Fallingwater is a house that few people will forget after visiting it. The view of the structure from the ravine below is one of the most recognized architectural photographs in the United States. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a National Historical Landmark; even though the house is only 74 years old.
Everything about this enchanting place is full of contradictions. It is Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous house, but was never used as a permanent residence. The house received its name from the adjacent water fall, but once inside the house, there is only one location, the edge of the upper deck, where you can even see a glimpse of the waterfall. Yet . . . one can hear the waterfall throughout the house.
The most famous view of the house can only be viewed by taking a path down into the ravine. The path was an afterthought, when a photographer made that view famous.
The dramatic cantilevered balconies give the house its dynamic appearance. They appear to be marvels of 20th century engineering. In fact, Wright sketched out the structural design without going through appropriate structural calculations. The concreted structure started failing as soon as it was built; and it also leaked. The owner of the house, Edgar Kaufman, Sr. called Fallingwater, “a seven bucket house” because of the leaks, and nicknamed it “Rising Mildew” because of the constant humidity.
Kaufman was a wealthy department store owner in Pittsburg. He first retained Wright to calculate the cost of a utopian city that he hoped to build. He and his wife also owned a beautiful tract of land in rural in Fayette County, PA about 50 miles southeast of Pittsburg. Wright learned from Kaufman’s son that the couple planned to demolish some non-descript cabins on the tract, and replace them with a modest weekend home. Wright worked through the son to entice them into building a “showcase” house, designed, of course, by Mr. Wright.
Wright first visited the site in November of 1935. He received a survey of the property in March of 1935. For the next nine months, he gradually crystallized his concept for the house, that was presented to the clients in September of 1935. The construction drawings were completed in March of 1936. Construction work began the next month.
The construction process was filled with conflicts between Wright, the contractor and Kaufmans. From the beginning Kaufman doubted that the cantilevered balconies had adequate structural integrity. He was right!
Kaufman retained a structural engineering firm to review and modify the drawings. Wright threatened to walk off the job at this point. The engineer’s design was put away, but Kaufman secretly ordered the contractor to install twice as many steel reinforcing bars. These bars were too close together; not allowing enough concrete in between the spaces. This resulted in the balconies actually being weakened, rather than strengthened by the covert addition of extra steel.
Wright’s design also did not allow for natural settling and deflection of the cantilevers after the forms were removed. Therefore, they immediately began sagging, when exposed. The truth was that Wright was NOT the structural genius that he presented himself to be.
The interior of the house shows the ability of Wright to integrate space and forms. This hallmark of his design skills plus his eclectic blend of Japanese, Southwestern and Mayan design details always makes his building interiors stand out. Large, horizontal expanses of windows link together the house’s interior’s with the beautiful natural scenery outside. The bedrooms are small, lack adequate closet space, while some even have low ceilings.
Wright was a short man, so he often intentionally designed in features to make tall people uncomfortable. He was certainly not a saint and far closer to an egomaniac with a chip on his shoulder. For better or worse, however, most visitors know that they are in a Wright house without being told.
Because of Wright’s preference for masonry interiors, there is also coldness to Fallingwater. It feels today like an upscale vacation lodge from the 1930s or 1940s – not a place that most people would call their home. Perhaps, this is what the Kaufman’s wanted in their getaway house, perhaps not.
Edgar Kaufman definitely told Wright that he wanted a large garage because of the cold Pennsylvania winters. Wright ignored him, because Wright didn’t like garages. A small carport was built instead.
The consulting engineers were directed by Kaufman to install a stone masonry foundation wall under the main concrete girder of the lower deck. Wright then ordered workmen to remove the top layer of stones of the wall. At the end of the project, Wright showed Kaufman what he had done as proof that the wall was not needed. The house was opened to the Kaufman’s in October of 1937.
Total Project Cost: $155,000 = $2.4 million in current dollars – Actual house: $55,000 – Finishing & furnishing: $22,000 – Guest house, garage & servants quarters: $50,000 – architect’s fee: $8,000
The building’s life
The Kaufman’s used Fallingwater as a weekend home from 1937 to 1963. In 1963, after the death of Frank Lloyd Wright, the house was donated to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to be used as a museum. From 1988 to 2004, the new owner worked with structural engineers and historic preservation architects to correct Fallingwater’s structural flaws and restore deteriorating materials and finishes. The engineers determined that Wright’s original design, sketched on tracing paper couldn’t even have supported its own weight.
The house is open to the general public most days of the year. It also hosts workshops and conferences. It is a major national tourist attraction. Directions for reaching the historic site may be obtained from Fallingwater’s own web site, or from regional tourism agencies.