The Story of Lynn Hall

Just an hour south of Ellicottville tucked into the hillside along Route 6 lies a surprising work of architecture that history almost forgot - that is, until June of 2013 when Gary and Sue DeVore began researching and restoring the building that paved the way for Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater. The expansive flat-roofed building with its impressive stonework lies just outside of Port Allegany, PA and is known as Lynn Hall. Built in the 1930s by Walter J. Hall, Lynn Hall is a striking example of the Prairie School of design that characterized much of early 20th century architecture, especially in the Midwest. That Wright’s Fallingwater, the most famous example of prairie design, has its roots in Port Allegany is much more than an interesting coincidence; it is evidence that no single family had quite as much influence on northwestern Pennsylvania architecture as the Hall family.

The Hall family has a long history of building that started with Walter’s grandfather, Paul Hall, who settled in northern Pennsylvania to take advantage of the area’s vast acreage of virgin timber in the early 19th century. His son, John (Walter’s father), continued working with lumber through his planing mill and construction business which was based in Port Allegany. John’s sons, Walter and Howard, grew up in the family business and went on to become self-taught designers/builders who, according to historical records, built some forty homes in the Port Allegany area by the early 1900s.

In the early 1930s, Walter began constructing a large building that would serve as a restaurant, dance hall, and eventually an office for Walter and his architect son, Raymond Viner Hall. According to Gary DeVore, Lynn Hall’s true namesake is uncertain, although many believe that the building was named for Hall’s mother. Lynn Hall opened for business in 1935, where it was the site of numerous dinners and parties.

Around this time, Wright began his relationship with Edgar Kauffman, owner of the well-known Kaufmann Department Stores in Pittsburgh. In 1936, Wright designed Fallingwater for Kaufmann at Bear Run, about forty miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Fallingwater, like Lynn Hall, embodies the characteristics of prairie design, with its horizontal lines, flat roof, and overhanging eves. At the time, Wright struggled to find a master builder who was experienced in this distinctly American style and willing to take on the challenge of Fallingwater. According to some historians, Edgar Kaufmann’s son saw Lynn Hall while traveling through northwestern PA and alerted Wright to the building’s similarity to Wright’s design. Wright reached out to Hall and asked him to be his contractor, thus catapulting Hall’s career.

Just like he did with Lynn Hall, Hall implemented organic engineering in his interpretation of Wright’s design, thus creating the iconic home that seems to blend right into its natural surroundings. Native stone and concrete were the primary building materials, and after several weeks of planning, the famous cantilever was built to extend eighteen feet over Bear Run’s waterfalls.

Upon the completion of Fallingwater, Wright asked Hall to become his primary builder, but Hall declined. Instead, Hall returned to a very successful career in Port Allegany, where he and his son worked together to design and build 120 homes, and more than a dozen schools and other public buildings in northwestern PA. During this time, Lynn Hall continued to host many parties and dinners throughout the 1930s and 1940s, although the business suffered to an extent during World War II. Hall, who lived in the small cottage adjacent to the main building, eventually used Lynn Hall primarily for his and his son’s design/building company through the 1950s. Hall passed away in 1952, but his son continued his architectural work for several more years. After Raymond passed away in 1981, Lynn Hall was left to family members, although the building sat vacant, for the most part, until the DeVores purchased it in 2013.

Reflecting on the state of Lynn Hall just three years ago, Gary remarked, "It was pretty close to being gone. The roof was leaking, water was percolating down through the building, and there was lots of mildew and rotten sections. The rooms were filled with old furniture, paperwork and belongings that were all wet. But we saw the stonework, we saw the slate, and we knew it had potential. A lot of [this process] is just luck. We’ve been very lucky that the building is in better shape than we thought.”

One of the first steps in the restoration process was the renovation of the cottage, which was originally the pumphouse that supplied the main building with water. Walter later turned this into the cottage where he lived, and where the DeVores live now. Because of the cottage’s unique design, which is in keeping with the style of Lynn Hall, it is listed on the National Historic Register along with Lynn Hall.

Other key steps of the restoration process included the removal of the wet and rotting interior, as well as the overgrown pine trees that contributed to the decay of the roof. DeVore explained, “We're finding a much more solid building than we originally thought was there. It was a recycled building, as Walter used part of a factory and a barn in building Lynn Hall. You have to remember that it was the Great Depression, and back then, people didn't just take down old buildings. They took them apart and reused as much as they could. Even a lot of the main roof’s support beams are from abandoned railroads.”

The DeVores are no strangers to the arduous work of restoring buildings that were all but forgotten. The couple, who are now retired, have restored a Mississippi farmhouse and before that, a steamboat. According to DeVore, “My wife and I do 90% of the work ourselves, but we hire contractors to do what we can't do. We’re fortunate to have friends in the trades who have been a great help, too. It's really just a matter of staying cost effective. By doing our own work, we're keeping things economically viable.” Keeping costs to a minimum is a key part of the process, as the DeVores plan to restore Lynn Hall to its original purpose as a public gathering place and look for someone to run the business. In DeVore’s words, “Our real love is the restoration process, and we'll look for someone who loves Lynn Hall as much as we do to take it over!"

As of this spring, the main building is approximately two-thirds of the way restored. While the DeVores have done most of the work themselves, along with the help of family and friends, others including a Girl Scout troop and church group have helped. In April, a group of thirty-five graduate students from Cornell University’s architectural planning department came to Lynn Hall for a work weekend. Each year, the department does an annual spring project, and the DeVores are pleased that this year, they chose Lynn Hall. Students helped put up cork and continue work on the patio and the roof, thus becoming part of the hall’s great history.

At this point, the DeVores anticipate a much earlier completion date than the original five to seven year timeline, as the building has much less structural damage than was believed to be the case in 2013. Those interested in the history of Lynn Hall and the progress of the restoration are encouraged to visit the website that the DeVores created for their project, www.lynnhall-restoration.com. There, visitors can see photographs of the original hall and the changes it has undergone since the 1930s.

Now, more than 7,000 hours of labor later, Lynn Hall can once again be seen as she was when the first guests stepped inside, as the obstructive trees have been removed and the exterior is cleaned and restored. Thanks to the dedicated work of the DeVores, Walter Hall’s masterpiece, considered the original Fallingwater, will once again welcome guests to share in its remarkable history.

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