Considered as the greatest American architect of all time, Frank Lloyd Wright gained primacy in American culture with designs that created some of the most innovative spaces in the United States.
With a career that spanned seven decades, he created 1,114 architectural designs, which were realized in 532 structures. As an icon in American architecture, his buildings are widely admired and mostly targeted for preservation.
Polymath Park, owned by contractor Tom Papinchak and his wife Heather, does just that. In 2003, Papinchak discovered 130 acres of heavily wooded land about an hour outside Pittsburgh.
The land was home to two remote houses built by Peter Berndtson, an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright. In a leap of faith, Papinchak bought the property and named it polymath, which refers to a person of encyclopedic learning.
The Frank Lloyd Wright inspired homes were named Balter House and the Blum House, which Papinchak believed deserved a second chance. He tirelessly restored both houses, and later on started offering tours to both homes.
The tour became so successful that the couple eventually thought of opening them up to overnight guests, believing that people who wanted to see a Frank Lloyd Wright house would want to sleep there as well.
With no specially added features, the overnight stays were essentially a step back in time. And became just as popular as the tours.
According to Heather, “Our first overnight guest were from Tel Aviv, and we’re from a very small coal mining town, so to meet people from so far away was really amazing.”
Busloads of guests and tourists started coming to Polymath Park, and soon enough, with their expertise, the Papinchaks gained a reputation as preservationists of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture.
Soon after, another house came to their attention. Duncan House in Lisle, Illinois was actually designed by Frank Lloyd Wright himself. It was disassembled and placed in storage rather than wrecked, and was looking for a new home.
Asked how Papinchak could even start on the challenge of rebuilding Duncan House, he said, “It was three of us: me, God, and Frank Lloyd Wright!
That’s kind of how it began, as a leap of faith for sure. I’ve always had this inner stirring to make a difference. And I think that was kind of the beginning of that, realizing that, ‘Okay, this is my path.’”
With Duncan House in Polymath Park, all homes were booked solid from the start. There was a demand for new homes, but Frank Lloyd Wright structures are not exactly easy to find. Fortunately, another home was seeking relocation.
Mäntylä, which is Finnish for “of the pines” and owned by Peter and Julene McKinney, was located 20 miles west of Duluth, Minnesota.
The pine trees that surrounded the home had started to give way to malls and wide highways, and had lost the serenity that accompanied Mäntylä. The McKinneys had been trying to sell the property for a decade, to no avail.
Designed in the mid-1950s for Peter’s grandparents Emma and Ray Lindholm, Mäntylä had all the hallmarks of a Frank Lloyd Wright home – low profile, big windows, and cantilevered roof.
Julien recalled, “I had a lot of really good memories there. I think Frank Lloyd Wright always said when you find the perfect land, go 10 miles further, and in this case it was probably pretty accurate.”
Discovering Papinchak, the McKinneys asked if he was up to the task of relocating Mäntylä. Tom said, “We sat down on the couch and Peter McKinney says, ‘Well, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘I can do it.’ And he said, ‘Really?'”
With a crew of hand-picked craftsmen, Papinchak painstakingly deconstructed Mäntylä. All parts, including each nut, bolt, window, door, and roof tile, were carefully catalogued, wrapped, and shipped to Polymath Park.
Peter shared, “The first few days were a little tough, you know, watching your home be taken apart.”
Three years later, the McKinneys saw their old home again, nearly a thousand miles from its original location. Peter said, “It’s hard to describe, it’s almost like we’ve never left. It just feels like home immediately.”
Julene added, “The last time I left the house before the deconstruction, I just went in the hall and I put my hand there and I just said, ‘Goodbye house, I’m going to see you in Pennsylvania.”
While the McKinneys may have given up their home, they are happy with the thought that it is being appreciated and enjoyed by architecture enthusiasts and admirers of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Tom also said, “That’s what’s most gratifying to me, is reading the guest book, just to read their quick paragraph of how it moved them or inspired them in some way.”
Once threatened by destruction and progress, these Frank Lloyd Wright treasures of American architecture have now found peace, quiet, and newfound appreciation in their new home.
See video below from CBS to learn more about this story.