After a Thousand-Mile Journey, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mäntylä House Opens to Overnight Guests
Tom and Heather Papinchak had their work cut out for them with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Lindholm House, or the Mäntylä House. Above painted concrete blocks and tidewater cypress was a red roof of interlocking, Ludowici tiles—some 7,000 in all—and after sitting among the pines of Northern Minnesota since 1952, they’d become dilapidated, all coated in sap.
Yet that did not deter the Papinchaks, who took on the task of painstakingly removing, cataloging, and restoring by hand each and every tile—not to mention, every nut, bolt, and screw—in an effort to authentically preserve the Mäntylä House for its 990-mile trek to its new home in Pennsylvania, 20 miles from Wright’s famed Fallingwater.
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This wasn’t their first rodeo at architectural preservation. In 2003, the couple purchased the Balter and Blum Houses designed by Wright apprentice Peter Berndston, along with the 130-acre property known as Polymath Park, with the intention of protecting the land from development. Then, in 2007, the couple relocated a midwestern Wright project, the Duncan House, to the grounds and opened up Polymath Park to lodging and tours.
So in 2016, after owners Julene and Peter McKinney (a Lindholm descendant) failed to find a buyer who would preserve the integrity of the Mäntylä House after years of trying, the Papinchaks’ nonprofit, Usonian Preservation, was granted a tremendous responsibility by the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.
“It’s important for generations to understand that Wright was so ahead of his time.”
—Tom Papinchak, president of Usonian Preservation
“The hardest part was the first hit of the hammer,” says Tom. “There were a lot of emotions, as it was a hard choice for everyone to move the house. We tried everything to keep it at the original location.”
At its new site in Polymath Park, Mäntylä House is in good company. Aside from the Duncan House and the Berndtson-designed residences, there are hiking trails and even a restaurant, where Heather cooks in addition to managing the day-to-day operations. “We do it for the purpose for preservation, but also for people to truly enjoy the space and appreciate the history in front of us and his legacy,” says Tom. “It’s important for generations to understand that Wright was so ahead of his time. It makes sense in today’s standard of living, which is greener, smaller, and utilizes space efficiently.”
Tom’s background in design and construction originally led him to Polymath Park, which began as a hobby but quickly turned into a serious preservation effort. The Papinchaks have become incredibly passionate about Wright’s work, having lived and breathed every minute of this restoration. During the dismantling process, they camped in sleeping bags inside the home and labored every day, 16 hours a day, for nine weeks.
“If it was about money or work, we would have stopped a long time ago,” says Tom. “Without passion, we would not have been able to complete the project. There were so many people involved.”
The team comprised a diverse mix of workers in construction and design who understood the fast-paced nature. Tom manually removed each piece of the home, with the hardest part falling to the planning. Before any dismantling, they revisited every possible angle to ensure there would not be any damage to the material. And in that, they were successful.
Aside from the concrete block, floor slab, and roof rafters, the entire home was transplanted. Tom and his team worked from multiple versions of prints and created their own set of drawings on site, with historic preservation the priority. Some modernization occurred to ensure longevity of the home, including mechanical and plumbing upgrades, and as Tom reminds, Wright was always a proponent of state-of-the-art materials and sustainability.
In addition to restoring the materials, the location was just as important. The home’s original siting was intentional, and Usonian Preservation aimed to recreate that. The new land in Pennsylvania falls within 10 percent of the original landscape with regard to its topographic map, and they added more pine trees to recreate the same feel. The home’s southwest orientation remained the same, and it falls in line with the same solar path.
All in, contractors spent around 9,000 hours on the project, and many of those were spent collaboratively with the Trust and the McKinneys. “The best part is that it consumes you and makes you want to get past the hard spots,” says Tom. “My core group gelled and made it come to life. These are ordinary guys who would never think about this as anything but work, yet it brought tears to their eyes.”
And that’s what sets this project apart. Through home tours, dining, and even overnight stays, the Usonian Preservation has created an accessible learning opportunity for anyone to experience Wright’s impact. “At certain properties, you have to watch how you breathe when you tour them,” says Tom. “I wanted to create an experience and not just offer an hour-long tour without the true feel. It was a natural fit being located so close to Fallingwater, to have guests be able to experience that magnificent site and realize they learned of angles and compression and release and then come back here and experience it overnight.”
Tom gained inspiration from Wright and applied the compression and release approach—a design philosophy that places a wide, open space at the end of a narrow, constricting one— at Polymath Park: a gated entry signals a release from daily stressors and technology, ushering visitors into a serene setting steeped in architectural history. Thanks to the Papinchaks, it’s a history that the public can enjoy for years to come. “Architecture is life, and architecture moves you,” says Tom. “And this home is starting a new one.”