Saving Fallingwater reopens old battles

Wright masterpiece needs a little help from engineers

September 11, 2001|By Matthew L. Wald | Matthew L. Wald,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BEAR RUN, Pa. - It is every homeowner's nightmare. Years ago, the architect, one of those visionary types, got into a fight with the engineer over whether the design skimped on structural materials. The engineer wanted to make the floors stronger but the architect said extra steel would make them unsupportably heavy.

Now both are long dead, and it turns out that the engineer was right. The beams in the house are cracking so badly that the floors are sagging and the house is in danger of falling down. The estimated cost of repairs is so high that the work has been put off for years.

What to do?

If the architect was Frank Lloyd Wright, the owner installs a glass porthole in the floor so paying visitors can see how badly the beams are cracking, and raises the admission price for the privilege of watching the repairs.

The work will start in November after a two-year delay to raise the $11.5 million needed for structural support and other improvements. Workers will install cables along the length of the cracking beams and, like orthodontists straightening teeth, will tighten the bands to hold the beams straight. Wright enthusiasts who do not want to brave the snows of the Allegheny Mountains here, 72 miles from Pittsburgh, will be able to buy a video history of the repairs.

The house, Fallingwater, is one of the most famous of the 20th century, and an emblem of modernity. The house hangs over a waterfall on Bear Run Creek, with its interior spaces flowing naturally into the sandstone boulders and rhododendron outside. The Wright trademark, including the clutter-free interior with built-in furniture, the North Carolina Walnut veneer, and the Cherokee Red window frames are all in danger of falling into the creek.

Built for Edgar Kaufmann Sr., a Pittsburgh department store magnate, and his wife, Liliane, the house was finished in 1937. Now it draws about 140,000 visitors a year - and gasps of awe - but it is failing in the most basic function of a house: providing shelter.

Trusses needed

Since 1997 Fallingwater has required unsightly trusses to save it from falling into Bear Run Creek, in which case the world would also lose such Kaufmann-specified oddities as its 10 1/2 -inch-high toilets, of which one exasperated visitor complained, "Most wastebaskets are taller."

The house was donated to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963 by the Kaufmanns' son, Edgar Kaufmann Jr., and shortly afterward it was opened to the public. The conservancy has not decided how much it will raise the admission price for viewing the work in progress.

For any other architect, a gorgeous interior and an incompetent structure would be evidence of feet of clay. Wright's followers might call it a terra cotta base. For American architecture aficionados, Fallingwater is the Leaning Tower of Pisa, venerated for its structural flaws.

Architects who are not involved with the project agree that structural flaws do not reduce the value of Fallingwater.

"After 70 years, a little structural problem on the best house ever designed doesn't strike me as something that raises any kind of revisionist issues in terms of Wright's career," said Michael Sorkin, the director of the graduate urban design program at City College. "He was working on some kind of edge, and a certain amount of risk is entailed."

Sorkin said it was not as if any of the Wright buildings "have collapsed or killed anyone."

Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, said, "When you're involved with an experiment, you're often ahead of the curve."

"The rewards are great, spacially and aesthetically," Stern added, "but later on, things have to be done."

Things, in this case, are rather major: the installation of the steel cables, running horizontally along the length of the major beams, which extend unsupported for 14.5 feet. The cables will be pulled taut with 200 tons of force, stabilizing the cracking beams.

The cure was designed by Robert Silman, the New York-based structural engineer who should know about the problems of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. Fallingwater is the sixth he has worked on, and he is bidding to get the job on a seventh.

His firm, Robert Silman Associates, does not specialize in Wright buildings, but its reputation has helped it win a lot of Wright work, said John A. Matteo, Silman's associate, who is overseeing the Fallingwater work.

Wright buildings have the leaky roofs that older houses are prone to, but often their roofs are worse, because Wright liked them flat, even in places with substantial snowfall. But most have more serious problems.

"They've all got structural defects," Silman said. "Otherwise I wouldn't be working on them."

To combat the leaky roofs of Wingspread, a Prairie-style home Wright designed for the floor-wax millionaire Herbert F. Johnson in Racine, Wis., Silman's firm found the solution was carbon fiber, a material that did not exist when the house was built.

`Pushing the envelope'

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