There has been so much written and said about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, that I risk repeating often-told stories about both the man and the house. But, they are good stories…
My wife and I spent a warm June day in the rocky southern Pennsylvania forest visiting the spirit of the idiosyncratic architect, whose creation here springs from a hillside as a series of “reinforced concrete trays” over the rolling cascades of Bear Run Creek. We had a hard time leaving it behind to head home.
Wright built the house for respected Pittsburgh merchant and civic leader, Edgar Kaufmann. Spending nearly a year nursing his ideas, the architect, using mostly local labor and sandstone, started construction in April 1936, and by December of the next year the Kaufmanns were moving in; acclaim for the house was immediate. By then, nearing 70, Wright’s design re-ignited an ebbing career that was to last another two decades, but more importantly, it served as proof that his core belief in “organic architecture” was not merely a catchphrase. The late Philip Johnson—a great rival of Wright’s—called Fallingwater, “the greatest house of the 20th century.”
Kaufmann purchased the land on which Fallingwater was built—about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh—as a personal refuge from the noises and smells of the big city, and for years encouraged his employees to use the property as a vacation spot. By 1921, he and his family were spending weekends there in a rustic pre-fabricated “cottage” they called “The Hang Over.” It had no running water, plumbing, or electricity.
First meeting the architect on a visit to Wright’s home and studio (Taliesin) near Spring Green, Wisconsin, where their son, Edgar jr. (he preferred the lower case in his name) had served as an apprentice, Kaufmann, and his wife, Liliane, had both the means and aesthetic interest in hiring the eccentric Wright to build a “retreat” for them.
Ironically, it was the younger Kaufmann who first used the language so often associated with what would become Fallingwater. In reference to natural architectural design he said, Wright’s concepts, “flowed into my mind like the first trickle of irrigation in a desert land.”
Most of the tales about the house and the often-contentious relationship between Wright and the elder Kaufmann—who more than held his own with the bossy architect—are true. Wright invested considerable time in contemplating the design, but actually spent only a few hours hurriedly drafting the four levels of the house on a single summer day in 1935 as Kaufmann drove from Milwaukee to Taliesin. “Come right along, E.J.,” Wright supposedly told him on the telephone before he began to work, “We’re ready for you.”
Kaufmann first believed he was reviewing months of Wright’s labor, but was kept busy in a leisurely lunch and with small talk while apprentices touched up the just-finished drawings. Yet, Wright was not creating on the spur of the moment; all of his hours of envisioning the project were realized as he maintained a running dialogue with those who watched him feverishly work at the drafting table. Apprentice Edward Tafel later said, “The design just poured out of him.”
Wright and Kaufmann—who maintained their friendship until the latter died in 1955—entered into many projects, mostly civic and most unrealized. Yet they argued about the amount of structural and reinforcing steel that Fallingwater needed to anchor and support its extended cantilevered terraces; Kaufman wanted more, and Wright less. Kaufman won out, and had he not it is probable that the house would have crumbled into Bear Run.
In reply to a hasty note that Wright dashed off after discovering changes to his plans, Kaufmann mimicked the architect’s tone, writing, “I have put so much confidence and enthusiasm behind this whole project in my limited way, to help the fulfillment of your effort that if I do not have your confidence in the matter—to hell with the whole thing.”.”
It is also true that Kaufman believed that Wright would design the home to sit below the gorgeous falls so that those inside could look upstream toward the rolling water. Instead, Wright told Kaufman, “I want you to live with your waterfall, not just look at it.”
And so, Wright planned for the terraces to extend out over the stream, similar to the branches of a tree or the shelves of stone that Bear Run had carved over the ages. Ironically, little of the falls can actually be seen by those in the house; the architect felt that if it were clearly visible all the time, it would soon become unappreciated. But, the Kaufmanns did, indeed, “live with their waterfall,” and its flowing poetry can be heard in every room of the house.
Despite enormous financial success and a keen intellect, Kaufmann was somewhat insecure about being considered by some as simply rich. He enjoyed Bear Run and his crude cabin and originally told Wright that he would spend no more than $20,000 on the new weekend house, still quite an investment considering that the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Instead, after seeing what Wright had in mind, Kaufman told him, “Don’t change a thing.”
The construction eventually cost no less than $155,000—nearly $3 million in today’s dollars—and, of course, like most of Wright designs, has continued to present expensive maintenance challenges. It was reported that the Kaufmanns experienced some 50 leaks in the years they occupied the house and that Liliane often complained about a lack of closet space and curtains.
All other stories aside, the time we spent at Fallingwater was magical, and a crowded parking lot and visitor’s center belied its feeling of solitude and serenity. The short walk to the house down a sloping shaded ramp and graveled path is analogous to Wright’s fabled narrow stairways and halls, and it reveals, first the roar of Bear Run’s waters, then the buff and glass and Cherokee red of the house; it was as if we were slowly opening a gift.
Strict, to keep unwanted hands off Fallingwater’s treasures, our tour guide reminded those in our small group to avoid leaning against, sitting on, or touching anything. My camera, its lens capped while inside the house, had to be kept centered around my neck to keep it from banging into furniture or woodwork. The ceilings, typically low, actually had me instinctively stooping in several doorways, yet the more utilitarian areas of the house serve as mere passageways into great open spaces, flooded with natural light and the cadences of moving water.
Unlike most other Wright designs, the majority of the items in Fallingwater—including furniture—are original. Among them a pair of Diego Rivera paintings (the Kaufmanns knew the artist and his wife, Freda Kahlo), a Japanese woodcut that Wright had gifted to his friends for Christmas in 1937, and, of course, chairs, desks, and lamps of Wright’s own design. The Kaufmanns maintained a keen passion for the arts, and the house is a trove of wonders, yet at least one virtue is not an artifact at all like their vases and sculptures.
In his earliest reveries about Fallingwater’s design (the architect chose the name himself), Wright decided to employ the very boulder on which the Kaufmanns often sat above the falls: “The rock on which E.J. sits will be the hearth, coming right out of the floor, the fire burning just behind it,” he said.
Perhaps my favorite room in the house—planned as a sun-filled nook of a study for Edgar jr.— serves, along with its adjoining outside stairway entrance and narrow shaded terrace, as most of the top floor; it helps to counterbalance Wright’s design. From there, we crossed a sky-lit “bridge,” a slim but airy walkway that leads to a small three-room guesthouse located above the main home, nearly at the crest of the hill. A 30-foot-long spring-fed pool sits slightly above that house, and it is from there—still well within hearing range of the soothing stream—that we saw native outcroppings of rhododendrons and laurel working toward late-spring bloom as water dripped from crevices in the stone.
Edgar jr. eventually entrusted Fallingwater to the non-profit Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963; he continued to visit even as tours of the house were beginning, and died in 1989. With great foresight, he realized most that Fallingwater needed to be a gift, for he shared with his parents a firm belief that good design and tasteful art were public virtues. His partner, architect Paul Mayen, designed the beautiful visitor’s center in 1981.
A description of the house may be summed up best by the Conservancy itself, which notes that it is “…more than the sum of its parts: the architect, the client, the architecture, the art, the land and the period.”
That is true, but even more, I like Wright biographer Merle Secrest’s thoughts: “…he, no doubt, was also thinking of the background splash of water, the rustle of wind moving through the boughs, the shifting patterns of dappled light and shade, the feeling of being deep in a cave, sheltered by low ceilings and overhanging eaves, and the sense of rocks behind, as one sat beside a vast and friendly fire…”
You can contact Mike Lunsford at firstname.lastname@example.org; his webpage is at www.mikelunsford.com. To learn more about the life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright, the writer suggests Meryle Secrest’s “Frank Lloyd Wright, A Biography” (1992, Harper Collins). For a brief, but fascinating and colorful account of the house, he recommends “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater,” an inexpensive guidebook published by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.