If Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is “majestic,” Kentuck Knob, another home he designed literally down the road, is “livable.” Not that it’s a livable most people would ever know or experience; most Americans did not live in a home that was designed by one of the country’s most famous architects. However, if you were friends of the Kauffmans’ (the family that commissioned Wright to build Fallingwater), and ice cream barons (Hagan Ice Cream), and could afford a $96,000 home in 1956 in which 10% of the total cost went to Wright, it really wasn’t that big of a deal.
A settler in the 18th century named David Askins intended to move to Kentucky, but remained in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, naming his tract of land Little Kentuck, which ultimately became the Kentuck District and the location of the Hagan house, which Mrs. Hagan decided to christen Kentuck Knob in honor of the land’s earlier owner.
Kentuck Knob was commissioned in 1953 when Wright was 86. As he was working on other properties at the time, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, he never visited Kentuck Knob in its finished state. Instead he paid one quick visit during its construction. It’s almost as if Wright’s egotistic nature made him entirely confident that his designs, his visions would create the perfect house without any cause for error or dissatisfaction on the part of the individuals paying for his commission. I’ve now toured three Wright buildings and know this was anything but the case.
Kentuck Knob is an example of organic architecture and based upon the Usonian model, typically a single, compact floor based upon a modular grid system. In Kentuck Knob’s case, the system is an equilateral triangle measuring 4′-6″ to a side creating an outside 240 degree L-plan house. It’s situated on Chestnut Ridge, the western-most ridge of the Allegheny Mountains. Its mountain summit offers a sweeping view of the Youghiogheny River Gorge, as well as surrounding hills and farmland.
When you first arrive at the house, you don’t immediately realize the uniqueness of the building design. It is only upon closer examination that you see it is recessed into the southern side of Kentuck Knob’s 2.050 foot peak (a knob is a rounded, usually isolated hill or mountain). When some buildings are constructed against awe-inspiring settings, they look as if they don’t belong because they’re too grandiose. As much as I loved the Biltmore Estate, specifically its gorgeous location in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the house is a place and just looked out of place. Kentuck Knob blends so harmoniously with its setting that its bedroom are even integrated into the hillside. When our guide told us that most of the trees found around Kentuck Knob (the Hagans purchased the 79 acres to build their home) were planted as seedlings by the family to provide both privacy and a wind break, I just couldn’t believe that at one time, the dense forest was completely open and bare.
What I love most about visiting a Wright building is seeing the incorporation of shapes into its design. At Kentuck Knob, shapes were everywhere, ranging from the triangular rain spouts to the hexagonal skylights to even more subtle details such as copper light fixtures with triangular-shaped shades, and the master bedroom’s fireplace which has a hexagonal-shaped firebox, the chimney itself being triangular.
My favorite room of the house was the kitchen. Although it has no windows, it’s 15 foot high ceiling draws attention to the hexagonal domed skylight. (The Hagans apparently added a translucent screen, much to the displeasure of Wright, since he felt it took away from the home’s designs. They felt they didn’t want to be continually fending off bugs and other insects.) Someone on our tour said the tall ceiling and skylight reminded him of a church vestibule , which it really did. Our guide informed us that Mrs. Hagan wanted a kitchen she could work in; unlike at Fallingwater, there were no servants at Kentuck Knob and the Hagans did all of their cooking. Although by today’s standards the kitchen looks pretty average in regards to the cabinets and counter space, I can only imagine at the time it was built, how modern and innovative it looked, especially with its four original pull-down burners by Frigidaire.
I think most people would agree that the living room is the most striking room of the house. Extended eaves supported on a glass wall of doors blur the outside with the inside, making it appear as if there is no barrier to the outside when in fact there is. Along one wall of the living room is a 28 foot long bench of built-in seating, with upholstered cushions that lift to allow for storage underneath. Wright did not want anything to detract from his designs and purposely created visually appealing features paired with pragmatism and even ecofriendliness. He added radiant floor heat that allowed for uniform heating of the open spaces in addition to the two fireplaces. Radiant heat requires no wall space for registers, opening the design to free placement of interior walls. Since the heat is stored at the floor level, less is lost when combined with the large expanses of glass Kentuck Knob has an abundance of.
Outside of the home there is a small fountain, designed in a trapezoidal fashion of course, so the Hagans, just like their neighbors and friends the Kaufmanns, could hear the sound of water from inside their home.
The Hagans lived at Kentuk Knob for almost 30 years. In the 1990s it was bought by a British lord (Lord Palumbo), who keeps Kentuck Knob as a vacation home for him and his wife while also making it available for the general public to tour. Apparently he was visiting Fallingwater and fell so in love with the area and home that when he heard Kentuck Knob was for sale, he immediately bought it for around $600,000.
While there are other Wright buildings that are more majestic, more incredible in design, no one can dispute the brilliance of the home’s physical incorporation into the landscape around it. Wright was a genius architect and designer, no one did it better than him.