Fallingwater is a house designed in 1935 by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright (henceforth referred to as FLW). The house was a private residence and weekend home for the family of Pittsburgh department store owner, Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr.
According to FLW’s apprentices, the plans for Fallingwater were drawn up by FLW himself fairly hastily. Spurred by a surprise visit from Kaufmann, the design was created in the two hours it would take Kaufmann to drive from Milwaukee to Taliesin, the location of FLW’s studio.
Our tour meets outside the building at the bridge that crosses Bear Run, the creek with the waterfall.
I am obsessed with the corner windows FLW designed. First a photo of the windows in the main living room and second a photo of the windows in Mr. Kaufmann’s bedroom.
In this photo, you can make out the not-FLW-approved custom window screens.
The original estimated cost for building Fallingwater was $35,000. The final cost for the home and guest house was $155,000. That’s almost $3 million after adjustment for inflation. For a weekend home!
Initially, Mr. Kaufmann was angry that Wright hadn’t situated the home to have a view of the falls, but obviously, the architect won that battle.
One battle the architect did not win was over the amount of steel needed to reinforce the concrete in the cantilevered sections of the home. The Kaufmann’s doubted FLW and his knowledge of concrete.
He went behind FLW’s back and had another engineering firm draw up plans for reinforcing the concrete above the original plan. FLW learned of it and threatened to withdraw from the project. Kaufmann relented. The contractor still used more steel than FLW wanted, anyway.
Time proved Mr. Kaufmann right as in 1995, the cantilever was sagging to the point of failure. In 2001 an $11.5 million dollar restoration addressed all of the home’s structural issues.
On my baseline group tour, interior photos are a no-no. But for you, dear reader, I risked it all and covertly snapped a few photos for your enjoyment.
The main living room is directly above the falls. Behind the white chair in the photo above are the steps that lead down to Bear Run. In the summers, these doors opened to keep the house cool and provide quick access to swim in the creek.
Word has it Mrs. Kaufmann liked to swim in the nude. Scandalous!
A portrait of Edgar Kaufmann Sr. hangs opposite the dining room table.
The waxed floor has a glossy appearance. Some boulders are natural to the hillside and are allowed to protrude above floor level. The stone above the floor is not waxed, which gives the appearance of dry stone. This contrasts against the wet look of the floor stone.j
Upstairs are the sleeping quarters. Each Kaufmann had their own bedroom plus a guest bedroom made for a total of four bedrooms. In each, you can see all kinds of fun architectural tricks. The tour guide will fill you in on all of them.
I especially liked the desk in Mr. Kaufmann’s room, which had a cut-out in it so that a window could swing open. I couldn’t get a photo of that for you, dear reader. By now sweet-as-sugar retired school teacher tour guide was watching me like a hawk. This was not her first rodeo with a rule-breaker. Sweat beads form on the author’s forehead.
Anyhoo, here’s a photo of Mrs. Kaufmann’s bed. Note that the bedrooms have shorter ceilings to encourage you to spend your time in the more inviting communal areas.
Edgar Jr.’s room is the lightest of all with large windows opposite his bed.
Fallingwater Guest House
The Kaufmann’s entertained guests frequently and had FLW add a guest house above the main house. Connected by a winding staircase with a matching stair-step roof to shield guests from the elements.
Period furnishings also complement the time capsule that is the guest house.
FLW used cork throughout the main house and the guest house for bathrooms. Cork on the floors and cork on the walls. Find a similar treatment in the bathrooms at Kentuck Knob, another Wright home nearby.
The bedroom has an FLW designed chair, intended for the main house’s dining room before Mrs. Kaufmann decided she wanted a different look there.
The bedroom opens up to the outside swimming pool (drained for repairs at the time of my visit).
The tour ends at the Fallingwater garage and servant’s quarters. This structure now holds offices for the property care-taker, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Here, you’ll watch a video about what they do and get a little pitch for a donation before you’re released.
Next, you’ll make your way back to the main house and across Bear Run to the overlook.
Edgar Jr. was gay and did not have or adopt any children with his partner. Without a Kaufmann heir, the house and 1,500 acres went to the Conservancy. Kaufmann’s architect partner helped design the visitor center. Public tours started in 1964 and the site sees over 160,000 visitors annually.
Don’t forget to take the short hike to the Fallingwater overlook. This is the place for your iconic postcard-perfect photo of Fallingwater. Today, my photo’s clarity is a little marred by the falling water from the skies.
On the National Register of Historic Places list since 1966, the home is also a National Historic Landmark. According to the American Institute of Architects, Fallingwater is the “best all-time example of American architecture.” Smithsonian named it one of the “28 places you must see before you die.” I hope it finds its way onto your bucket list.
This post outlines the standard tour experience but you can upgrade to any number of different tours. I found the baseline guided tour very informational and worth the $30 price.
Fallingwater opens early for the more expensive in-depth tours. Standard tours run from 10 am – 4 pm, closed on Wednesdays. Check their website for more up-to-date time and options.
Be sure to visit nearby Kentuck Knob for more Frank Lloyd Wright.