Exhausted after loading the rental truck that morning in Michigan, and then driving for many hours, my friend Tom and I decided to pull off and get a room. The next morning, when I went for a walk in search of coffee, I saw a sign on the road, “Fallingwater 17 miles.” As fate would have it, we were in Donegal, PA, just southeast of Pittsburgh and directly north of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous building. Never one to shirk an opportunity, on returning to the motel I announced, “Tom, we’re taking a little detour.” We had all day to get to my sister’s house in Madison, VA (just east of Shenandoah National Park), so we had plenty of time. I had been to Fallingwater with my father many years earlier, but a second viewing of perhaps the most photographed and visited home in America was not to be missed.

During the 1930’s Wright’s career was in a stall. Because of the depression, there was little if any building going on, let alone work for a controversial and eccentric architect like Wright. To supplement his income Wright began the Taliesin Fellowship, a sort of school/community of students who spent more time building new additions to Taliesin and working in the gardens than designing buildings. One such protege was Edgar Kaufmann Jr., the son of a wealthy Pittsburgh department store owner.

While visiting their son at Taliesin, the Kaufmanns found themselves so charmed by Wright that they later commissioned him to design a summer home for them on a piece of land they owned in rural Pennsylvania. The property is located between Stewart and Springfield (map), on Bear Run, a small stream running through the hilly countryside. The Kaufmann family would camp there in the summer to escape city life, and enjoyed sunbathing on a large boulder and swimming in the pools below the waterfall. As they were getting older, they decided something a little more permanent than tents was called for.

As the story goes, Kaufmann asked Wright to design a house with a view of the falls, but on visiting the site the architect promptly rejected the idea. Instead, he anchored the building into the rocky hillside and cantilevered the different levels of the home so they seemed to hover over the falls and stream that flows directly beneath it. The boulder, he decided, would become the hearth and center of the home (a theme prevalent in almost every one of Wright’s designs), so that the natural formation of the site would become an integral part of the interior of the house. This outside-in concept is further reinforced by the bands of floor to ceiling glass, which could hardly be called windows, that wrap around three walls on the downstream side of the building. Exterior terraces are nearly equal to the amount of interior space on each level.

As if to prove his genious, Wright even included a suspended staircase that drops down from the main living space above the falls so you can descend and dip your toes in the water as it flows by.

Wright was known to formulate his ideas in his head, and after some time had elapsed Kaufmann grew anxious waiting for a response. After hearing about it in a letter, it is said Wright sat down and in less than three hours he had the whole thing down on paper. As was typical in Wright’s projects, there was additional friction between architect and client. The design was so unorthodox that Kaufmann hired a consulting engineer to review the drawings. When Wright learned of this transgression he demanded the drawings be returned and the project halted. Kaufmann quickly smoothed things over and work continued through the completion of a guest house in 1939.

Edgar Kaufmann Jr. went on to a distinguished career of his own as Director of Industrial Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and later Adjunct Professor of Architecture and Art History at Columbia University. He inherited Fallingwater in 1955 following his father’s death. Fallingwater and the surrounding
estate were entrusted to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963.

The only practical way to get to the site is by car, although I imagine there may be bus tours that stop there. From DC (directions) it’s about a four hour drive, so it is possible to make it there and back in one day. Or, if you have plans to visit Pittsburgh or thereabouts, then I highly recommend stopping by for a guided tour.

2 Comments so far

  1. jenna (unregistered) on June 6th, 2006 @ 3:53 pm

    You inspired me!! i printed the directions..im gonna road trip out there this weekend! I have ALWAYS wanted to go. :-)

  2. Doug (unregistered) on June 6th, 2006 @ 3:57 pm

    Awesome, I was so hoping I would get this reaction from at least one person. Tell me about your trip when you get back…

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