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Fallingwater: Natural Living Extraordinaire

By: Janice Lane Palko

There is something embedded into the human psyche that makes us long to be one with nature. It’s why we built tree houses when we were kids, why we go camping, and why we drive hundreds of miles to spend time next to the ocean.  Frank Lloyd Wright tapped into that longing when he designed Fallingwater.

Fallingwater is regarded as one of the legendary architect’s best works if not the best. Also known as the Kaufmann House, Fallingwater is located in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, 43 miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh. This unique home was designed as a weekend retreat in 1935 for Liliane and Edgar J. Kaufmann, the owner of Kaufmann’s Department Store.

In the days before air-conditioning, the wealthy often withdrew to the cooler mountains to escape the summer heat in the city. In the early 1900s many of the major department stores also operated summer camps for their employees. Joseph Horne Company had a camp where Avonworth Community Park is now located on Camp Horne Road. The Kaufmann family owned a similar camp in the Laurel Highlands near Mill Run. When the Depression came, many of those camps fell into disrepair.

In 1935, Edgar Kaufmann engaged Frank Lloyd Wright after Kaufmann’s son, Edgar jr. (he preferred the lower case) had taken an apprenticeship at Taliesin, Wright’s architecture program and had admired Wright’s work. At 67, many thought the renowned architect’s best works were behind him. Nevertheless, the Kaufmann family consulted with him to build them a new summer retreat. On their property flowed the stream, Bear Run, which included a stair-step waterfall. The Kaufmann’s expressed their love for the waterfall to Wright when he visited the site, and they believed that Wright would design them a home that had a view of the falls. However, Wright astounded the Kaufmann’s not with a home near the falls but with one built over them. It is believed that he designed the home in only a few hours.

The home, perched 30 feet above the falls, is composed of stacked cantilevers anchored to a central stone chimney, resulting in a merger of the indoors with the outdoors. Building a home over a waterfall in a remote area in the 1930s was no easy task, and Wright, Kaufmann, and the construction contractor often fell into conflict. The main house was completed in 1937. A guest house, servants’ quarters, and garage were eventually added. It is estimated that the entire project cost $155,000, which today would be equivalent to nearly $3 million.

Wright not only designed the home but also the furnishings. And to keep that feeling of bringing the outdoors inside, he used polished stones for the floors and large expanses of plate glass for windows that gave the illusion of there being no barrier between the living quarters and the woods outside.

Not only did the design of the home astonish the Kaufmann’s, but it also captivated the world’s imagination. In 1937, Wright appeared on the cover of Time with a drawing of Fallingwater. In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City hosted a traveling exhibition called A New House by Frank Lloyd Wright. Fallingwater also was featured in Life and Architectural Forum.

The Kaufmann’s enjoyed their unique home until 1952 when Liliane Kaufmann died. It was then that Edgar and his son discussed what would become of Fallingwater. Three years later, Edgar Sr. died and for a while Edgar jr., who was living in New York City, came to the house, but those visits became more infrequent until he decided that it would be best for Fallingwater to become a public resource.

On October 29, 1963, Edgar Kaufmann jr. turned Fallingwater over to the care of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. The home was opened to the public in 1964. Today approximately 180,000 visitors come annually to view the house built over the falls. Nearly 5.7 million have visited it since it became a public attraction.

The conservancy has taken extensive measures to preserve and restore Fallingwater. Most engineers would advise against building on a waterfall as they would not provide the sturdiest of foundations. In the 1990s and early into the 2000s, work was done to reinforce the cantilevers.

Fallingwater became a National Historic Landmark in 1976. It was named a Commonwealth Treasure by the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission in 2000.

To tour Fallingwater, you need to purchase a ticket in advance. For more information, visit www.fallingwater.org.

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