Cruising along Route 6 just west of Port Allegany through the Pennsylvania Wilds’ Dark Skies landscape, you probably have seen it. It’s hard to miss this sprawling stone structure up there in the Seneca Highlands sitting right along the highway, built into the mountainside.
There is an air of mystery about this old place. In my years of travel through the Pennsylvania Wilds I never knew its name, nor what it was. The structure resembles a ‘Frank Lloyd Wright building’ and a ‘gee-whiz, hit the brakes!’ moment for PA Wilds tourists who pull off the road to take a closer look.
The name of this place is ‘Lynn Hall’ and at first glance, you swear it is a Frank Lloyd Wright creation, inspired by the world-famous architect’s iconic home called Fallingwater on Bear Run southeast of Pittsburgh. Built out over a waterfall, Fallingwater has been described as a blend of “man meets nature,” and has been named the “best all-time work of American architecture” in an American Institute of Architects poll.
(Photo of Fallingwater at right Courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy)
Oh, but Wright’s iconic Fallingwater has Walter J. Hall’s touch all over it.
Walter J. Hall?
A Port Allegany building contractor and designer, Walter Hall (1878-1952) became a working partner with Wright (1867-1959) at the Fallingwater site, with Walter hired on as Wright’s chief contractor/builder. But now we are getting ahead of ourselves. More on that, coming up.
Across the Pennsylvania Wilds, generations of Walter Hall’s family were known for construction with a company founded by Walter’s grandfather, Paul Hall, back in the 1800s. Paul’s son John (Walter’s father) owned and operated one of the first sawmills in Port Allegany until Walter’s brother Howard later took it over.
As self-taught designer/building contractors, Walter and Howard specialized in masonry construction using local stone and continued the family tradition, building more than three-dozen homes in the Port Allegany and Smethport area.
(Photo of Walter J. Hall courtesy of The Jim Young Collection.)
CREATING LYNN HALL
Just like Fallingwater, Port Allegany’s Lynn Hall is an example of organic modernist architecture and, in the tradition of Wright, Walter was an early adopter of this design, which allows the natural surroundings to determine the look of a structure.
Walter dreamed big. His Lynn Hall concept, located between Port Allegany and Smethport, combined a country roadside inn with a family home. It would include hotel rooms, a restaurant, dance hall, guest house, gas station and an office for himself and his architect son, Raymond Viner Hall (1908-1981).
A highly prolific architect, Raymond Viner Hall also designed Renovo High School, Port Allegany’s Elementary and Union High Schools, Keystone High School in Knox, Austin Elementary and Roulette Elementary Schools in Potter County, the Moose Lodge and fire station in Port Allegany, along with dozens of homes and other structures across the Pennsylvania Wilds. A talented father-son team, Raymond designed, and Walter built.
Letters in the Fallingwater archives show Walter and son Raymond were admirers of Frank Lloyd Wright’s style and, at one point, Raymond wrote to Wright inquiring about studying at Taliesin, Wright’s home, studio, school and 800-acre estate in southwestern Wisconsin.
(Photo of Raymond Viner Hall courtesy of The Lynn Hall Collection.)
THE FALLINGWATER CONNECTION
With Walter’s Lynn Hall construction underway, along came Edgar Kaufmann Sr. (1885-1955) – and Frank Lloyd Wright.
In 1935, Kaufmann, a department store tycoon, known as the “Merchant Prince of Pittsburgh,” commissioned Wright to design a family retreat on the Kaufmann property along Bear Run in the Laurel Highlands, an hour and a half drive from Kaufmann’s Pittsburgh home. Kaufmann had his architect, but he had fired the original contractor and was now in dire need of a builder/contractor. Walter J. Hall got a call from Pittsburgh that would change his life.
According to documents at Fallingwater and Lynn Hall, Raymond wrote to Wright that his father was “a master builder in the real sense of the word.”
That letter prompted Wright to send his son John to Port Allegany in 1935 to meet with Walter. After seeing Lynn Hall, John reported to his father that Walter was a “stunning stone builder.” Wright and Kaufmann made an offer. Walter accepted.
In May,1936, Walter dropped what he was doing at Lynn Hall and headed to Bear Run to serve as Fallingwater’s builder at a salary of $50 a week, the equivalent of $900 a week in today’s money.
TWO ‘CREATIVE GODS’ COLLIDE
As verbal sparring between architect and builder frequently occurs during the construction process, Walter Hall and Wright were no exception, and they had their moments. Even though their design philosophies were similar, they butted heads. Sometimes it got downright personal. Wright would show up at the Fallingwater construction site donning a cape and his signature pork-pie hat. Walter would mimic him, wrapped in an old blanket with a kerchief on his head.
When Wright was commissioned to design the S.C. Johnson headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin, he had less time for the day-to-day construction at Fallingwater, and Walter’s presence became even more crucial to completion of the Bear Run project.
Walter’s penchant for ‘artistic license’ and making changes ‘on the fly’ in Wright’s absence drove Wright mad and he fired off an angry letter to Walter:
“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. I have not built one hundred and ninety of the world’s important buildings without knowing the look of the thing when it turns up on the job. Failure, I mean, by way of treacherous interference.”
Wright demanded Kaufmann fire Walter immediately, but Kaufmann refused.
Walter would see Fallingwater to completion and, when it was finished, its unique design captivated the world. Frank Lloyd Wright and Fallingwater graced the cover of TIME Magazine in 1937. (Frank Lloyd Wright – TIME Magazine Archives)
Eventually, Wright offered Walter a job as his chief builder/contractor, but Walter declined and headed back to Port Allegany to Lynn Hall. He had unfinished business.
From Fallingwater to Port Allegany
Returning to Port Allegany, Walter went to work finishing Lynn Hall and took great delight in watching it fast become a favorite venue for well-dressed guests from cities as far away as Cleveland, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. They enjoyed dining in the glow of a huge fireplace near a beautiful stone staircase leading up to the grand ballroom, overlooking the beautiful Allegheny River Valley below.
With America’s love affair with the automobile underway and road trips the thing of the day, Walter added a gas station. Scores of tourists traveling Route 6, the “Transcontinental Roosevelt Highway,” stopped in to fill up and grab a bite to eat.
Business was good. However, unexpected events took their toll.
Lynn Hall managed to survive the 1930’s Great Depression, but the 1940s brought World War II – and gasoline rationing! Tourist traffic along Route 6 slowed to a mere trickle.
Walter’s great-grandson Doug Hall, a sixth-generation member of the Hall family, was born following Lynn Hall’s glory days, and he recalls it did not help business that his great grandfather was a teetotaler. “Great Grandpa Walter refused to get a liquor license,” explained Doug, “But he would always look the other way when customers brought their own for parties upstairs.”
Doug lived at Lynn Hall with his father, Raymond Morton Hall. “I was too young to know Lynn Hall as a working gas station and restaurant, I knew it as architects’ offices,” said Doug. “We lived in the adjacent cottage house from the time I was nine until I was 16.”
It was a fun place for a growing boy.
“I remember playing for hours and hours in the huge stone quarry up in back of Lynn Hall and it was a magical place to live!” Doug recalls. “I remember Christmases with those Shiny Bright Christmas tree ornaments, four fireplaces, with one in the party room downstairs that burned logs four feet long. I remember watching the waterfall cascading over the flagstone in the indoor trout pond,” and he explains, “it was strange, because I grew up thinking it was normal to be hosting parties nearly seven days a week.”
Doug said there was always this perception in town that the Hall family was extremely wealthy. “Truth was,” he said, “We were not so much rich as we were industrious.”
LYNN HALL’S FALL
Walter J. Hall died in 1952 and by 1954 the restaurant and gas station had closed, but Walter’s son Raymond kept Lynn Hall occupied with his architect offices. However, after he died in 1981, the decline of Lynn Hall began. It accelerated after Ray’s second wife inherited rights to the place. She moved out in 1990 and, for the first time in more than 50 years, the place sat vacant.
These were the darkest of days, said Doug. “It was a bad time. There was so much family dissension. She (step-grandmother) refused to spend money to fix the roof. It got really bad and the structure began to deteriorate. I broke down and cried at the shape of the place when I visited a few years later.”
The slow, sad decline of Lynn Hall continued as tall pines encroached the building and obstructed the beautiful view of the valley. It appeared Mother Nature was reclaiming the building.
REIMAGINING LYNN HALL
Lynn Hall sat vacant for nearly 25 years, until Gary DeVore and wife Susan came to the rescue in 2013.
New owners Gary and Sue share a love of history and historic structures. “Once we realized the history and significance of Lynn Hall, we knew we had a chance to preserve an important piece of architectural history and, in the end, help write some history ourselves,” said Gary. (Photo: Gary and Sue DeVore – Courtesy of the DeVore Family)
Gary knew a lot about architectural history. His father was a stonemason, but Gary chose not to follow in Dad’s footsteps because his true love was architecture. “I spent four years in the architecture program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and toured Frank Lloyd Wright’s school of architecture at Taliesin many times and studied his organic structures,” Gary explained, “I took one look at Lynn Hall’s stonework and knew it was either a serious Wright-influenced design, or actually associated with him. Turns out, I was right on both counts!”
At the time, Lynn Hall was a disaster. The remnants of 1972’s Hurricane Agnes had unleashed a torrent of water cascading through the building’s rear wall with so much rot and mildew inside.
“We had no idea of the massive challenge we had taken upon ourselves,” recalled Gary, and he added with a smile, “If looks could have killed, my wife would have caused my death many times over as we worked on Lynn Hall.”
Attempting to save it from total ruin, the DeVores saw potential in the 80-year-old structure. “I often describe a restoration process as peeling an onion because you take it a layer at a time and what you find often makes you cry!” said Gary.
“However, with my Swedish wife (Sue) who was brought up with an amazing work ethic, and me, with the inability to admit I could not do something, and dozens and dozens of friends, family and volunteers, we peeled the onion and shed the tears to accomplish it.”
An accumulation of pine needles and pine cones12 inches deep had pitted the roof and it leaked like a sieve in places. “The leaks led to massive ice structures encasing the electrical panel,” said Gary. “Nobody knew if the electric, heat, water or sewage systems worked – and they didn’t. Opening each wall and ceiling was a ‘wonder what we will find next’ moment.”
Next came the task of getting rid of those tall trees. “It involved taking down 70 pine trees, sixty to one hundred feet tall, thirty inches in diameter and all of them had to be felled in a narrow space of only twenty-five feet between the building and Route 6,” said Gary. “It took finding Shaun Nance, a local arborist and tree cutter, who climbed each one, trimmed branches, and felled them in sections, never once touching either the building or highway.”
A Rescue Mission Takes Shape
PA Wilds artist Stephanie Distler, engagement specialist at the PA Wilds Cooperative, recalls a 2013 visit to Lynn Hall around the time the DeVores took over. An admirer of classic architecture and design, Stephanie at that time said she was able to look past the deteriorating state of the building with an eye on what it once was and what it could be. She got a big surprise as she returned to Lynn Hall in the autumn of 2016 when the DeVores hosted a Wilds Cooperative of PA juried Art Show.
Entering the building to set up the show, Stephanie said she couldn’t believe what the DeVores had accomplished in a few short years. “Noticeable was restoration of landscaping, the clean appearance of the exterior stonework, the work done on the pumphouse/cottage to serve as living quarters, organization of Walter and Raymond Viner Hall’s papers, rooms that were partially staged, utilities were on, there was usability of the bathrooms, the fireplaces, the beautiful MCM style wooden chairs, and so on,” said Stephanie.
Gary said that by this time the building’s decline had been somewhat reversed. “The stone wall sections had been re-laid, the electric was working, the water ran where it was supposed to, and the sewage went where it was supposed to. We held the PA Wilds Art Show as a means of further exploration and celebration of getting restoration that far,” said Gary.
After several years of labor, The DeVores felt they had taken their rescue mission as far as they could and, at that point, Gary and Sue had to decide: if they sold, how might Lynn Hall best be used so it did not fall into disrepair again?
“We were afraid someone would buy it, fail as a business and let it go to ruin again,” explained Gary. “We also knew that the next step was going to take even deeper investments than we could handle. We sent letters out to all our architectural and historical contacts for ideas, but nothing solid.”
They began looking for someone to take over Lynn Hall. “We knew of the historic homes site CIRCA, and once we realized there were almost no mid century modern homes on their site, we decided that would be the best place to advertise, not only nationwide. but worldwide.”
Rick Sparkes and Adam Grant of South Florida answered the ad.
“We listened to their story, their talents, their financial ability and their personalities,” said Gary, “and we did not hesitate to say ‘sold!’”
New Owners Arrive
New owners Adam Grant and Rick Sparkes have extensive graphics and design backgrounds and the successful restoration of two historic homes in Fort Lauderdale under their belts.
Adam recalls their first Lynn Hall visit. “Upon arrival, the building was still in such bad shape that our immediate reaction was one of horror and it took all our courage to resist the ‘flee’ instinct!”
“However, when we entered the front hall and viewed the multi-level stonework, the grand fireplace in the old restaurant space and the interior fountain two levels up, we were sold,” he said. “It took us about an hour of walking around before we had a full vision of what the building could be and we finally made an offer.”
(Photo: Rick Sparkes and Adam Grant – courtesy of the Lynn Hall Collection)
Credit the DeVores for keeping the place from the wrecking ball and putting the ambitious rescue work on track,” says Adam. “We owe them a huge debt of gratitude for their part in saving this historic landmark, especially for reawakening interest in this property that most people gave up on long ago.”
RESTORATION AT WARP SPEED
Picking up where the DeVores left off, Adam and Rick have spent hard-core time and money – a LOT of money—in restoration supplies and labor to return the grand old place to a livable condition.
Repairing and replacing stonework, replacing walls, pouring footers, Adam said the restoration involved so many challenges and so much physical effort. “We used contractors for the first year to get the initial heating system installed, electric panels replaced and plumbing updated,” he explained.
There was a point where the restoration effort was overwhelming. The workload had turned hours into days and weeks to months. “Basically, the place was nearly uninhabitable,” he said, “We ended up taking on pretty much all the work ourselves including stonework, electrical, plumbing, woodwork, roofing, windows, and so on.
Some 80 years later, with a nod to Walter Hall, Adam said the biggest restoration lesson learned thus far has been to ‘listen to Walter’ when in doubt! “Many times, when we forced our preconception onto a restoration dilemma, it failed, and we ended up putting things back the way Walter intended.”
With their full restoration vision in sight, Adam said there is now a sense of accomplishment with peoples’ responses of awe when they step inside. “Many people have a predisposed impression of what a building like this is like to live in — damp, dark, dirty. This is clearly based on the decades Lynn Hall sat vacant as it began to fall back into the hillside.”
To those who knew the building way back when, the changes today are striking, he said. “When we discuss the tenets of this type of architecture and the emotion it elicits with compressed ceilings, fluid levels and windows that used to blur the interior/exterior exchange — visitors have a new appreciation for all we have done.”
From end-to-end, Adam said there is a tremendous sense of satisfaction when people come through. “When we give a tour, people tend to have a renewed pride that this building was envisioned by a local son – Walter Hall,” said Adam. “Restoring Lynn Hall to its original grandeur is our tribute to Walter and Raymond Viner Hall –– and the timelessness of mid-century design.”
So has the restoration mission been accomplished in full? “We are always hesitant to answer that question as a building like this is never complete,” cautions Adam. “I would say we are two-thirds completed. All the major infrastructure is done except for a section of roof over the family apartment area.” He is also quick to point out that the eight-inch-thick poured concrete roofs that cantilever out of the hillside have been resurfaced and made into “living roofs” with planters.
And the place (still) never fails to attract attention. Adam chuckles as he talks of motorists who hit their brakes and pull off the highway to take a closer look. “We see it happen all the time as we watch traffic along Route 6 from our upstairs windows.”
THE HALL FAMILY LEGACY
With few family members left, Doug Hall, who used to play in that big flagstone quarry out behind Lynn Hall, who mowed the lawn and washed the windows, who decorated the Lynn Hall Christmas tree with those vintage Shiny Bright ornaments, considers himself fortunate to have called Lynn Hall “home” in his lifetime.
“I really did not know how lucky I was at the time,” said Doug. “Looking back at what my ancestors did, it just blows me away!”
Mysteriously, it is not totally clear how the name “Lynn” Hall came about.
It is said that Walter named it in honor of his mother, Elnora Hall (1843-1928), also known as Lynn and Nora.
Yet, another suggests the name Lynn came from Walter’s wife Beda’s uncle who raised Beda (1879-1934) when she emigrated from Sweden. The uncle’s last name was Lindholm. Walter would tinker with the spelling over the years, adding an “e” at the end before finally settling on the Americanized version of Lynn.
Shortly after Beda’s death in 1934, Walter broke ground for Lynn Hall and, as a lasting tribute, he dedicated Lynn Hall to her memory.
THE EVERLASTING DEBATE
In some circles, a debate continues: which came first, Lynn Hall or Fallingwater?
Did Walter ‘borrow’ the idea for Lynn Hall? What impact did Lynn Hall have on Fallingwater?
Clearly, documents and history show that Walter’s ideas were influenced by Wright and that he had traveled to Buffalo to study Wright’s design of the Darwin Martin House and other ‘Wrightian’ creations. However, Walter and son Raymond Viner Hall were not merely Frank Lloyd Wright imitators; they pushed to further their own design ideals.
Wright conceived Fallingwater’s design in July,1935, finished it in September, and presented it to Edgar Kaufmann in October of that year. Fallingwater construction got underway in June 1936 and was completed in 1937. Walter had broken ground for Lynn Hall back in 1934.
According to the Cornell University School of Architecture, some of Fallingwater’s flagstones came from the stone quarry behind Lynn Hall, with Walter’s brother Howard delivering a truckload or two to Fallingwater.
No doubt, the Hall’s places in history are symbolically etched in stone and in no way diminish the many contributions to Fallingwater or the creation of a unique building like Lynn Hall.
There is no mystery that Walter Hall played a huge part in the creation of Fallingwater and was the prime executor and maestro of Fallingwater’s masonry style.
Lynn Hall was officially entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 2007 with the following notation in the Historical Places Designation document:
“Lynn Hall is an expression of understanding of ‘Wrightian’ design principles, making it significant on its own, resulting in a lasting architectural legacy. Lynn Hall retains integrity as an important example of Pennsylvania modernistic architecture.”
Author: Ed Byers A retired radio and TV newscaster, newspaper writer and corporate communications/media relations manager, Ed Byers is past President of the Associated Press Radio-TV Broadcasters Association and The Press Club of Cleveland. He is a former Forest County resident and current seasonal resident in the nearby Allegheny National Forest.