It may look like Fallingwater, but Lynn Hall has its own story to tell | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
An outside view of completed Lynn Hall with its 2-story core, card room, and family apartment on the second floor. (Courtesy of the Lynn Hall archives)
September 10, 2022
Deep in the woods of northern Pennsylvania, an imposing modern structure blends into a hillside of dark green foliage.
A babbling stream flows through the building, whose walls are stacked slabs of gray stone. Like its walls, the building consists of rectangular sections layered on top of one another with a row of windows stretching across. The red window frames add a splash of color.
Sounds like Fallingwater, right? Think again.
This is Lynn Hall. The building in Port Allegany, McKean County, shares its heritage with Frank Lloyd Wright’s celebrated house built for the Kaufmann family in Fayette County. In fact, it was designed and built by Walter J. Hall, who oversaw construction of Wright’s cantilevered masterpiece at Bear Run.
Fallingwater has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2019. It attracts over 180,000 visitors a year.
Lynn Hall, which began construction in 1934 – two years before Fallingwater – sat empty and deteriorating for almost 25 years.
An outside view of completed Lynn Hall with its 2-story core, card room, and family apartment on the second floor. (Courtesy of the Lynn Hall archives)
“It’s a very considered, thoughtful, interesting building that keeps revealing new things,” says Jeffrey Chusid, an associate professor of art and architecture who led his Cornell University students to begin Lynn Hall’s preservation in 2016.
The building is designed using an architectural technique called compression and release, utilizing a series of small and large rooms to move people through an interior. It’s a signature element of the organic architecture Wright created in the first half of the 20th century.
From the small entryway, visitors are beckoned by natural light to the second floor. On the landing, water trickling from an indoor fountain leads them onward and upward to rooms with views of the rolling hills of the Allegheny River Valley.
“The way that you can move up the hillside is also pretty cool,” Chusid says. “Ultimately, you can get all the way onto the roof.
“This is a very Wrightian thing to do because Wright believes if you are taking the flat part of the site on which to build, [then] you need to put a flat part back.”
Wright clearly influenced Hall, a self-taught builder and contractor who traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., to study Wright’s Darwin Martin House and Larkin Building, both constructed in the early 1900s.
Walter Hall sits by a fireplace in Lynn Hall. (Courtesy of the Lynn Hall archives)
Wright’s impact on Hall can be seen in his early drawings of Lynn Hall. A 1932 sketch depicts a three-story building with smooth white walls, geometric roofs and metal balustrades framing the edges. A center tower stretches toward the sky and a one-story wing extends from the top floor toward the hill behind the house. This design may have been inspired by roadside architecture Hall saw in Europe while serving as an Army engineer.
By the time construction began in 1934, Lynn Hall’s design had morphed into the shape we see now: a sleek, horizontal structure that reflects Wright’s Prairie School architecture.
However, Hall is not a mere imitator of Wright, who was often criticized for going over budget and designing beautiful buildings that lacked utility. Hall, on the other hand, was the “ultimate repurposer,” according to Adam Grant and Rick Sparkes, the current owners of Lynn Hall.
The indoor fountain and pond were originally a natural spring on site. Rather than divert it, Hall incorporated the running water into the building’s design.
Hall also reused abandoned nearby railroad tracks, embedding them in the concrete roof to create a cantilever and as support in the retaining walls at the back of the building.
Lynn Hall’s indoor fountain, which was originally a natural spring, on the second-floor landing. There were live trout in the pond for customers to pick for their meals when Lynn Hall was operating as a restaurant. (Courtesy of the Lynn Hall archives)
Another feature that sets Lynn Hall apart from Fallingwater is the use of glass block. Port Allegany was home to many glass plants in 1937, including Pittsburgh Corning, the only American manufacturer of architectural glass block at the time.
Since glass blocks have more load-bearing capacity than traditional windows, Hall used them to introduce natural light into dark spaces without windows. The connecting stairway between Lynn Hall’s two-story core and living spaces features a row of glass block on the upper part of the wall. Another glass-block wall between a hallway and a bedroom grants privacy while also bringing in natural light from the top of the stairwell.
The original repurposed glass blocks from the Pittsburgh Corning’s Port Allegany Plant (1937-2016) in Lynn Hall’s side entryway. (Alicia Chiang/Post-Gazette)
When Lynn Hall’s construction began in 1934, Hall envisioned a roadside inn that would serve travelers along Route 6 and paid for it with his own money.
He completed the first phase of his project — the two-story core — in 1935 and opened a restaurant with a ballroom on the second floor in 1936. Port Allegany residents remember its glory days, with Hollywood-style signs shining across the valley and music wafting from the frequent parties held inside. Its modern design drew the interest of many people, including Frank Lloyd Wright.
A postcard that shows Lynn Hall’s first-floor dining area and waiting area at the entrance when it was a restaurant. A window shows an “AAA recommended” sign. (Courtesy of the Lynn Hall archives)
Wright had dismissed the original contractor for a vacation home he was trying to build for department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann family on the side of a mountain, over a rushing waterfall in Bear Run, about 90 minutes southeast of Pittsburgh. The architect was hunting for a new builder, one not only well-versed in working with Pennsylvania native materials but also bold enough to take on an architectural challenge.
Wright dispatched his son, John, also an architect, to Lynn Hall in 1935. As the younger Wright inspected the building, he was amazed to see the integration of horizontal slabs and vertical supports that acted like beams, making the structure self-supporting. This was exactly what Wright had in mind for Fallingwater.
In July 1936, Hall suspended construction on Lynn Hall to begin working at Bear Run. Clinton Piper, senior administrator of special projects at Fallingwater, says there was sometimes friction between architect and contractor.
“While I think there was certainly an admiration on the part of Walter for Wright, they also disagreed. They argued,” he says.
Hall was responsible for managing the supply chain and hiring subcontractors, stone masons and laborers. He tried to follow Wright’s plans, but the architect was rarely on site. Many in Port Allegany, including Hall’s granddaughter, Susan Hall-Wheeland, believe Wright left many of the details up to Hall.
Walter Hall and his crew at Fallingwater’s construction site. (Courtesy of the Lynn Hall archives)
“Frank Lloyd Wright had given them a plan, I’m sure, and they followed that,” she said. “But then they said, ‘Uh oh, what shall we do now?’”
She believes her grandfather often made the decisions on how to make Wright’s ideas reality.
Many locals and Hall family members also believe Hall was the secret hero who saved Fallingwater from “falling into water” by inserting more rebar than Wright specified in the cantilevered concrete terraces. Architectural experts say the reality is more complicated.
Worried about the cutting-edge design, Kaufmann hired an architectural engineering company, Metzger-Richardson Co., to perform a load test. The test created cracks, evidence of structural failure.
“Without him, you know, there’ll be no Fallingwater.”
The company proposed using twice the steel in Wright’s design, but the architect rejected the plan. Hall reportedly slipped in extra steel rebar, adding more support than Wright wanted but less than the engineers had called for.
When workers removed wooden scaffolding supporting the first floor, the terrace sank 1¾ inches. In the early 2000s, Fallingwater’s main terrace underwent a complicated, invasive and ultimately successful rehabilitation.
“They built this thing in the middle of nowhere in the heart of the Great Depression, using people who were not particularly specialized in advanced construction techniques of avant-garde buildings,” says University of Texas Austin architecture professor emeritus Richard L. Cleary.
Cleary is the author of “Merchant Prince and Master Builder: Edgar J. Kaufmann and Frank Lloyd Wright.” He gives Hall substantial credit for Fallingwater’s success.
“Without him, you know, there’ll be no Fallingwater.” Cleary says.
Architectural historians still argue about the extent of Hall’s contributions to Wright’ famous work.
“Walter Hall was a crucial figure in the creation of the stone-tapestry walls at Fallingwater, although it remains unclear exactly who invented their style,” wrote the late University of Pittsburgh architecture professor Franklin Toker in his 2003 book, “Fallingwater Rising.”
“If not the inventor, Walter Hall was for certain the prime executor and maestro of Fallingwater’s masonry style.”
Toker also credits Hall for Fallingwater’s rough-grained slab floors. “You can still see the identical floors he had laid at Lynn Hall a few years before,” he wrote.
After completing the main house at Fallingwater, Hall traveled back to Port Allegany and continued working on Lynn Hall, adding a card room, a furnace room, and a gas station out front in 1938. He also incorporated red accent painting and windows from Hope’s Windows in Jamestown, N.Y., the same manufacturer that supplied Fallingwater.
Hall’s son, Raymond Viner Hall, was an architect who went by the initials R.V. He opened an office at Lynn Hall next to the two-story core with its own entrance. A mini waterfall flows next to the entrance into the building’s façade.
“They had clients coming to the building,” Piper says. “And they could see the modernist architecture that they were interested in and, you know, those principles of organic architecture, building into the site and so forth and using native materials.
“So it really became kind of a calling card for them and really indicated that they had sort of arrived in terms of builder and architect.”
In 1939, Hall returned to Bear Run to build Fallingwater’s guest house. When it was finished, Hall turned down Wright’s job offer at Taliesin studio and returned to Port Allegany. Father and son built a very successful business in Pennsylvania, New York and even the Virgin Islands.
“They would design your home, build your home, build your doors, build your windows, do the flooring. They were one-stop shops for many of the big homes there in Port Allegany,” says Gary DeVore, who owned the property for a time.
Owning a restaurant was Walter’s dream, not his son’s. After Walter’s death in 1952, R.V. closed the restaurant, took out the gas pumps in front and moved his office into the ballroom. Walter’s original plan — which included a third-floor hotel room for the roadside inn – was never completed, leaving a lonely hallway with brick walls and no roof.
The rest of the building became R.V.’s family residence. His daughter vaguely remembers playing in the quarry on the hill that was the source for the stone used in Lynn Hall. The family occasionally invited friends over and the children played hide and seek in the rooms while adults sat around the fireplace and TV.
Walter Hall’s son Raymond Viner Hall (1908-1981) was an architect based in Lynn Hall. (Courtesy of the Lynn Hall archives)
Hall-Wheeland remembers a dinner conversation with her father in his later years:
“He said, ‘I hate to really have to say this because I love flat roofs. But they do not work well in Pennsylvania,’” she recalls, laughing.
She remembers his sudden death in 1981. There was no indication that he was ill. He had just come back from Pittsburgh with her stepmother, and he went to his office to open his mail. When her stepmother returned to tell R.V. dinner was ready, she found him unresponsive. He had died of a heart attack at age 73.
“There was no way to keep that building going without my father’s business,” Hall-Wheeland says. “Without .. his ability to find the solutions and being able to maintain the building, it just took a few years before it deteriorated.”
Many Hall family members moved out of the remote town and created their own lives. The main house was too large for the two or three people who remained. They added sleeping space to the pump house and moved in there.
Meanwhile, the main house slowly decayed as rainwater accumulated and the roof caved in. Grass grew tall and saplings grew into trees.
Ray Morton Hall, Susan’s brother, continued to live in the pump house with his family. He often sat watching cars rush by on Route 6. Some suddenly slammed on their brakes, turned around and stopped in front of the building. They would come up to him and ask about this unexpected “Frank Lloyd Wright house.” He would stand up, smile and begin to tell the long history of Lynn Hall.
In 2006, uncertain about the future of Lynn Hall, Piper conducted field research with the help of Ray Morton Hall and others who knew the building. Piper drafted a National Register of Historic Places nomination with the hope of documenting the building’s history.
No one had lived there for years. The spring that once flowed through the building had dried up. Birds and snakes took refuge in the spaces once filled with lights and laughter.
Seventy pine trees towered in front of the building, all over 70 feet tall. The house became truly “organic.”
In this period of deterioration, Jim Young, a Hall relative, offered to purchase and then donate Lynn Hall to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Falllingwater’s owner and operator. According to Young, the conservancy turned down the deal, insisting mold remediation alone would cost millions of dollars. The conservancy did, however, take documents that staffers felt were relevant to Fallingwater.
Architecture enthusiasts Gary and Sue Devore purchased the property in 2013, starting Lynn Hall’s preservation.
The DeVores said it was like opening a time capsule. Everything had been left untouched since the 1980s. While cleaning and stabilizing the structure, the couple began a collaboration with Cornell’s historic preservation program. A group of 30 students spent four days working on the historic house. Many of the drawings and other documents rescued from Lynn Hall ended up in Chusid’s possession on Cornell’s campus in Ithaca, N.Y.
“You have to be very careful because there’s mildew and other things. And so, as of now, we can’t put them into formal archives elsewhere,” he said.
The Devores knew that a real restoration of Lynn Hall would require more expertise and financial backing than they could provide. They listed Lynn Hall for sale and patiently waited for buyers.
“Our nightmare had always been selling off to somebody who would make an indoor antique shop and let it sit empty for another 20 years,” Mr. Devore said.
Growing up in Greensburg, Rick Sparkes had always dreamed of living in Fallingwater. “But of course you can’t do that,” he says, laughing.
After seeing Lynn Hall on the historic house listing website Circa Old Houses, he and his partner, Adam Grant, decided to visit. Despite earlier work, the building was still “a mess.” Walls were peeling and windows were caving in. Grant recalls seeing the sky through a hole in the ceiling from the first floor.
“But walking inside … the potential … it gave me chills,” he says. “When we walked in the front door, literally like, Wow!”
They purchased the property for $250,000 in February 2017. Since then, they have been “deconstructing it down to the bones” and rebuilding Lynn Hall. They label every stone, strip it and put it back, one by one, he says.
Local contractors wanted to replace the building’s radiant-heated floors with baseboard heating. Sparkes and Grant refused, insisting on repairing the original heating system. When it was done, they found the heating in the floor more than sufficient, keeping them warm and toasty in northern Pennsylvania’s cold, snowy winters.
“If you just take your time and study the approach that Walter took when he designed it, it all actually makes very much sense. It’s a very sensible layout,” Grant says.
He and his partner also brought design ideas and collections from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where they formerly lived. Buddhas and large paintings sit on shelves around the dance hall, coexisting harmoniously with Lynn Hall’s modern aesthetic.
Sparkes and Grant are currently renovating the building to rent out on Airbnb. The ballroom, R.V. Hall’s former architect’s office, is their private residence. His original office, referred to as the architect’s suite, has one bedroom and rents for $230 per night. The renovated cottage in the former pump house has two bedrooms and $390 a night. The grand hall in the two-story core can be rented out for private events.
The sound of water is once again heard inside Lynn Hall, along with classical music pouring from Bluetooth speakers.
Once in a while, tourists traveling to the Allegheny National Forest, Kinzua Bridge or Cherry Springs State Park drive by Lynn Hall, slam on their brakes and stop out front, amazed to find an organic modern building in this Appalachian Mountains town. And they wonder why it looks like that famous house in Fayette County.
Piper, the senior administrator at Fallingwater, says the builder and architect of both followed the same principles.
“Fallingwater was a site in the woods on a waterfall, a client that had really deep pockets,” he says. “Lynn Hall was a more modest scale project. It evolved over time. It was kind of a living laboratory for the Halls.
“I think they just kind of informed each other as they were built.”
The indoor fountain at Lynn Hall. (Alicia Chiang/Post-Gazette)