Eighteen years ago, Thomas and Heather Papinchak purchased a home near Acme, Pennsylvania, as a quiet retreat in the woods. They didn’t know that just a half-mile away were two underappreciated houses with an incredible design legacy: They were built by Frank Lloyd Wright's protégé Peter Berndtson in Wright’s signature Usonian style. Thomas Papinchak, a building contractor, only discovered the homes when some college students threw a rowdy party there and the noise caught his attention.
The couple were already fans of Wright’s iconic architecture, and when the two houses were offered for sale three years later, the Papinchaks snapped them up. That marked the beginning of Polymath Park, a resort where guests can book overnight stays in not just these two houses, but two more designed by Wright himself that have been moved to the southwestern Pennsylvania property.
A USONIAN OASIS
In the 1960s, two prominent Pittsburgh families, the Blums and the Balters, were looking to build summer homes near each other about 40 miles outside the city. Harry Blum was a partner in his family’s metalworking company, Blumcraft of Pittsburgh; James Balter was president of the Morris Paper Company, a leading Pittsburgh firm started by his father. Both were members of the same social circle as Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann, who had commissioned Wright to design his most famous residential work, Fallingwater, in nearby Mill Run, Pennsylvania. The Blums and Balters wanted their houses built in Wright’s style, but the architect had died in 1959—so they turned to Berndtson, who trained under Wright at the Taliesin school in Wisconsin.
Berndtson designed homes for Blum and Balter using Wright’s Usonian design elements, like red concrete floors, horizontal profiles, and an indoor-outdoor plan connecting the structures to the surrounding landscape. He also wanted to build 24 similar houses on the land, creating an entire community in the Usonian style. The two families, however, preferred their privacy and put a stop to Berndtson’s effort.
The families used their summer retreats for two decades, but sold them in the 1980s to owners who occasionally rented them out—like to the college students who “helped" the Papinchaks discover them. “I was in complete shock when the Balter and Blum houses went on the market” in 2003, Papinchak tells Mental Floss. After buying the homes and their massive lots, the couple decided to keep the previous owners’ name for the property: Polymath Park.
THE DUNCAN HOUSE ARRIVES
While the couple restored the homes, another Frank Lloyd Wright house was on its way to the neighborhood.
In 2004, a group of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, residents had bought the Duncan House, a single-story Usonian home built in 1957 in Lisle, Illinois, to save it from being torn down. They were in the process of moving it to Johnstown in pieces, and Papinchak offered his services as a contractor on the project. When the project's investors decided not to continue funding in 2006, Papinchak bought the house outright to rebuild it at Polymath Park.
As the house was taken apart, every beam and stone was assigned a number that corresponded to a master plan showing the proper place of each piece. Papinchak and his team of four spent a year carefully putting the house back together, refurbishing it as they went along. It wasn't always straightforward reassembly—Wright had used 30- and 60-degree angles within the structure, which required Papinchak to get a little crafty, since most homes feature 90-degree angles. There were also the cantilevers and overhangs, signature Wrightian elements, which required some careful engineering.
“It was truly surreal to personally rebuild Wright’s Duncan House with my small crew,” Papinchak says. “I enjoyed every moment, but didn’t fully realize what was accomplished until the grand opening, when I saw the positive reaction from not only the local community, but the Wright world at large.”
In 2007, the Papinchaks opened Polymath Park to the public. Wright fans could tour the three Wright-related homes on the property and rent them out for overnight stays, which proved popular with architecture buffs visiting Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, another nearby Wright work.
REBUILDING THE LINDHOLM HOUSE
But Polymath Park is not done growing. The Papinchaks are hard at work rebuilding another relocated Wright home— Lindholm House, also known as Mantyla—piece by piece.
“I first became aware of the house about 10 years ago,” Papinchak says. “I had given a tour at the park, and afterwards a gentleman mentioned his neighbor was living in a Wright house that was being encroached on by commercial property.”
Originally built in 1952 in Cloquet, Minnesota, for gas station owners Ray and Emma Lindholm, Lindholm House had remained in family hands for its entire existence. Initially, Lindholm descendants Julene and Peter McKinney weren’t ready to sell the property when Papinchak reached out to them. But maintaining the aging home had become increasingly difficult, and the couple was worried about the house's survival with the commercial development around it.
They consulted the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, an organization dedicated to preserving the architect’s works, and decided that relocating the house was the best choice to protect it. The decision wasn't made lightly—Wright purposefully designed his houses for specific sites, integrating the architecture with the landscape, so moving any of his structures would break Wrightian principles. Only in instances where a building’s survival is threatened will the conservancy consider a move, which is how the Lindholm House qualified for relocation.
With their previous experience in moving a Wright house, the Papinchaks joined forces with a relocation contractor and an architect from the conservancy for the new project, and this time, the McKinneys agreed to send their home to Pennsylvania.
The Lindholm House was dismantled in early 2016, and as with the Duncan House relocation, each and every piece of the home was numbered to guide the reassembly process. After the pieces were shipped to Pennsylvania, the Papinchaks began the process of building the house from scratch according to the numbered master plan.
The newest of the four Wright-related buildings at Polymath Park is scheduled to open this summer, giving guests a rare chance to experience life inside a Wright-designed home—set, as the architect would have wanted, in a quiet, wooded landscape.
“Heather and I are hands-on,” Papinchak says. “We do whatever it takes to further the preservation of these architectural gems.”