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Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater Gets Face Lift for All to See

Architecture: The house fulfilled a master's plan but had structural faults. Tourists will be able view the $11-million renovation.

November 23, 2001|From Associated Press

MILL RUN, Pa. — Beginning today, visitors to Fallingwater will be able to see where Wright went wrong.

Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural classic has long been praised as the pinnacle of organic design. But stress problems have put it under the risk of collapsing into the creek below in a heap of sandstone and concrete.

Work is underway on a permanent fix, and now the group that owns the house--voted "building of the 20th century" by the American Institute of Architects--is giving people a chance to witness some of the details with $50 tours.

This is no simple repair job; there is Wright's genius to consider. The building's distinctive terraces are supposed to float across the bucolic landscape. Its pale ocher parapets are expected to blend in with the surrounding rhododendron and hemlock.

Steel scaffolding to hold up the place simply won't do.

"Fallingwater is too important an experience to leave it handicapped like that," said Larry Schweiger, president and chief executive of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which owns the building.

New York engineer Robert Silman's firm is attempting to stop the structure's slow, southern tilt, employing a seldom-used means of repair that will be invisible after the work is finished.

The problem with Wright's design is that it didn't include enough steel in the reinforced concrete, particularly in the second-floor terrace. The terrace's weight is transferred down to the huge cantilever beams that carry the first floor over the waterfall after which the house is named. Those beams were made to support the living room and the first-floor terraces but not the second-floor terrace as well.

Work began last week to pull up the sandstone floors in the living room to provide access to the concrete beams and base thatmake up the structure's main cantilever.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the house like this," said Lynda Waggoner, Fallingwater's director. "I certainly hope I don't see it like this again in my lifetime."

Steel cables will be attached along one side of the beams and pulled taut with hundreds of tons of pressure to counteract the forces trying to make them bend. It's like holding several books between your hands by pressing on the volumes at each end.

The pressure won't bring Fallingwater back to horizontal. Doing that could crack all the wood and glass that has settled with the slope of the building. But it should arrest the growing tilt, Silman said.

The work, part of a lengthy $11-million restoration, is expected to be done by March.

Wright could have worked better with engineers--the company that supplied the steel reinforcing bars for the construction in the 1930s insisted his design wasn't strong enough--but his genius was really more about imagination and innovation, says Wendy Evans Joseph, chairwoman of the American Institute of Architects' national design committee.

"Essentially, the problem is of an architect trying to make a visual expression match with a structural need," she said. "There was magic in that site he was able to pick up on."

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