Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater turns 75 this year. A house of genius and mystery, it may be admired as America’s best 500 years from now.
December sun filled the sky in 1934 as department-store mogul Edgar Kaufmann left Pittsburgh with the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. They drove on winding back roads into the deep woods of southwestern Pennsylvania as a light rain, then a soft snow fell. After a few hours, Wright’s eyes lit up when an arc of color rippled before him. “Surely something will come out of this journey,” he said. “After all the elements through which we have traveled, the end is crowned with a rainbow.”
The two men had met a month prior when Kaufmann and his wife, Liliane, visited Wright’s rural Wisconsin studio, Taliesin. At 49, Kaufmann was already a supporter of important architecture in Pittsburgh. Wright was 67. “He was thought of as being washed-up as an architect,” says Lynda Waggoner, vice president of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
It had been three decades since Wright gained recognition for his Prairie homes, a style of domestic architecture featuring open floor plans and expansive views of the outdoors. Since then he had made headlines for scandals involving women and money and was so cash poor that he’d launched an apprentice program at Taliesin to help make ends meet. That program lured Kaufmann’s 24-year-old son Edgar jr., whose enthusiasm for Wright’s designs piqued his parents’ interest.
Ultimately, Wright built an utterly unique country home that propelled him to the cover of Time, a special exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and on to commissions for hundreds more homes and other buildings, including the spiraling Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Dubbed Fallingwater, the Kaufmanns’ house in the woods not only restarted Wright’s career—it established his place as America’s greatest architect.
Fallingwater’s reputation is even more monumental 75 years after construction began on the house. Every year, more than 150,000 people make a pilgrimage to the remote site to see what the American Institute of Architects calls “the best all-time work of American architecture.” In the late 1990s, some 10,000 individuals and 20 foundations from 50 states contributed to a $4.5 million restoration project spearheaded by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to keep Fallingwater from collapsing. “I would say,” posits David De Long, University of Pennsylvania emeritus professor of architecture, “it is the great American house, and one of the greatest works in all of art history.”
Kaufmann’s wishes were more moderate. He just wanted a nice weekend house where his family could gaze out at a waterfall and swimming hole they treasured. Wright defied those wishes. Fallingwater’s beauty does not come from its proverbial views. The falls, in fact, aren’t even visible from the house. Instead, drawing inspiration from what he described as “the music of the stream,” Wright incorporated the sound of the falls into his design in such a way that it is difficult to discern where the landscape ends and the house begins. “There are billions of waterfalls and streams in this world, and this is one where someone said, aha, and has turned a waterfall into something else, into an artistic experience,” says Harvard University professor of architecture history Neil Levine, author of The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Fallingwater “takes what is normal, what is natural, what some people would say is Godgiven, and makes it a work of man, a work of imagination, and in this case, a work of genius.”
The laurel- and oak-filled valley where Fallingwater was built lies 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. In 1916, Edgar Kaufmann Sr. opened a summer “club” in this wilderness to offer his employees a respite from the hot metropolis, and five years later he built his family a modest weekend cabin on the property. Known as “The Hangover,” the house was purposefully rustic, without electricity or plumbing, and situated on a cliff above Bear Run, where the family bathed and fished. At night they slept in screened porches. By 1934, the Kaufmanns had acquired 1,600 acres around Bear Run and hankered for a more civilized private getaway to use year-round.
During the December visit, Wright and Kaufmann walked the woods and watched the sun’s orientation. Wright inspected the sandstone bluffs, saw water rush over the stony streambed and ogled the rhododendron leaves. Kaufmann took care to point out the rocky spot at the edge of the stream where his family liked to picnic and swim. They assumed a head-on view of the falls made this the perfect spot to build their new house.
Wright “was amazed at the beauty and forceful contours,” Kaufmann later recalled, and began to muse about a house suspended by cable over the stream, facing the falls. Kaufmann promised to send Wright a topographical map. For the next eight months, mostly in correspondence, Kaufmann responded to Wright’s queries about the family’s style of living at Bear Run. Each time Kaufmann asked a question—Where would the house be placed?—there was only silence from Wright.
The map was sent. Money was wired. Spring of 1935 came and went. The men chatted regularly about a planetarium for Pittsburgh. Wright visited Bear Run again. Exasperated that no sketches had come and that Wright kept evading the placement question, Kaufmann finally sent word that he would be in Milwaukee at summer’s end and wanted to see his house plans. This time, Wright assented. “Wright typically waited to put pencil to paper when he had the idea in mind,” says De Long. “He had this extraordinary ability to visualize.”
Once in Milwaukee, Kaufmann telephoned to announce that he was en route to Taliesin. At last Wright gathered with his assistants at the drawing board and laid out a design just in time for Kaufmann’s lunchtime appearance. Kaufmann devoured the plans. But not until two weeks later did he fully began to fathom Wright’s ambitious vision for a house conceived to “the music of the stream,” rather than an arresting view of the falls.
“September 15: Floor plans and colored elevations of Fallingwater arrived,” Kaufmann recounted in a 1938 essay. “The next few nights were sleepless. Finally I began to understand the plan partially. The Master’s conception—the colored elevations fascinated me. At least I thought I understood.”
The structure was immense, but it did not resemble a house. It looked more like hinged dominoes. “On September 16, I could not work,” Kaufmann remembered. “I thought of nothing but the house.”
Wright’s signatures—a flat, low-slung roof and sweeping terraces—were there. Yet the way windows, stone walls and concrete slabs interlocked and cantilevered out from the hillside, it was almost as if the levels and balconies of the home were cascading down the slope. A symbolic waterfall.
But where were those falls?
Wright had ignored Kaufmann’s suggested site. The house was above and slightly upstream from the falls. But exactly where was difficult to picture. “September 21: The Master arrived,” Kaufmann recounted. “Went over the plan thoroughly. Allowed me to drink in his conception and the meaning. My first lesson in organic architecture. It was plain and I did not understand—it required the Master to open my eyes.”
Wright was steadfast to his original vision: a house hung over the water and based on sounds. The building was anchored to a huge boulder protruding from the stream’s midsection. “I think you can hear the waterfall when you look at the design,” Wright later wrote.
There was no view at all. The falls were invisible from inside the house. Yet the stream’s music would be eternal. Fallingwater, Wright explained, would become “an extension of the cliff beside a mountain stream, making living space over and above the stream upon several terraces upon which a man who loved the place sincerely, one who liked to listen to the waterfall, might well live.” It was indeed a house about sounds, not sights.
Wright had come of age among Unitarians in the Wisconsin countryside during the era of American industrialization following the Civil War. His family was taken with Ralph Waldo Emerson and other transcendentalist opponents of the machine age. Architecture, Wright felt, should establish a sense of continuity with the environment. “Wright wanted to make us more natural citizens,” says John Reynolds, an architecture professor at Miami University in Ohio. “He believed we could become more democratic and responsible by having these direct encounters with nature.”
At Fallingwater, Wright used a cantilever to overhang nature. Like a diving board, the main section of the house consists of a solid slab affixed horizontally at one end to a vertical support. Wright had used cantilevers in domestic architecture but never to this degree: Fallingwater’s entire foundation was cantilevered, with concrete bolsters rising up from the stone at the stream’s edge to support the main floor. Subsequent levels were cantilevered from stone walls, and sweeping terraces shored with concrete borders, resembling trays. The structure allowed for Wright’s open floor plan. It also pushed parts of the building up to 20 feet over the stream.
“It was an extraordinary moment when the full force of Wright’s concept became apparent,” wrote Edgar Kaufmann jr. in 1986. “Whatever the previous expectations and whatever the problems suggested by the plans, here was an amazing augmentation of our regular refreshment in nature, and a magnetic image. The prospects were exhilarating.”
So were the challenges of building the house. Kaufmann hired engineers to inspect the unconventional plans. Anchor a home to a boulder? Their response was resolute: foolish. “There was a wonderful cartoon drawn by some engineers,” says Waggoner. “They showed life boats hanging off of Fallingwater. They thought it would never stand.” But construction had begun. Wright, indignant about Kaufmann’s fact-checking, insisted the design was safe.
Nonetheless, in laying the first-floor slab, Kaufmann’s contractor made a last-minute decision to double the weight of the reinforcing steel rods. Wright became livid when word reached him. Too heavy a slab could cause sagging. “My dear E.J.,” the architect wrote. “If you are paying to have the concrete engineering done down there, there is no use whatever in our doing it here….I don’t know what kind of architect you are familiar with but it apparantly [sic] isn’t the kind I think I am. You seem not to know how to treat a decent one…if I haven’t your confidence—to hell with the whole thing.”
Kaufmann went back at Wright. “I don’t know what kind of clients you are familiar with but apparently they are not the kind I think I am….I have put so much confidence and enthusiasm behind this whole project in my limited way, to help the fulfillment of your efforts that if I do not have your confidence in the matter—to hell with the whole thing.”
Wright was renowned for controlling every aspect of his designs, even down to the furniture, the dishes and the carpets. But he needed Kaufmann; this was the only commission he had at the time. The men convened under an oak tree at Bear Run to settle the matter. Less than a year later, in the spring of 1937, Fallingwater was finished.
Arrive at Fallingwater and you will come upon a symphony that has begun before the curtain goes up. It’s a melody of water on rock—a trickle…a thrum…a whooooosh—that reaches you before the house comes into view. Heading down the curving drive that eventually leads to the melody’s source, the eye yearns to make sense of the geometry of Fallingwater through the openings in the forest. At last the curtain rises, and a 5,000-square-foot, straight-edged mass of stone and concrete soars from above a 20-foot waterfall. First impressions are well summed up by Waggoner: “anchored to the earth” yet simultaneously “about to take flight.”
Fallingwater is constructed with five materials: sandstone for floors and walls; ochre-tinted concrete for terraces; North Carolina walnut veneer for cabinetry and furniture; glass framed in steel for window walls. The stone is left raw on interior walls, but the stone floor is waxed and polished to resemble the river surface below. The palette is neutral—natural—with bursts of color from textiles for bedding and seating. Waggoner says Kaufmann jr. thought colors from pillows should act “like birds in the woods.”
Wright made no show of the home’s entrance. “It’s almost like you’re a spelunker in a cave,” says Reynolds of the narrow door shrouded in darkness between two stone walls. Within just a few steps, however, one is pulled into an expansive interior space bathed in sunlight. Throughout the home, Wright repeats this tension. Cramped, narrow passageways with low ceilings open onto expansive rooms. The arrival at a dark spot propels one toward a light and airy space that beckons from beyond. “Wright had this wonderful understanding of the importance of a threshold,” says Waggoner.
Inspired by the horizontal striation of Bear Run’s sandstone bluffs, Wright reproduced that dramatic layering throughout the home. For the stone formations themselves, he insisted on using unskilled laborers, ignoring the smooth edging of traditional masonry. The emphasis on the horizontal repeats itself in the smooth, uninterrupted walls of the framed terraces and the overhanging roofs, the orientation of the wood grain on wardrobes and cabinets, the built-in seating that spans the entire length of a living room wall.
But like the tensions between light and dark, compression and expansion, Wright countered the horizontal planes with thrilling verticals. On the exterior, terraces are dramatically set off by the rising columns of sandstone, particularly the massive chimney, and by a towering, four-story box of windows. Its steel-framed panes open outward, laterally, to obliterate the corner and unleash a horizontal view into the trees. Even within the house’s smaller features—stone ledges on the fireplaces, shelves on a wooden desk, steps into the concrete pool—cantilevered components unfurl like cascades. An unusual concrete canopy perfectly mirrors the deep, gradual staircase from the main home to the guesthouse, as if the stairway were rippling down the slope like the stream.
More linkages with nature are found throughout the house. Beams are curved to let trees grow through the trellis. A planted window box is situated under glass in the interior. A moss garden extends from the exterior of a sandstone bluff to an interior hallway. Where does the landscape end and the house begin? It doesn’t, says De Long. “Wright never wanted to dissolve the sense of an edge, a boundary. He simply wanted to make it permeable.” At the center of the home, the boulder on which the house was so controversially anchored protrudes through the floor to form seating in front of the fireplace.
“Wright always called himself a pantheist,” says Waggoner. “If he was asked, ‘What’s your religion?’ he’d say nature with a capital ‘N.’ ” Fallingwater’s main-level living room, with its music, dining, study and sitting areas all communing without the interference of vertical beams, may be the best rendering of that theology. All of nature’s elements enter: earth through the all-important boulder, fire at the hearth, and water and air through the unusual “hatch,” a 17-step staircase down to the stream, enclosed by a glass skylight and swinging doors.
Although the family had insisted on access to water, Kaufmann found the hatch confusing, expensive and unsuitable. The water there was too shallow for swimming. But Wright was insistent. The hatch was “absolutely necessary,” he wrote. “We got down into the glen to associate directly with the stream and planned the house for that association. Hence the steps from living room to stream.” Kaufmann’s son stepped in to smooth things. “I felt that Wright wanted to keep the main room in touch with the movement and energy of the run, and I pleaded for trust in Wright’s intuition,” Edgar jr. recounted later. “Wright himself considered the steps not so much a proposal as a decision.”
The hatch is the only place in the living room where a visitor can see the water. It brings the outdoors in—cool air, moisture, the music of the stream. “It’s in a way the most remarkable feature,” says Levine. “You sense the water underfoot, and you hear it. You smell it. All those things. But you don’t see it.” Wright even shaped the concrete wall around the hatch as a semicircle. “It becomes a resonating chamber,” says Levine. “He wanted to increase the sound.”
Symbolically the hatch plays an even bigger role in the house’s orientation, 30 degrees east of south. “If you trace the line from the entrance into the house to the far corner of the living room toward the terrace that overshoots the falls, that diagonal aligns perfectly with the path of the stream below,” says Levine. “If you then take a line from the fireplace to the hatch, that line crosses the other diagonal at 90 degrees, and it aligns with the ledge that creates the falls. Typically you mark a site with a cross. In this case, the cross is locked in, aligned with those two very important aspects of the site: the sound and the movement of the water.”
The sound of the falls is constant throughout a visit. The sun sets, the seasons change—but the falls never quiet. As Levine puts it, “This finally is what gives the building its magic, its uniqueness, and its lasting significance.”
Liliane and Edgar Kaufmann liked to entertain. They used the home on weekends from 1938 to 1955, hosting friends, members of their family and the architecturally curious in the guesthouse, finished in 1939. Yet Liliane took to the place gradually, calling her residence an “education” and a “constructive lesson of deletion.” Kaufmann said it was a “retreat” he couldn’t imagine living without. Of the dozen potential projects he and Wright eventually collaborated on, none but Fallingwater and his department store office were finished. But the men remained lifelong friends until Kaufmann’s death in 1955, only hours after a visit from “the Master.”
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.