Frank Lloyd Wright’s Masterpiece in Pennsylvania : Fallingwater--Where Man and Nature Live in Harmony
Hidden in a rhododendron thicket in southwestern Pennsylvania, its terraces soaring over a cascading waterfall, is a breathtaking house acknowledged as Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece.
Fallingwater, designed 50 years ago, has been described as the clearest expression of Wright’s ideal that man can live in harmony with nature. Readers of the American Institute of Architects Journal chose it as the best American building of the last 125 years.
“It certainly was a milestone in Wright’s own career,” said architect Stanley Abercrombie, editor of Interior Design, who has written several articles about Fallingwater. “It’s one of the few American masterpieces.”
The house was designed as a summer retreat for Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann.
“When Wright came to the site he appreciated the powerful sound of the falls, the vitality of the young forest, the dramatic rock ledges and boulders,” Edgar J. Kaufmann Jr., son of the store owner, wrote in 1977.
“But Wright’s insight penetrated more deeply. He understood that people were creatures of nature, hence an architecture which conformed to nature would conform to what was basic in people,” Kaufmann wrote.
The backbone of the house is a four-story chimney built of layers of hard gray sandstone anchoring cantilevered terraces made of reinforced concrete, the architect’s first use of the material in a residence.
‘Modernity and Naturalism’
“It’s a wonderful building in the way that it combines modern technology and modern conceits, the idea of big cantilevers and rather acrobatic structures, with a close attention to the site and the way the building and the site are related,” Abercrombie said.
“The use of materials points out that contrast between modernity and naturalism,” he said.
The cantilever, a favorite technique of Wright’s, allows structures to hang in the air without visible support. He likened it to outstretched arms or tree limbs growing from trunks.
Waterfall Can Be Heard
Below the first-floor living room and two terraces, Bear Run flows over a waterfall that can be heard throughout the house.
“There in a beautiful forest was a solid, high rock ledge rising beside a waterfall, and the natural thing seemed to be to cantilever the house from that rock bank over the falling water,” Wright said in 1953.
Wright met Kaufmann through Edgar Kaufmann Jr., who joined the architect in Wisconsin in October, 1934. The elder Kaufmann, then 49, eventually asked Wright to design a weekend house and in 1935 Wright visited Bear Run and began drawing plans.
Cost Was $155,000
Kaufmann hoped the project would cost between $20,000 and $30,000--the final cost for the house and a guest house was $155,000--and pressed Wright for a design.
Wright, then 68, made his first sketches in September, 1935, and his apprentices recalled that Kaufmann was surprised to find it overhanging the waterfall rather than facing it.
In December, workers began quarrying rock from a nearby hill and detailed drawings were finished a month later.
Use of Boulder Criticized
At Kaufmann’s request, a Pittsburgh engineering firm examined the plans and criticized the use of a large boulder as part of the foundation, the house’s proximity to the stream and the questionable stability of the terraces.
“In our opinion there could be no feeling of complete safety and consequently we recommend that the proposed site not be used for any important structure,” the engineers wrote.
Engineering Reports Buried
Kaufmann eventually buried the reports behind a stone in a wall beside the dining table, according to Donald Hoffman, author of “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.”
As Fallingwater was being built, Wright incorporated two of Kaufmann’s suggestions, one of which added dramatically to the design.
Kaufmann suggested allowing the foundation boulder, used as the living room hearth, to jut into the room instead of being trimmed flush with the floor. It stretches about seven feet, rising 10 inches above the floor level.
An Immediate Success
The Kaufmanns began using Fallingwater in November, 1937, and it quickly became known as one of Wright’s major successes, one in which interior details harmonized with the overall design.
For example, stairways throughout the house reflect the action of the waterfall, particularly steps that drop from the living room to the level of the creek.
Black Walnut Woodwork
All the interior woodwork was custom-built by Gillen Woodwork Corp. of Milwaukee, using ship-quality black walnut to resist warping from the humidity of the falls, Hoffman wrote.
Wright chose veneers with strong horizontal streaks that repeated one of the basic rhythms of the house.
Inside the hallways, ceilings are low and walls are stone, creating the feeling that “people inside are sheltered as in a deep cave, secure in the sense of hill behind them,” the younger Kaufmann wrote.
Living There an ‘Education’
Kaufmann’s wife, Liliane, who died in September, 1952, once told Wright in a birthday greeting that “living in a house built by you has been my one education.”
Her husband continued to use Fallingwater until his death in April, 1955, and their son visited on weekends until he transferred ownership to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963.
The family agreed in the 1950s that one day the house should be made available to the public, he said.
‘A Work by Man for Man’
“Such a place cannot be possessed. It is a work by man for man, not by a man for a man,” the younger Kaufmann said when he presented Fallingwater to the conservancy in October, 1963.
The organization, a land trust that has preserved 90,000 acres in western Pennsylvania, owns 4,000 acres of forest, rhododendron thickets and trails around Fallingwater.
More than 70,000 people each year visit the Fayette County site, a two-hour drive from Pittsburgh, and it has become the main source of new members for the conservancy.
Supports Were Added
In the years immediately after Fallingwater was built, the terraces settled slightly and engineers in the 1950s found window frames no longer straight. Supports were carefully added to some of the terraces, some roofs were rebuilt and the stairs to the creek from the living room were reinforced.
For Fallingwater’s 50th anniversary, the conservancy is planning to publish a book of color photographs and National Geographic will be filming a public television special. Both should continue to spread Fallingwater’s fame.
“It’s just a magnificent accomplishment,” Abercrombie said.