Fallingwater, architectural masterpiece: A river runs under it

May 16, 1993|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,Contributing Writer

It must have been quite a shock for Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann and his wife, Liliane, when architect Frank Lloyd Wright presented them with plans he had drawn for their weekend home in the woods of southwestern Pennsylvania.

The couple had envisioned a secluded house facing a 20-foot waterfall on their property. Instead, the acclaimed architect chose to hide the cascading water from their view with an unconventional and daring design that placed the house over the water and on top of the falls.

"I want you to live with the waterfall, not just to look at it, but for it to become an integral part of your lives," Wright reportedly explained.

The house he designed in 1935 is now world-famous for its distinctive architectural features, which bring "the music of the waterfall" indoors and connect the building -- and its residents -- with the natural surroundings around them.

The house, named Fallingwater, is now a museum that attracts 135,000 visitors each year. The biggest crowds arrive during August and October, so this time of year is a good time for a visit. On a busy weekend, 1,500 guests may tour the house in one day. Weekday tours are less crowded, but reservations are strongly recommended year-round.

Fallingwater was opened to the public in 1964 by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy after the late Edgar J. Kaufmann Jr. gave it to the non-profit conservation organization in his parents' memory.

Fallingwater is hidden in the woods off Route 381 between the villages of Mill Run and Ohiopyle in Fayette County. The house is built into a hillside at the edge of Bear Run, a meandering stream which flows under the house, plummets over the falls and then continues its downward flow into the Ohiopyle valley, where it meets the Youghiogheny River.

At the edge of the river is the town of Ohiopyle -- a great second stop for visitors to the Laurel Highlands region of Pennsylvania who would like to taste the excitement of white-water rafting.

The water beneath Fallingwater is serene by comparison, although a severe storm in the '50s temporarily transformed Bear Run into a raging river that assaulted the house but caused no permanent damage.

Engineers who studied the original plans were concerned about the possibility of just such a flood. They were skeptical about the wisdom of the design and the stability and safety of the location at water's edge.

Nonetheless, Kaufmann put his faith in Wright, and construction began in 1936. The main house was completed the following year, and a guest and service wing was added in 1939.

Today, more than 50 years after it was built, the house still has an innovative, contemporary look. And although the design was not without critics in the '30s, it was also considered to be ahead of its time, an architectural work of art. It is generally recognized as one of Wright's finest accomplishments.

The house is the ultimate expression in concrete, stone and glass of Wright's philosophy about man's union with nature. With its strong horizontal lines which parallel the natural rock ledges and branching tree limbs at the site, the house seems to grow right out of the hillside. The beauty of the falls is undisturbed by the structure, which is projected over the water with little visible means of support.

Three floors climb the hillside

Three stories step up the hillside, with terraces projected over the water. The main part of the house is made of Pottsville sandstone quarried from the property. The terraces are constructed from concrete reinforced with steel rods that extend over the water without vertical supports at the end, which would intrude upon the natural beauty of the stream.

The terracing is accomplished by means of a cantilevered beam system capable of being extended beyond its support braces. At Fallingwater, the weight of the stone portion of the house counterbalances the terraces and provides unseen support.

Perhaps the most unusual feature of the house is a glass hatch in the living room floor that opens to a flight of hanging stairs which leads to the stream below. The stairs are an aesthetic connection to the water and are not meant to be used.

The beauty of the outdoors is also brought inside through continuous walls of glass. And a boulder, said to be Kaufmann's favorite spot for lying in the sun and listening to the falls, is incorporated into the living room, where it protrudes through the floor to form the hearth.

The 1,800-square-foot living room -- which includes a music area, a study, two separate conversation areas and a dining room -- is a progressive example of open-space planning.

The furnishings are simple yet elegant and include artworks and other possessions of the Kaufmanns as well as the original built-in furniture.

In-depth tours provide a more detailed look at Fallingwater than the standard tour, but none lasts more than two hours. That leaves plenty of time for overnight travelers to con

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