OHIOPYLE, Pa. -- In 1936 a Pittsburgh department-store magnate, Edgar Kaufmann, hired Frank Lloyd Wright to build him a house on a wooded mountainside near here. It was a welcome commission for Wright, then almost 70, for although his celebrity status was intact, in part because of a colorful succession of wives and consorts and in part because of his own indefatigable self-promotion, his architectural career was stagnant. The Depression had had something to do with that, and so had Wright's own difficult personality. But Kaufmann, who would spend $155,000 on the project at a time when laborers earned 25 cents an hour and skilled craftsmen a dollar, gave him a new chance to show his stuff.
The result was ''Fallingwater,'' one of the best known of the 300-plus buildings designed and built by Wright. Along with the Johnson's Wax headquarters in Racine, Wis., built around the same time, the Kaufmann family's weekend house in the Appalachian highlands is credited for reviving the architect's fortunes and keeping him in commissions until his death in 1959.
The house is famously cantilevered over a waterfall in a stream called Bear Creek, which rushes down a rocky gorge through a rhododendron-and-hemlock forest toward the Youghiogheny River. Since 1963 it has been open to the public; it is owned now by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, to which it was conveyed by Edgar Kaufmann's only child.
The site is lovely, although no more lovely than many others in this wonderful mountain region, and Wright, who rather fatuously described his work as ''organic architecture,'' prided himself on the ways he made the house fit the terrain. He would be pleased today, no doubt, to see the visitors who come and marvel.
To at least a few of them, however, the house is extremely unappealing. It reeks of the architect's arrogance, from the low ceilings (Wright himself was short) to the uneven floors upon which a conventional four-legged chair can't sit squarely. (Wright provided special chairs, but Kaufmann didn't like them and didn't use them.) There are countless clever little touches, but many are more showy than convenient.
Then there is the question of practicality. The house is a money sinkhole when it comes to maintenance. Its reinforced concrete hasn't stood up well to the freezing and thawing of the Appalachian climate, and the whole thing is steadily sagging and settling into the ravine. Some partitions are visibly out of plumb, and the owners have to keep shoring the whole structure up.
A Wright defender might say, quite reasonably, that it's perfectly natural for houses on the banks of ravines eventually to crumble and fall. Boulders do that, over time, and so do big trees when spring floods undercut their roots. And so, of course, do log cabins and tarpaper shacks. It would be equally reasonable to respond, however, that putative architectural marvels ought to be good for more than a few decades.
Water in motion
Whether ''Fallingwater'' the preposterous house stands or falls, the sound of falling water will remain a symbol of this region's great appeal. The streams and rivers, tumbling over rocks and pouring down cataracts, provide a sense of constant motion those of us from down in the flatlands find exciting and stimulating.
I was out here in the hills around Ohiopyle not primarily to visit Wright's white elephant on the rocks, but to do something else involving falling water -- to ride a raft down seven miles of the lower Youghiogheny with 20 eighth-graders and assorted parents and teachers.
Rafting, which in Huck Finn's day was simply an inexpensive way of getting down a river, is now big business almost everywhere there's whitewater. Five rafting companies are headquartered in Ohiopyle, each trying to outdo the others in getting tourists down the Yough. The rafts are strong and specially-built, the most exciting places are videotaped, and a nice lunch is served on the banks halfway down the river.
But despite the organization and the professional touches, and despite the fact that its level is partially controlled by an upstream dam, the river remains dramatically wild and free. For most of the seven-mile ride it runs through state parkland, and no houses are visible on the banks. And the trip is ever-changing, new perils constantly appearing as the water level rises and falls.
On our trip, kids and adults alike had a great time, both from the adventure of the ride and by being reminded that some of life's best things involve what doesn't happen. That can mean making it through a wicked hydraulic on the river without wrecking the boat, or it can mean going to bed in a shaking tent with a big storm brewing, expecting to be flooded out in the night, and then sleeping beautifully until 5 a.m. when the first birds begin to sing.
What drew us out here, though, was pretty much what drew Edgar Kaufmann, and what draws the river guides and their clients, and what makes Frank Lloyd Wright's showpiece in the ravine so interesting despite its ozymandian pretentiousness. We all share the simple old human fascination with falling water.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.
Pub Date: 6/05/97