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An architectural masterwork: Frank Lloyd Wright's vision flows through Fallingwater

Published: Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012 1:15 a.m. CDT
Caption
(MCT News Service)
Tourists appear on the terrace at Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa.
Caption
(MCT News Service)
The Summit Inn, built in 1907, is 11 miles from Fallingwater but from a different era.
Caption
(MCT News Service)
The Great Allegheny Passage, a 121-mile bicycle trail, passes through Ohiopyle State Park, just 3 miles from Fallingwater.

MILL RUN, Pa. – Masterpiece. Art. Perfection. Many fancy words and rapturous phrases have described Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous house.

It’s all true. But what is also true is that I kept thinking, wow, this house is not childproof. A 2-year-old could tumble out that low, unlocked window and fall to his death! A toddler would drown in that unfenced plunge pool! The railings aren’t high enough. The floor is too hard. And that giant open fireplace, what a safety issue. And where is the kitchen, anyway?

Obviously, I’m not the arbiter of architectural masterworks, only a hapless visitor with the pedestrian vision of a suburban housewife.

I do have to say that whoever designed the tour of Fallingwater must have been a man. You see the dining room, but not the kitchen, which is hidden away through a side door with its AGA stove and boring utilitarian uses. It’s not part of the regular tour, but in this day and age when chefs are celebrities and people swoon over cooktops, it should be.

I also noticed the incredible shortage of closet space. Where did they put the coats? The bathrooms are tiny. The single beds look as wide as a monk’s. And can you imagine people lounging on those little tweed floor pillows?

But ah, picky, picky. As I said, these are small quibbles. Fallingwater does have a few redeeming features. Such as, it’s built over a waterfall. It seems to hover in mid-air, over the water, cantilevered into the rock. Every stone is individually beautiful, every handmade desk a wonder, and a marvelous curving concrete canopy connecting the house to the guest suite is held up on only one side, as if by magic, with magic decorations that appear from one angle and disappear from another.

I have heard that some people weep when they see Fallingwater. I didn’t see anyone do that, but one man did wander away from our tour group to look out the window and got a reprimand. Maybe he cried, I don’t know.

About 5 million visitors have trooped through Fallingwater since it was bequeathed to the public in 1963, in a generous gesture by the Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh. Department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. and his wife, Liliane, hired Wright to build Fallingwater in 1936 on their wooded vacation property in the Laurel Highlands, where the family escaped the smoky city.

Wright, who at 69 found his career in the doldrums, took up the challenge. He designed the iconic house over a waterfall and stream. Luckily for him, the Kaufmanns were huge Wright fans and had an eye for design on their own. The house cost $155,000 to $120,000 over budget – and was famous even before it was finished.

Now owned and maintained by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the house appears exactly as it was – the Picasso, Hiroshige and Rivera prints and paintings on the walls, original furniture on the floor (including that Wright favorite, severe long built-in bench seating), Tiffany lamps, even the original record player. Not mentioned in the tour is the fact that the bones of Fallingwater have been knitted together more times than a prize fighter’s – and in 2002, major work was done with steel cables to prevent the cantilevered terraces from tumbling into the river.

Visitors on the regular tour cannot take photos inside. There is no touching or even standing near artwork or a rare butterfly chair. Small groups are escorted by tour guides and drift through the house like party guests looking for the host.

There are stories of ghosts here. I don’t believe them. This is a house of warmth. It is human scale, spun with lines, circles and grace. Wright’s stern steel-framed windows and flagstone floors, the odd and quirky stairs leading up and down, the narrow halls, sunny splashes, hidden terraces that jut into the forest, brown cabinets, red bedspreads, yellow mums – all are vivid and alive.

Today, Fallingwater is like polished old leather or a burnished autumn leaf. It was lived in. Books line the walls, especially in their son Edgar J. Kaufmann Jr.’s suite. One can picture him here, waking up in that little tiny bed, standing up and looking out the horizontal casement windows at the fall splendor around him, feeling part of the scenery, listening to the water fall.

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