Just 11 kilometres southwest of Fallingwater and high atop a bluff overlooking the Youghiogheny River Gorge, stands another Frank Lloyd Wright architectural masterpiece, Kentuck Knob. A great believer in the beauty of natural materials, Wright combined the native sandstone with tide water red cypress to create a chorus of colour and texture that replicates the surrounding landscape.
Kentuck Knob was built for the Hagan family, owners of a large dairy and friends of the owners of Fallingwater, the Kaufmanns. The Hagans sought out Wright after becoming friends with the Kaufmann family, and seeing Fallingwater. Both Hagans were artistically inclined. He was an amateur nature photographer, she was a painter. They both loved gardening and, over the years, planted thousands of trees on their mountainside. Then 86, Wright said that he “could shake it out of his sleeve at will” and designed the house in his signature Usonian style around a still fully functioning hexagonal kitchen. The 240 degree L-plan home is made with opulent natural materials such as native sandstone, red cypress and a (very expensive) copper roof. The ceilings are panelled in red cypress boards. Wright designed all the woodwork and built-in furniture. Wright specified tidewater red cypress for its appearance and resistance to rot. Almost all of the built-in furniture and woodwork was scribed to fit around the stonework of the house. The house stands out for its quality, pristine condition and harmonious connection to the rural mountain site on which it stands.
The Hagans lived at the house for 30 years before selling it in 1986 to Lord Peter Palumbo. Lord and Lady Palumbo entertain guests here on occasion, and the house is open for public tours.
Kentuck Knob is a smaller, open-plan house suited for modern-day living. In the words of the late Mrs. Hagan, the house was “Built to fit us … it was an incredibly comfortable home.” She wrote of the house that it had “a sense of beauty, comfort, serenity and harmony.” There was not one view, inside or outside, she said, “that was not pleasing to the eye.”
In a memoir about the house, Mrs. Hagan enumerated a surprising list of design changes, tweaks and other additions to the plans that the Hagans asked for and Wright readily accepted! He must have been getting mellow in his old age.
Few Wright houses look alike, but the Usonians, which he designed from the 1930s on, tend to share with Kentuck Knob deep overhanging eaves with either flat roofs or low-pitched roofs, closed facades on the public side, and rows of floor-to-ceiling windows and glass doors on the private side of the homes. Kentuck Knob is essentially closed on the north with only a narrow clerestory and wide eaves, but it is open to the south with multiple sets of glazed doors and cut-out eaves. The prominent large terrace and massive fireplace are also present.
Because of its hillside site, the Hagan house slab is set on a stone plinth that juts out along the hillside like the prow of a ship. That dramatic prow — with the low roof hovering over it — is the first thing you see as you approach on a narrow, curving driveway that brings you up the mountainside. It is often exaggerated in photos and its sharp angle belies the serenity that you feel inside the house.
Like most Wright houses, you have to turn several times before you enter. In this case, the first turns are along the curving driveway. In contrast to many of Wright’s entrances, which are obscured, the entrance to Kentuck Knob is set in the southwestern end of the courtyard at the crux of the living and bedroom wings, clearly marked with a set of cascading flagstone steps and protected by a small flat-roofed projection. Common to Wright’s architecture, fixed glass panels emanate from the stone walls towards the double door, making the delineation between interior and exterior spaces unclear. West of the entrance is Frank Lloyd Wright’s signature terra-cotta tile while a flagstone walk extends east of the front door steps along the bedroom wing to the three-stall car port. There are no windows visible, except a long row of clerestories partially blocked by jigsawed wood in decorative patterns.
As in many of his designs, Wright provided a car port rather than a garage for the house. He thought that a garage, as an enclosed space, would inspire the collection of clutter! The three stalls in the car port are constructed of sandstone and lined with pea gravel. They have a narrow concrete ledge at the rear, along the sandstone wall.
Once inside, everything changes. You walk in under a low ceiling, turn again and discover the large high-ceilinged living room opening up around you with an entire wall of glass. Glass doors open to a long terrace facing the woods.
Along the north wall of the living room is an 8.5 meter long bench of built-in seating with upholstered cushions that lift to allow for storage underneath. Above the seating is a series of cantilevered cypress shelves scribed to fit along the stone walls and operable clerestory windows. The sitting room’s large window is a single sheet of glass set directly in the stone surround, with a matching (and appearing to be continuous) moss garden on each side of the glass. There’s a polished flagstone floor, softened by strategically placed carpets, a massive stone fireplace, plus lots of comforting natural wood and colourful fabric in the furnishings.
Wright designed Kentuck Knob on a triangular (and hexagonal) grid. That means there are no right angles in the house — only ones of 60 or 120 degrees. This was intended by Wright to instil a sense of flowing space — something important to almost all of his buildings. It means spaces don’t end so much as they suggest the possibility of those additional spaces beyond.
The rhythm of hexagonal openings in the eaves from the south terrace is continued through to the dining area. Here they are covered with double glazed acrylic to create skylights. The dining area opens to another terrace. The bedrooms area also opens to this terrace, which affords more privacy than the south terrace.
The kitchen — set behind the big living room fireplace — is a total surprise. It’s a six-sided stone-walled room that rises through the height of the house and is lit by a large skylight. This is the massive anchor of the house. It may sound impractical, but outfitted the way Bernadine Hagan wanted it, it was a delight.
On the other side of the kitchen, a one meter wide gallery provides access to the three bedrooms, bathrooms and basement access. Each bedroom contains tidewater red cypress finishes on the ceilings, walls, built-in shelves, cabinets, bed frames and Wright-designed wardrobes. The guest room, nearest the dining room, is distinguished by its casement windows that open outward to reveal no corner supports.
Most important of all, Kentuck Knob is a wise house. Bears live in it!
In addition to the house, the grounds of Kentuck Knob feature 30 pieces of sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy, Anthony Caro, Claes Oldenburg and others, and a slab of the Berlin Wall.
The Hagans were the owners of Hagan Ice Cream and you can still have some at the Kentuck Knob Cafe.