There’s a missing element from the photos of Fallingwater in western Pennsylvania. The sound of Bear Run resounds through the trees as it races over rocks to meet the Youghiogheny River in the valley below Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece of organic architecture. Roaring waterfalls echo throughout the inside and outside space, impossible to capture in a photo.
Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann owned Pittsburgh’s largest department store, and they owned property ninety miles away in the Laurel Highlands, a part of the Appalachians. In the middle of the property, Bear Run flows over rocky waterfalls. The Kaufmanns brought Wright to the property in 1934. The roar must have left an imprint on the architect because when the Kaufmanns asked where they might build on the property, Wright gave them only one answer.
He told them he wanted to build their home over that waterfall, not to block it, but to become a part of it, just as a tree would grow out of the nearby hills. He envisioned a blending of the natural world using sandstone quarried right on the property and steel milled in Pittsburgh.
I’ve visited the site twice now, both times in the summer. I’m ready to go back in a few months to experience the house surrounded in the glory of fall colors.
The dichotomy of Frank Lloyd Wright struck me on my most recent visit.
The man’s personal life screamed in tabloid headlines. His early success with the prairie house lay shattered as commissions dropped to nothing. Yet his vision for Fallingwater expresses tranquility, a peaceful joining with nature.
Wright wanted to blend with nature rather than to control it. He built around a giant boulder on the hillside. The boulder provides a shelf in the kitchen and a seat next to the fireplace in the living room. It also extends out from the house reaching toward one of the many balconies cantilevered out from the steel supports. Yet he sought absolute control over the layout of the house. Wright built the furniture – couches, headboards for beds, desks, tables –into the walls. The tour guide said Wright did that so the owners of the home couldn’t alter his design. Legend has it Mr. Kaufmann balked at the small surface area of the desk in his bedroom. Wright refused to change the design until Mr. Kaufmann told him, “The desk you’ve designed is too small for me to write the check to pay you.” Wright changed the design to expand the desktop.
Wright designed Fallingwater not to encapsulate its visitors, but to open them to the outdoors. He hated square boxy structures, yet Fallingwater resembles a teetering tower of boxes from the outside. Inside is a different matter. Upon entering each room, nature greets the occupants, the Cherokee red steel supports give way to sandstone walls, and floors and windows open to the sky above, the trees around, and the water below.
From every corner, the roar of water permeates the living space as Bear Run cascades over the rocks under the home.
Contradictions aside, Fallingwater is a masterpiece of ingenuity.
A hallway leading to the walkway to the guesthouse is host to skylights and an original Diego Rivera (one of two in the house, along with two Picasso’s). The back wall abuts the side of the hill where water flows from the hilltop. Instead of fighting nature, Wright created a wall as waterfall, which allows the water do what it will do.
He might have believed in controlling his clients, but he knew better than to tell Mother Nature what to do.
Location: Fallingwater is located in SW Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands and 90 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. The home sits in a scenic, wooded setting on PA Route 381 between the quaint villages of Mill Run and Ohiopyle.
Phone #: 724-329-8501