original design. Berndtson's homes are known as the Balter House (1964) and the Blum House (1965), both of which were used as summer homes for the Blum and Balter families. Wright’s house, known as the Duncan House, was originally built as a prefabricated Usonian home in 1957 in Lisle, Illinois. Polymath is near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA - and also close to Wright's better-known Fallingwater (15 miles) and Kentuck Knob (30 miles). Polymath Park is run by the nonprofit Usonian Preservation Corporation and the three homes are rented to overnight visitors, the proceeds of which go toward maintenance of the houses and architectural education programs, according to site owners Thomas and Heather Papinchak. The Usonian homes incorporate Wright's ideas about organic architecture, a philosophy of architecture that promotes harmony between human habitation and the natural world.


Polymath FLW Duncan Exterior Front

Frank Lloyd Wright's Duncan House at Polymath Park in Pennsylvania is one of his Usonian home designs. Usonian usually refers to a group of approximately sixty middle-income family homes designed by Wright beginning in 1936. Wright used the name “Usonian” to reference his homes built in the United States of America, in a style that was meant to be accessible for the “common people.” ©2014 Robin Rogers

Usonian Houses

'Usonian' is a term usually referring to a group of approximately sixty middle-income family homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright beginning in 1936 with the Jacobs House. Wright used the name “Usonian” to reference his homes built in the United States of America, in a style that was meant to be accessible for the “common people.” Wright believed every client was entitled to a beautiful structure – regardless of their income level.

Traditionally, Usonian houses are simple, single-story structures built in Wright’s “organic” architectural style. The homes were typically L-shaped embracing an exterior garden terrace, and were often located on unusual and inexpensive sites. They are usually divided into two wings, with public rooms on one side and private bedrooms on the other, and connected at a service core comprising kitchen, bath and hearth. Instead of garages, Usonian homes have a porte-cochere; Wright coined the word “carport” to describe the overhang for sheltering a parked vehicle.

The homes were constructed with native materials, flat roofs and large cantilevered overhangs for passive solar heating and natural cooling, and they utilized natural lighting with clerestory windows. The homes maintained a strong visual connection between the interior and exterior spaces, and had hydronic radiant heat systems embedded in the concrete slab floors. Berndtson was among the original Usonian architects who studied under Wright, and the Balter and Blum homes he designed incorporate classic Wright characteristics, including flat roofs and expansive windows that allow direct interaction with the outside world while inside the house, and the color red.

NOTE: Usonian is the name for the United States in Esperanto, the constructed international language designed to be an easy-to-learn, politically neutral language that transcends nationality.

Duncan House

The Duncan House is one of 11 modest Usonians that were prefabricated by a Wisconsin builder, Marshall Erdman, and constructed on lots chosen by the buyers. The Duncans - an electrical engineer and an artistically-inclined wife - bought their Usonian prefab after Mrs. Duncan read an article about the project in the December 1956 issue of House & Home magazine.

The Duncan House was originally constructed with concrete blocks, as many Usonian homes were. The three-inch-thick modular blocks were inexpensive and could be assembled in a variety of ways, secured with steel rods and grout. Frank Lloyd Wright believed that this masonry material could save the homeowners money if they built their own Usonian homes. However, assembling the modular parts proved complicated and usually required professional builders. In addition, many Usonian homes exceeded their budgeted costs and were therefore not affordable for the common people for whom they were designed. (When the Duncan House was reconstructed at Polymath, local stone was used in place of the CMUs.)

After Mr. Duncan died at age 95 in 2002, the house fell into disrepair. Under threat of tear-down to make way for development, the Duncan House was dismantled in 2004, moved in four trailers to Pennsylvania, and eventually reassembled, from thousands of numbered pieces, at Polymath Park. The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, The Progress Fund and the State of Pennsylvania put together a plan with Polymath Park to reconstruct the Duncan House on the rural Pennsylvania property. The Papinchaks own the land under the house and administer the nonprofit corporation that runs and maintains Duncan House. The tour of the property visits all three homes, with a bit of history of each.

Blum and Balter Houses

Peter Berndtson designed more than 80 houses and communities throughout his career but only 30 were constructed, including the two homes at Polymath Park. In 1938 he began studies at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin Fellowship in Wisconsin, where he met and soon married fellow student Cornelia Brierly. The couple settled in Western Pennsylvania and together applied Wrightian theories to home design. Berndtson's best known work is Polymath Park and the Blum and Balter homes are closely related to Wright's Usonian houses. Berndtson's homes were designed on modules -- usually four-foot square – as evidenced in the floors of the two Polymath homes.

Other Frank Lloyd Wright homes open for overnight accommodations include the Louis Penfield House in Willoughby, Ohio; the John D. Haynes House in Fort Wayne, Indiana; the Seth Peterson Cottage in Lake Delton, Wisconsin; and the Bernard Schwartz House in Two Rivers, Wisconsin.


Polymath Park (Acme, Pennsylvania, USA)