Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Why Fallingwater Should be on Your Lifelist

Fallingwater was built between 1936 and 1939, but made it's everlasting mark on the American conscience in 1938 when it debuted on the cover of Time magazine. Photo: Lissa Brand

Visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is still a thrill for me, even though I have been there many times since my first visit in 1968. I first saw the home shortly after it was given to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy by Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., son of the original patrons, Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann. At the time, the house was little more than thirty years old, and I was 29. It struck me as a starkly modern masterpiece that deserved greater attention.

When I returned for a second visit a few years later, I found that the house and its adjacent guest cottage, also designed by Wright, had been transformed by the addition of a number of original possessions owned by the Kaufmann family. At first glance, these works, designed by Tiffany as well as other artists and artisans, seemed inappropriate for Wright’s architecture. Subsequent visits convinced me that the furnishings humanized the house and made it more accessible. It now seems like a place where real people lived, a place where I could live.

Now, more than forty years after my first visit, the house has been accepted as one of the key landmarks of modern architecture. Many critics, in fact, consider Fallingwater to be among the ten most significant buildings erected in the world during the last two centuries. Intervening developments in architecture both highlight the modernity of Wright’s design and demonstrate how it is rooted in the 1930s.

What I still find remarkable is how beautifully the structure is integrated into the natural setting that the Kaufmanns provided. From the beginning, the house was a surprise; instead of taking advantage of the view of the waterfall that was the centerpiece of the property, Wright built their house directly over the waterfall so that the best view of the waterfall now includes the house. When I stand downstream to view the house, I am always struck by the complexity of the design. After all these visits, I still cannot close my eyes and bring to mind the exact configuration of the terraces.

At the same time, the utter simplicity of the relationship between the building and nature is impressive. The broad horizontality of Wright’s simple, rectangular terraces reflects the wide ledges over which the water flows or drips, depending on the season and weather conditions. In contrast, the massive vertical element that centers the structure is constructed from stone quarried nearby that repeats the color and texture of the ledges. At the center of this core is the in-situ boulder that Wright left in place and used as the hearth for the living room fireplace, thereby rooting his design in the nature that inspired him. To maximize the Kaufmanns’ and their guests’ appreciation of the sounds of the waterfall and the cool humidity it brought, Wright used several different modern window treatments that must be seen in context to be fully appreciated.

Nearby is another house by Wright, the “deluxe Usonian” home built in 1956 for I.N. and Bernardine Hagan that is known as “Kentuck Knob.” A visit to the two homes on the same day highlights their differences and reveals the change in Wright’s style from the 1930s to the 1950s. At Kentuck Knob the kitchen replaces the fireplace as the center of the home and domestic life, while the plan is based on the hexagon rather than the rectangle. The Hagans had presumed Wright would build their house on top of the small mountain they owned, but instead he placed it below the summit, believing, as at Fallingwater, that a beautiful view should never be taken for granted.

The stories of the commissions of Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob cannot be separated from the history of Pittsburgh’s vital business and industrial community. The contributions of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Paul Mellon to education, art, and culture are known worldwide. Edgar Kaufmann, owner of the city’s largest and most successful department store, commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a number of additional projects that were not built. These include a massive structure for the Pittsburgh Point, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio, and an apartment house overlooking the Point. As a Pittsburgher, I can only lament that these visions were never fulfilled.