Which Came First?
The work of Walter J. Hall and Frank Lloyd Wright are so closely intertwined
that it’s unclear who had more influence over the other. See the
house called Lynn hall --- the mysterious predecessor of Fallingwater.IT
IS ALMOST INVISIBLE NOW, a ghost of a building squatting in the looming
hemlocks at the edge of the highway. Though its now rundown and overgrown,
the brooding brilliance of the place endures. You still can see its crisp,
horizontal lines formed by the distinctive, rough-hewn rocks, laid by
hand three-quarters of a century ago by a gifted craftsman.
It had been magnificent once, a monument to a vision of architecture as
art. Those few locals who still remember it in its heyday remember the
place known as Lynn Hall as an elegant and sophisticated place.
But that was a long time ago. Now it seems that Lynn Hall is disappearing,
retreating back into the mountainside above port Allegany for which it
had been carved. But even more important that, the building itself is
the mystery that continues to surround it. A remarkable achievement in
it own right, the building at the top of the hill immediately bring to
mind Fallingwater, the architect icon that Frank Lloyd Wright designed
at Bear Run. And there is a very real question, hotly debated by those
few experts who have seen Lynn Hall: Did Fallingwater serve as a model
for Lynn Hall, or did Lynn Hall, begun years earlier, provide the inspiration
for at least portions of Wrights masterpiece?Lynn Hall has almost been
forgotten, as has its builder, Walter j, Hall, a brilliant, some say eccentric,
local man with a native talent for stonework and a gift got architectural
But walk through Lynn Hall now, pushing past the detritus of years of
neglect, past the discarded paint cans and old boxes, wading through the
rivulets of brackish water and clambering over fallen plaster, and the
question of which came first echoes with every footfall.
THERE IS NO QUESTION THAT Hall was deeply impressed with the early work
of Frank Lloyd Wright, though precisely how the backwoods builder learned
about the work of the revolutionary and famously flamboyant architect
remains a bit of a mystery.Perhaps, says Frank Toker, the university of
Pittsburgh professor who penned “Fallingwater rising” and
has also studied Lynn Hall, Walter Hall came across some of Wrights designs
during a foray to Buffalo N.Y., where in 1903 Wright built the Darwin-Martin
house, a classic example of his prairie-style homes.
It is also possible that Hall learned of Wrights work though a former
employee, Earl Friar, one of the scores of young men from the valley between
Smethport and Port Allegany whom Hall put to work during his 50-plus year
career. After learning his trade at Hall’s side, particularly his
magical skills with stone and concrete, Friar later went to work for Wright
at the Taliesin Studio in Wisconsin.
Regardless of its roots, Hall’s fascination with Wrights sense of
style and design and, most importantly, his commitment to harmonizing
buildings with the land bordered on the obsessive.
“From the very start, when I went to work with him, he talked about
Frank Lloyd Wright,” said Ruby Anderson, who 70 years ago was a
young, would-be carpenter whom Hall took under his wing. “He had
ideas like Frank,” the now 93-year-old Anderson recalls. “Of
course at the time, it didn’t mean anything to me.”
It didn’t mean much to the comfortable burghers of Port Allegany
or nearby Smethport, then two moderately prosperous oil, lumber and farming
communities in McKean county for whom Hall regularly produced predictable
traditional homes and fashioned appropriately subdued additions for their
appropriately subdued public buildings.
By all accounts, Halls obsession with wrights organic designs was generally
regarded by the locals as an eccentricity, and one that his neighbors
and clients might have been willing to tolerate, but would never indulge,
certainly not with a contract or a commission.
But that was not enough to prevent Hall from indulging in his dream on
IN THE EARLY 1930’s, years before Frank Lloyd Wright sketched his
first drafts for Fallingwater, Hall began work on Lynn Hall.
His grandson, Ray Morton Hall, recalls a mixture of idealism inspiration
and cold, back-country pragmatism that led Hall to buy a 55-acre tract
at the end of a dirt cow path and to fashion on it a kind of laboratory
where, it is widely agreed, at least some of the innovations later applied
to Fallingwater would be proved.
The way Ray Morton Hall, known to the locals as Ray Jr., tells the story,
the builder was getting on in years, and his wife had died. Though he
had built houses for others and from time to time even lived in them until
they were sold, he had never really built one for himself. By 1934, he
found himself living in various rooming houses, taking his meals at other
“His rationale… was that f if he was going to spend the rest
of his life in boarding houses and soup kitchens here and there and everywhere,
then he might as well build a joint of his own,” Ray Jr. said.
But it wasn’t going to be just any joint. Along with his son, Ray
Hall Sr. a budding architect and sometime-builder who had a knack for
losing hammers so he wouldn’t have to actually do any realphysical
work, Walter began sketching out the design for what he would later call
a country inn. But it was to be no rustic retreat.
Hall envisioned an organic building, carved out of and molded into the
mountainside overlooking the pristine Allegheny River Valley. To be sure,
the design – long and horizontal lines faced with carefully laid
and hand picked local stone capped by a sleek concrete roof and porticos
--- owed much of its inspiration to Wright.
But the building, as Hall designed it, also reflected his understanding
of what the rocky ground of Western Pennsylvania offered and what it demanded
of anyone who wanted to build something that would harmonize with it.
IN SHART, AS RAY HALL JR. SEES IT, Lynn Hall was the first place where
the vast blue of Wrights theories came in contact with the flinty practicality
of Walter Halls experience.
In Wrights theoretical world, the land informs the designs. At Lynn Hall,
the land itself was one of the designers of the place. The land demanded
that. Back in those days, Ray Hall Jr. said, there were no earthmovers
readily available, no rock drills, no bulldozers. So Walter Hall and the
young laborers he hired had to carve out the building site with picks,
shovels and solid appreciation of their own limitations. “That’s
one of the reasons the building is up and down all over the place. You
dug with a pick and shovel until you came to hard rock, and that’s
where the stairs started.”
Rudy Anderson, who signed on to learn carpentry from Hall, remembered
his first day on the job at Lynn Hall as something more akin to mining
then woodwork. “I told him I wanted to be a carpenter, and he kind
of looked me up and down and he says, “Why, I’ve got three
or four like you now and three or four guys lined up behind them to tear
down what they do. But come on out in the morning anyway.’ So I
come out the next day. The boiler room had to be dug out 20 inches to
2 feet deeper, and that’s what he got me doing. Digging dirt. And
I though, ‘ if this carpenter work, I don’t want any part
By 1935, according to both Anderson and Hall’s grandson, much of
the work on the main structure – the dining room and ballroom, with
it’s elaborate stone fireplaces and its sleek, carved steps leading
to an elegant indoor waterfall and fish pond – had been completed,
at least to the point where the vision could be clearly seen and the structure
was put on the local tax rolls.
That was when; at long last, Walter Hall and Frank Lloyd Wright crossed
Edgar Kaufmann Jr., son of the man who hired Wright to dream up his masterpiece
at Bear Run, had been dispatched by his father to Buffalo to take stock
of some of Wright’s earlier work. En route, he found his way to
Port Allegany. While looking for a place to grab a quick meal, Kaufmann
is said to have gotten into a conversation with some of the locals who
told him about the eccentric builder and his odd project at the top of
the hill. Kaufmann dropped in unannounced at the unfinished Lynn Hall
and talked with Hall. Though he would later describe him in conversation
with author Donald Huffman as “a hillbilly builder,” at the
time, Kaufmann was so struck by Hall’s work that he immediately
notified his father, saying, “This house is chiefly masonry, stonework
and concrete—exactly the type we are to build at Bear Run.”
Shortly thereafter, the elder Kaufmann wrote to Wright. “We have
The truth was, Wright and Kaufmann desperately needed one.
The first contractor already walked off the job, claiming that Wrights
design for Fallingwater --- which often relied on specifications that
were incomplete and in some cases flat wrong – could not be built.
That’s when Walter Hall decided to accept the $50-a-week job Kaufmann
and Walter offered him.
Halls decision was so swift that it took his young apprentice, Rudy Anderson,
by surprise. “I was working for him for 3 or 4 weeks, and I took
a weekend off and went down to see my sister in Bucks Country. While I
was down there, he got a call to come down and build Fallingwater,”
Anderson told Pittsburgh Quarterly.
“Well, his wife was dead, he was all alone and so he thought, “well
this is what I want to do.’ And so he left, and went right down
there,” Anderson said. “Well, when I came back I was out of
a job. So 2 or 3, or maybe a week or 10 days later, I got a call from
him, he says ‘come down, I’ve got a good job here.”
Anderson, who did not own a car at the time, scrounged a ride down to
bear run and when he arrived at the site, Hall had already established
himself as the cock of the walk. “They had poured the piers under
Fallingwater and was pulling off the forms when we come down there.”
Anderson said. “He was showing the boys how to grind the concrete
with mortar and whatnot. Well he comes right back up on the bridge where
I was standing, just tickled me to see me, like one of his own kids.”
Whether the famed architect recognized it or not, his design for Fallingwater
left a great deal of room for improvisation. And because Wright spent
long months away from the project, Hall improvised with abandon.
Often it was to Wrights chagrin, Ray Jr. said.
Ray Hall Jr. noted one particularly testy letter to Wright, in which Hall
informed the master designer that he had just finished pouring the support
piers for the living room of Fallingwater. Hall added curtly, “I
put them where I thought they out to be on account of there’s no
dimensions on your drawing.”
Hall, whose ego, by all accounts, matched Wright’s, made changes
to the plans as he went along, among other things, adding reinforcements
to what he saw as dangerously weak concrete and in some cases adding flourishes
to the building. In one move, apparently inspired by Lynn Hall experience,
Hall decided to leave a massive boulder in place in the living room. “You
recall that big stone next to the fireplace?” Hall’s grandson
asked. “That was my grandfathers idea. Wright wanted it removed,
and Walter said, ‘why take it out? It’s natural.”
AS THE WORK PROGRESSED ON Fallingwater, the clash of egos between Wright
and the Builder became more dramatic. “Wright was not really a builder.
He was the designer, and he was also just about as obstinate as my grandfather,”
Ray Hall Jr. said.” The problem was there was only room for one
god on a project, and they had two.” On at least once occasion,
Walter Hall allowed himself to be photographed wrapped in an Indian blanket,
Ray Hall Jr. said, a tweak at Wrights penchant for wearing capes at the
Fir his part, Wright made no secret of his irritation with what he perceived
to be Hall’s cheekiness.
“I guess I took too much for granted when I called you on the Kaufmann
house. Probably, you have always been your own boss, never worked for
an architect and never heard of ethics,” Wright wrote Hall in one
letter that Ray Hall Jr. has kept as a treasured memento. “If you
imagine your meddlesome attitude to be either sensible or honest –
we will not say ethical – something was left out of either your
character or your education. I have put too much into this house, even
money, which item you will understand, to have it miscarry by mischievous
interferences of any sort. The kind of buildings I build don’t happen
that way, several have been ruined that way however and this one may be
one of them. It is only fair to say to you directly that you will either
fish or cut bait or I will. I am willing to quit if I must but unwilling
to go with my eyes open into the failure of my work.
The work, of course, was not a failure. The moment it was completed, Fallingwater
was celebrated as one of the world’s greatest architectural achievements,
and Wright basked in the glory.
There is no question that his design was both revolutionary and spectacular,
but though the historical record is unclear, there are elements of which
the building for which later Walter J. Hall deserves great credit, and
for which Lynn Hall may well have been the model. The use of radiant heat,
which was regarded as progressive when used at Fallingwater, “is
probably something Wright picked up from Walter J. Hall,” says Toker.
And Hall, who had used a 40-foot reinforced concrete beam that provided
the spine for Lynn Hall, appears to have drawn on that experience in his
construction at Fallingwater.
THERE WILL ALWAYS BE A QUESTION about the extent of Hall’s influence
over Fallingwater and to what degree Lynn Hall served as a model for it.
As Toker put it; “That Walter J. Hall was influenced by Wright is
100 percent clear, but he certainly did make contributions to Fallingwater.
And maybe the characteristics stone of Fallingwater, which Wright had
not exactly used in that matter, might be a contribution of Walter J.
There is little question that Wright, despite hit petulant outbursts,
recognized that hall had contributed a great deal to Fallingwater. Ray
Hall Jr. says Wright appreciated those contributions enough to offer Hall
a job at Taliesin.
But by the time Fallingwater was complete, the builder had enough of Wright.
He turned him down.
He returned to Port Allegany, and while he continued to build other homes
in the style that he honed at both Lynn Hall and Fallingwater, he never
really fulfilled his dream of completing Lynn Hall.
THE OLD COW PATH THAT LED TO the place became part of route 6, a scenic
highway that snakes across the northern tier of the state. An apartment
wing was added, and Hall and his son built a cottage – a pump house,
actually, that he designed as a small home. It radiates around a central
stone hearth, a building that seems to owe as much to the lessons Hall
learned at Fallingwater, as Fallingwater owes to the lessons drawn from
But despite those efforts, Hall’s vision of a country inn, complete
with stylish rooms fashioned out of stone and built in harmony with the
land around it, never came to pass.
For a time, it did operate as a restaurant, first run by the family and
then by a succession of restaurateurs. It was, by all accounts, a stunningly
elegant place that was advertised by a 20- foot high wooden sign posted
on the hill above it that could be seen for miles.
Ethyln Ford, now 88 years old, was a 17-year-old girl when she first took
a job as a waitress at Lynn Hall. She remembers it as an almost magical
when scores of nattily dressed customers from as far away as Buffalo dined
in the flickering glow of the massive fireplace or glided up the polished
stone staircase to dance in the expansive ballroom.“It was always
busy,” she recalled.
But changing tastes and changing fortunes seemed to conspire against it.
Gasoline rationing during World War II slowed traffic along route 6 to
a trickle, and business dried up along with it. It didn’t help that
Walter J. Hall, a teetotaler, refused to secure a liquor license for the
place, though he was willing to turn a blind eye when, during parties
or other functions, customers brought there own liberations.
By the early 1950s, the restaurant was fading into memory. In 1953, Hall
died. His deathbed has been placed near the front window of the little
cottage overlooking Lynn Hall and the valley below.
In the years that followed, Hall’s son, Ray Sr., tried to keep Lynn
Hall alive, turning it into an office of sorts for his architectural business,
but after his death, Ray Jr. says the building slipped into decline. The
decline accelerated when Ray Sir’s second wife won the rights to
the place, and, after living there for a time, virtually abandoned it.
Ray Jr., a retired pilot, and his wife, Rhonda, and educational consultant,
eventually regained control of Lynn Hall, but by that time the building
needed far more work than they could afford. Recently, they’ve begun
the arduous task of trying to document the buildings history and its influence
on one of the world’s greatest architectural masterpieces.
They are trying to have the place listed on the Nation Historic Register
and are hoping someone with a deep appreciation of native beauty and historic
significance of the building will buy it and restore it to its former
“That’s what we’re hoping for,” Ray Jr., as he
makes his way in the shadows up the central stairway of the old inn, past
the long-dry waterfall and the dusty basin of the fish pond and into the
long- abandoned ballroom.
Hall understands that finding a rescuer for Lynn Hall is a long shot.
But unless that happens, and unless it happens soon, the old place will
continue to deteriorate and may be lost forever. That would be a tragedy.