The Laurel Highlands: Close Encounters of the Wright Kind

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Lauren Highlands, Courtesy of Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau

Ligonier. Seven Springs. Hidden Valley. Farmington. Shanksville.

Any of them sound familiar?

With the exception of Shanksville, a borough (2010 pop. 237) near the field where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on 9/11 after passengers overpowered their hijackers, these western Pennsylvania villages aren’t well known. Skiers and golfers may recognize Seven Springs, Hidden Valley and Farmington as resort addresses.

Now, what about Fallingwater?

Fallingwater is, of course, not a town but a house. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1935, when the architect was in his late 60s, it has been called “perhaps the best-known private home for someone not of royal blood in the history of the world.”

Like the towns referred to above, Fallingwater is located in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, a semi-rural area — cherished by numerous cousins of Paul Mellon — roughly 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh and 200 miles west of Washington.

Why there? Wright’s patron was Edgar J. Kaufmann, owner of a Pittsburgh department store, who had the funds and the sense of design to commission a contemporary summer retreat. (The Kaufmann’s name was retired by Macy’s in 2006 and the main Fifth Avenue store is being converted into a hotel and condos; the Kaufmann’s clock, a famous downtown meeting place, turned 100 in 2013.)

We will be hearing a lot more about Wright in 2017, the 150th anniversary of his birth. So it may be wise for those with a taste for modern architecture to get a jump on things by visiting his buildings this year. In the Laurel Highlands, there are three open to the public: Fallingwater, Kentuck Knob and the Duncan House.

But whether or not Fallingwater is on your bucket list, the region — with farms, forests and quaint towns like the ones mentioned above — is a convenient and relatively undiscovered destination for getaways from D.C.

The Laurel Highlands take their name from 70-mile-long Laurel Hill, part of the Allegheny Mountain Range. A hiking trail runs the length of the ridge, with an average elevation of 2,700 feet. Laurel Hill comprises two state forests and six state parks, including Laurel Hill State Park in Seven Springs.

Upcoming events at Seven Springs Mountain Resort, with a par-71 mountaintop golf course, include a mountain beer fest (Aug. 6 and 7) and a wine festival (Aug. 26 to 28). The other two big resorts in the Laurel Highlands are Hidden Valley, just east of Seven Springs, which features the par-72 Hidden Valley Golf Club and the Trillium Spa; and Nemacolin, farther south in Farmington, home of the Woodlands Spa and the Lady Luck Casino. Nemacolin is currently building a new golf course, with nine holes to open in 2017 and the full course in 2018.

North of Seven Springs is perhaps the most charming Laurel Highlands town, Ligonier, with shops around its central square, called the Diamond. On Aug. 12, Ligonier will hold the Stroll, its annual tribute to the 1950s, with a sidewalk sale, live music, classic cars, and dance and pie-baking contests.

Ligonier’s history goes back 200 years before the 1950s. The Battle of Fort Ligonier was fought on Oct. 12, 1758. The town commemorates the battle (we — that is, the British — won by repelling the attacking French and Indians) with reenactments and a parade during Fort Ligonier Days, set for the weekend of Oct. 14 to 16. The reconstructed fort, which includes a museum, is open daily through Oct. 19.

West of Ligonier is the main art museum in the Laurel Highlands, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg. On view through Oct. 16 is “A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America,” with more than 60 objects, including paintings by Edward Hicks, Ammi Phillips and anonymous folk artists, along with sculptures, signs, furniture and German Americana.

Another museum worth a visit is the Mount Pleasant Glass Museum, in a town south of Greensburg where several glass factories operated. The museum displays a variety of glass products, from Model T headlights to White House crystal, and offers tours and demonstrations.

Finally, on the eastern border of the Laurel Highlands, moving in its isolated beauty, is the Flight 93 National Memorial, a National Park Service site. A visitor center opened Sept. 10, 2015. Forty memorial groves, one for each of the passengers and crew members, have been established along a ring road, and an allée leads from the visitor center to a wetlands bridge. At the edge of the crash site is a memorial plaza with a wall of names (a mobile-phone tour is available).

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