Travel Story: We Visit Fallingwater

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater

Let me start backwards with stories of our Way Down South trip, that is to say, start at the end, while the images and sounds and smells from our special day at Fallingwater haven’t yet faded or grown too stale. We drove out of our way to tour this exquisite Frank Lloyd Wright house, widely considered his magnum opus, at the tail end of ten ambitious travel days that took us first a tad south of Roanoke on our way to Knoxville, thence to Chattanooga for a few days, back to Knoxville, onward to Kingsport in upper East Tennessee, to Uniontown and then to Mill Run, Pennsylvania, and finally to Scranton; we pulled into our Vermontish driveway last Sunday afternoon, road weary but still somehow renewed, and exceptionally happy to see one Scout-the-Goldapeake Retriever.

I owe my Fallingwater longing to my longtime Knoxville friend Emily, who probably has no inkling she planted this little seed of curiosity in my head so many years ago when she came home from a tour extolling its virtues. Here’s a fun little coincidence: Right at the tail end of our two hours of guided exploration, a Fallingwater staffer explained the house (and other Wright buildings) were being considered at that precise moment for the coveted United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage designation. And not surprisingly, as we noted in yesterday’s headlines, they made the cut. Turns out the Chef and I visited a UNESCO World Heritage site on our vacation.

Bear Run Stream just before it reaches the house

Bridge over Bear Run leading to Fallingwater, with Mrs. Kaufman’s plunge pool and the Mother and Child sculpture just visible

A brief history: Around 1934 or thereabouts Edgar Jonas and Lillian Sarah Kaufmann enlisted Frank Lloyd Wright to build Fallingwater as a weekend retreat for themselves and their son, Edgar Jr. (an adult by then). They already owned the property and had long used it as a camp for themselves and the employees of Kaufmann’s, their large department store in downtown Pittsburg. But the camp consisted of wood buildings without electricity or running water: The Kaufmanns wanted something more substantial and permanent for themselves and their guests. Wright made only two trips to the property before he started sketching plans, where he drew inspiration for his design from the natural beauty of the property. But the house, in all its Frank Lloyd Wright glory, gives you claustrophobia: the hallways are perilously narrow, the ceilings too low in all but the open living area (yep, open concept, unheard of in the 1930s). Wright wanted the rooms to draw the eye towards the windows, most of them exquisite southern exposure windows—and ultimately to nudge the family and their guests outside to enjoy the wondrous natural environment. That is certainly one way to do it.

The house is built directly over Bear Run Stream, and its waterfalls. On the day we toured it, most of the windows were open; it was hot and humid outside and inside the house, where a number of fans were kept going full tilt. Did the Kaufmanns deal constantly with moisture in the house—and mold and mildew? It was a thing I’d always wanted to know. Yes, said our docent: When they arrived on the weekend, the Kaufmanns would have noticed that distinctive smell right away. It’s not so noticeable now: The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy owns and maintains the house and pours substantial resources into keeping it dry. The water, though, threatens perennially to win an ongoing battle with conservators. But the water is the thing, after all, and you can hear its roar wherever you happen to stand inside the house. Writer Donald Hoffman wastes no time getting to the stream and the landscape in his Fallingwater history, which opens like this:

Of course the stream itself, which is called Bear Run, came first. Slight and swift and not very easy to find, Bear Run is fed by mountain streams, and its entire course is only four miles. It flickers down the western slopes of the ridge called Laurel Hill to join the Youghiogheny River, and it moves fast because it falls from about 2500 feet above sea level to about 1070 feet.

Thing is, said a volunteer the day we toured, last year Pennsylvania had twice the amount of rainfall it normally sees. The bronze Mother and Child statuary that watches over Mrs. Kaufmann’s plunge pool at the bottom of the steps (Jacques Lipchitz, 1941) was swept away last year, saved before plunging over the falls; it sustained damage and was repaired, now chained in place as a safety measure.

Inside the house I shot many, many photos in the time I had, and a few of them came out well. But it is indeed dark inside, even on a sunny day like it was last Saturday, and there’s no flash photography allowed. I did what I could to capture the elements of the house that interested me most.

Fallingwater kitchen, corner detail; it is a surprisingly tiny kitchen, but most everything in it, with only a couple of exceptions, is original and belonged to the Kaufmanns

Chaise lounges on one of the many terraces

Built-in shelves over the dining area, which in turn is part of the large, open living and entertaining space Wright envisioned

Coffee table detail in the living space

Buddha, unknown artist, 906-1127, (Sung Dynasty); iron. This sculpture rests on the west terrace off the living room.

Living room, southern exposure

Living room hatch leading to the steps for Bear Run Stream access

Bottom step to stream

The wine kettle is a curiosity. Wright imagined the Kaufmanns would use it for mulled wine and other similar drinks. In reality, they used it only once, and the wine required pre-heating on the stove before adding it to the kettle over the fire to bring it up to the correct temperature. The Chef made several observations about why the kettle didn’t work, including the thickness of the cast iron and how high the flame should be to effectively heat the wine. Still, it’s a cool idea and a neat design. In fact, Wright designed so many elements in the house to articulate smoothly with surrounding architectural features.

A window in Mr. Kaufmann, Sr.’s study, with a desk made to accommodate it in the open position

Interior view of the famous shaft of windows

Exterior view

Brass hardware detail on a bedroom window

Stairs and terrace outside Mr. Kaufmann, Jr.’s bedroom

Swimming pool at the guest house

Mr. Kaufmann said he wanted to be able to swim breast stroke laps, and Mrs. Kaufmann’s punge pool was not spacious enough to allow it. So when the guest house was built, above and behind the main house, and accessible up a concourse of stairs, a larger swimming pool was laid into the hillside. Still, it’s tiny as measured by just about any standards: You could imagine pushing off one side, making a single stroke, and then reaching the other side. Not much of a workout. The water is stream fed, here and down below at the plunge pool, at a brisk 56 degrees during our visit. And the pool and gardens around it are simply beautiful.

Pool flowers

The substantial amount of concrete used to cantilever the house over the stream was mixed in small, gas-powered mixers on site and carried to the molds a wheelbarrow load at a time. This was a monumental undertaking, and crews had to work quickly mixing and pouring the cement until a section was finished, over stretches as long as 24 hours. The WPC maintains and repairs the concrete, replacing sections as needed, but with a more modern preparation with aggregate that binds better than the original smooth, round river rock that was used when the house was built.

After poring over the black and white photos in my Fallingwater history book, I was surprised at the warmth of its actual colors. The peachy-yellow hue in the concrete is called ochre, a compromise Wright made when the Kaufmanns objected to his original suggestion of gold leaf on the concrete. He took his inspiration for the ochre from the underside of a fallen rhododendron leaf, which is a pale, yellowish color. Rhododendrons are everywhere on the property, in full bloom on the day of our visit.

If you visit Fallingwater:

  • You owe it to yourself to take the guided tour. It’s expensive and completely worth it. You’ll have to drag yourself out of bed early to get there, but the tradeoff is a personalized tour, lots of opps to to ask questions, and permission to photograph the house interiors—forbidden to guests on the regular tour.
  • Buy your tickets months in advance. We did, and on the day we made reservations, nabbed the two remaining slots.
  • Explore the grounds and hike a short way to the two viewing areas for breathtaking views of the house.
  • Admire the visitor center pavillion, designed by architect Paul Mayén, in a style sympathetic with Wright’s, but also cleverly camouflaged with the environment. While you’re there, take a spin through the gift shop. Sure, it’s filled with overpriced stuff you don’t need, but most of it bears a FLW thumbprint and the book collection is impressive.

I leave you with a shocking detail about Wright’s life, a thing nobody mentioned to us on our Fallingwater tour. One of my colleagues stumbled across his Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago while it was undergoing renovations, and took an unsanctioned spin through it. While he was telling me about this, he also mentioned that Wright had a mistress, who was murdered at Taliesin, his Wisconsin home, along with six others, including her two children; Wright was away in Chicago on business at the time.  What emerged on the tour of Fallingwater instead, was the story of a visionary with a bigger-than-life personality and the self-importance to match. Nothing new or unexpected in that story, but the challenge remains separating the life accomplishments of a genius from his tragically flawed character.  And sometimes that’s a tall order.

All photos in this post are the property of this author, for personal use only. Don’t steal—it ain’t nice.

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