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Destination: Pennsylvania : Just Wonder-Fall : Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater still looks like a home, not the museum it is

October 02, 1994|BENJAMIN FORGEY | WASHINGTON POST

MILL RUN, Pa. — Fallingwater, the quintessential house in the woods, never ceases to astonish and delight. Nestled just so in the dappled light of the forest, extended breathtakingly over the fall of a backwoods creek, it is a wonder full of wonders, a weekend retreat that is as thrilling in its way as any great cathedral.

Conceived in 1935 by Frank Lloyd Wright, America's indubitable architectural genius, it was enjoyed for nearly three decades by the adventurous Pittsburgh family for whom it was built. Then, in 1963, it began its second career as a public trust--becoming, in the words of one Wright scholar, "perhaps the best-known private home for someone not of royal blood in the history of the world."

Well might the keepers of Washington's Mount Vernon and Jefferson's Monticello dispute this tentative assertion, but it's true Fallingwater is unique. We honor this southwestern Pennsylvania home not because of who lived there or who visited but because Wright designed it at the very peak of his creativity. The house he created is comfortable and ingenious and, in ways small and large, elevating.

This by no means is to deny the importance of Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann, whose house it was. Design-conscious owners of Pittsburgh department stores, they deserve everlasting thanks for commissioning Wright as architect, for paying to get the house built--it cost more than $120,000, nearly four times the initial estimate--and simply for getting through with humor intact the oft-tiresome trial of dealing with the great artist.

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Their son and only child, Edgar Kaufmann Jr., likewise deserves enormous credit. As a young man he apprenticed briefly at Wright's famous studio, Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wis., and therefore was able to introduce his parents to the architect.

He donated the house and surrounding land to a trust in 1963, together with an endowment for upkeep. And he oversaw the property with a sympathetic eye until his death in 1989, insisting always that it be kept as accessible as possible.

Signs of the Kaufmanns' occupancy abound in the house turned museum. Artworks the couple bought for the house--including African wood carvings, Chinese lacquers, American ceramics, a drawing by Diego Rivera, a bronze by Jacques Lipchitz--remain in their preferred places. A large oil portrait of a robust Edgar Sr. still commands a view of the dining area. The rustic Italian chairs that Liliane Kaufmann liked--and Wright didn't--still surround the dining table. Guides on the 45-minute tours don't fail to point out that the three wooden legs make the chairs more stable on the rough stone floor than four-legged chairs would be.

Indeed, despite the fact that hundreds of visitors trudge through each day, the house retains a lived-in charm, as if awaiting the momentary return of its original owners.

Though today's guests are forbidden to sit on them, the cushions of Wright's built-in sofas are covered with the same kind of richly woven beige material as always, and the stone floors of the spacious living-dining room are decorated with the same kind of warm-toned Berber rugs. This naturalness was what Edgar Jr. wanted, explains chief curator Lynda Waggoner: "It's supposed to look like a house, not a state museum."

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If one were to make a list of things to remember about Fallingwater, it might start with the floors, if only to prove the point that every aspect of the design is interconnected.

Made of irregularly shaped slabs of "Pottsville" sandstone--the stone used throughout the house, and quarried on the property--the floors are appealing to the eye and touch.

Wright had the stones waxed to look as if they were under a shallow, rippling current of clear water, an apt reference to currents of the stream running under the house and a subtle metaphor for the philosophy behind the entire design.

Fallingwater is perhaps the most compelling manifestation of Wright's belief that architecture is not opposed to nature but, rather, is another facet or expression of nature and its processes.

Obviously, he sensed the potential of the site when the Kaufmanns first took him to their picturesque corner of the woods: They liked to stand on a rock ledge and look at the waterfall and they thought, conventionally, that a house should do the same. Wright, by contrast, seized the opportunity to make the house part of the waterfall.

The forces that hold Fallingwater up, that make possible its stupendous cantilevered balconies, are but natural forces properly understood and correctly built with reinforced concrete.

The persistent doubts that Wright's imagination outstripped his command of structural engineering have recently been put to rest, Waggoner reports, by exhaustive engineering studies that confirm the house is structurally sound.

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