Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is a western Pennsylvania mountain retreat home built 1936-38 for the Edgar J. Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh, owners of Kaufmann’s Department Store. The home was used by the Kaufmann household, Edgar, Liliane and their only child until 1963. It was then opened to the public in 1964 after being entrusted to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy by their son Edgar Kaufmann, jr. (1910-1989); the lower case “jr” was his preference. The home, which forms a strong and innovative organic bond to its setting, is considered by many to be the most famous house in America. It is undisputedly one of the architectural triumphs of the 20th century.
The Kaufmanns were wealthy, well traveled, educated and sophisticated people who sought out artists and creative people all their lives as they moved about in international circles. As Jews they encountered obstacles to their position in Pittsburgh society, but they remained passionate about aesthetic beauty and loved outdoor activity, especially horseback riding and fishing. At the urging of their son, who was working for Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) at Taliesin (Wisconsin) at the time, they chose the storied architectural genius to design a home on their 2,000 acre woodland retreat in 1935, when Wright was well into his late 60s. At the same time, Wright was asked to design an executive office for Edgar in the Kaufmann department store. Wright designed the walls, furniture and all textiles (including the rugs). This room has since been removed from the store (now a Macy's) and displayed in several museums here and abroad. Edgar jr. subsequently donated it to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where it is on permanent display (see photo at end of post).
Their son had been studying in Europe to become a painter, but made a career change in 1934 after reading Wright’s An Autobiography (publ. 1932), subsequently joining the Taliesin Fellowship of apprentices. In 1937 he began an 18-year association with the Museum of Modern Art (NYC), which eventually led him away from a career in retailing to his life’s work as a curator and scholar. Edgar jr. became a lecturer and authority on Frank Lloyd Wright as Adjunct Professor of Architecture and Art History at Columbia University (1963-1986). He remained a frequent visitor to Fallingwater after it opened to the public.
His generous transfer of Fallingwater to a conservancy has made it possible for millions of architecture enthusiasts to experience Wright’s masterpiece, located 72 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, in its original setting with all furnishings, books and artwork intact. The quality of art on casual display is exceptional: original works by Diego Rivera, Pablo Picasso, pre-Columbian statues and highly valuable sculpture placed both inside and out.
The woodland acreage was originally used as a summer camp and retreat for employees of Kaufmann’s Department Store, but the Depression years of the 1930s saw disuse of the property, since employees could no longer shoulder the expense of traveling to and staying at the camp. At that time the Kaufmann family decided to replace their log weekend house with a much larger home farther from the recently paved road. The rest is history. Today we can enjoy a visit to this landmark house just as it was constructed and furnished by the original owners. Fallingwater is surrounded by the conservancy’s 5,000 acre Bear Run Nature Reserve.
Click to enlarge: Guest house addition from 1939
The distinctive main house, which straddles a stream with waterfalls and boulders, was followed by construction of a complimentary 4-bedroom guest house in 1939. The two structures are separated by a winding pathway covered by concrete esplanades. The main house boasts 2,885 sq. ft. of interior space plus 2,445 sq. ft. of terraces (total 5,330 sq. ft.), while the guest house covers 1,700 sq. ft. The total cost for the house in the 1930s was $155,000, including $8,000 in architect’s fees and $4,500 for built-in walnut furnishings. Wright's original cost estimate had been $35,000. In today's dollars, $155,000 amounts to about $2.5 million, an extraordinary sum for a weekend house.
Although he had many ideas "in his head," Wright feverishly sketched plans for the house in a matter of a few hours. Months behind on the project, he rushed to have something to show Kaufmann, who had phoned to say that he was already on his way to visit Wright's office.
Wright exercised his typical control over interior furnishings and specifications, designing almost all the furniture and even the fireplace tools. He limited the palette to just two colors: a light ochre for the concrete and his signature Cherokee red for the metal surfaces (both may be purchased today from Pittsburgh Paints). There is liberal use of natural stone on walls, stairs and floors both inside and out.
The main house is approached by a stone-paved bridge spanning the cascading Bear Run. The sound of rushing water greets the visitor, but no entry door is apparent (it is in the rear). An innovative feature is a set of stairs that lead from one of the many terraces directly down to the stream. A plunge pool, walled off from the stream by stone, is adjacent to this area. Except for the stone chimney stack, the entire main house emphasizes horizontal planes and exaggerated cantilevers. The guest house, which boasts a 6-ft. deep swimming pool and a multi-car garage, is located uphill from the main structure.
Click images to enlarge:
Many of the local farmers and skilled workers in the area became part of the construction team that built Fallingwater. During the Depression, they were thankful for extra jobs and income. Walter Hall, a self-taught local builder, oversaw the construction project, including the guest house, for the sum of $50 a week. The stone used in constructing the house was quarried on site, and Hall himself taught many of the unskilled laborers building techniques they were able to use long after the Fallingwater project was completed.
Wright’s commission to design Fallingwater jump started a flagging career. This house became famous after being featured on the cover of TIME magazine in 1938. Many people expected Wright, who was 72 when Fallingwater was completed, to head into retirement. His renewed fame, however, brought him a flurry of commissions; more than half of the four hundred structures he designed were built after Fallingwater. Wright worked right up until his death at age 91.
More than 5 million people have visited Fallingwater since it was opened to the public in 1964. On average, about 150,000 people visit the site annually. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy completed major structural repairs in 2002 to strengthen Fallingwater’s extreme cantilevers, guarding against a possible future collapse and deflection. Attention was paid to leaks and problems with mold, as well.
Note: Kaufmann commissioned another architectural masterpiece for use as a vacation house. In 1946 he hired noted Viennese architect Richard Neutra to design a house to be built on the edge of Palm Springs, CA, as a retreat from harsh winters. Neutra had once been a Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice and even named his son after Wright. Subsequent owners (including Barry Manilow) altered the Palm Springs house dramatically and insensitively, but a thorough and accurate restoration returned it to its original condition in the late 1990s. The house, a fabled example of the International Style against which Wright rebelled, was sold at auction in 2008 by Christie’s Auction House for $15 million.
Photo below: Fallingwater viewed from Bear Run.
Skeletons in the Closet:
Most visitors to Fallingwater come on a pilgrimage to the Holy Grail of modern architecture, where they are allowed to worship at the feet of a genius. However, Fallingwater was the scene of events lived on a less lofty plane. The house was a possession of a rich and powerful family that played by its own rules. Liliane and Edgar traveled to NYC to get married, because it was not then legal for first cousins to marry in Pennsylvania. Soon after she became immersed in the business of the department store and introduced the people of Pittsburgh to the fashions of Paris. While at Kaufmann’s, she turned the then-unprofitable 11th floor women’s shop into a successful boutique, Vendôme, a reflection of the elegant Place Vendôme in Paris. She traveled through Europe to keep it stocked with antiques, artwork, and interesting objects d’art. Liliane ruled the Vendôme floor completely, returning from buying trips to Europe with the flair of royalty, her attendants and chauffeur in tow. To her secretary at the time, Mary Michaely, it was like the return of a queen to her palace.
The Kaufmanns flaunted their money with an over-the-top lifestyle, regularly hosting extravagant themed parties that tipped toward debauchery. They shocked friends when they sunbathed in the nude. The Kaufmanns were given to avant-garde behavior and marketed themselves outrageously. Edgar was a notorious womanizer who favored women half his age, often showgirls; in 1929 Edgar fathered a child with a model from his store. Both Liliane and Edgar abused alcohol.
Liliane did not like Fallingwater, mentioning that the terraces made the bedroom hot (she had a bedroom separate from that of her husband), and that the location directly over a stream created problems with mold. And the roof leaked. She often retired to the guest house up the hill and swam in its pool, enjoying solitude there. She doted on her son, who withdrew from the family retail business in Pittsburgh for a career in New York City, where his homosexuality was more accepted.
Edgar Jonas Kaufmann Sr. (called “E.J.” by his close friends) frequently crossed swords with Wright (another notorious womanizer). E.J. commissioned another dozen projects from the architect, but never built any of them. Wright was offended when Edgar Sr. hired one of Wright’s own students, Richard Neutra, to design a winter home in Palm Springs. Liliane confided to Wright that she and Edgar seldom shared a house except for purposes of entertaining, and she approached Wright about designing a private retreat just for her in Palm Springs.
In 1952, Liliane died from an overdose of sleeping pills while at Fallingwater, after she learned that her husband had fallen in love with his much younger nurse (Edgar had chronic and often severe back problems). The coroner declared the death accidental, but Edgar jr. insisted his mother’s death was a suicide. After marrying said nurse (he was in his late 60s; she was 34), Edgar Sr. died only seven months later (1955) of bone cancer while in residence at his Neutra-designed Palm Springs home. Upon learning that Kaufmann had left the bulk of his estate to his charitable foundation, his new wife sued for $5 million, declaring that she needed to maintain her lifestyle and status. She had signed a prenuptial agreement, however, and after years of legal challenges, eventually lost the suit. She died in a tragic accidental fire inside her apartment in Pittsburgh in the 1960s, just 15 minutes before her maid arrived.
Edgar jr., deeply affected by his parents’ estrangement and his mother’s subsequent death, was eventually able to accomplish what he was unable to do while his parents were alive. He commissioned an extravagant mausoleum of earth-toned stucco and stone to be built on the grounds of Fallingwater; he transferred his mother’s body from Pittsburgh’s Homewood Cemetery and eventually interred his father there, as well. At last Edgar jr.'s parents were as he wanted them, joined together, side-by-side. Noted Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti created the crypt’s huge bronze doors, which depict two solitary bas-relief stick-like figures, a woman sitting against a tree on the right and a man standing far away on the left, facing each other across a barren valley. Kevin Gray, in a New York Times feature from 2001, described the doors as having “dark, stormy background branches evoking William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”
The tomb is several hundred yards upstream from the main house, reached by its own bridge, although tourists are not allowed to visit it. In fact, docents and guides will not reveal its exact location. Edgar jr's own body was cremated in 1989, and his ashes were scattered around the grounds of Fallingwater, as well as those of his long time companion, Paul Mayén.
Edgar jr., as discrete as his parents were brash, had a substantial career as a learned and disciplined historian, an exact and graceful writer, a perceptive critic, educator and philanthropist – all without a traditional college education. One of his enduring legacies was co-founding, along with famed architects Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames, the GOOD DESIGN awards in 1950; GOOD DESIGN grants international recognition upon designers and manufacturers for advancing new, visionary, and innovative product concepts, invention and originality, and for stretching the envelope beyond what is considered ordinary product and consumer design. During the past 60 years winners have included Alessi, Porsche, Bang & Olufsen, Apple, Herman Miller, Bose and Knoll. The 2010 winners will be announced in September.
Tip: If salacious details fascinate you, buy the cookbook available in the gift shop. Elsie Henderson was the personal cook for the Kaufmann household, and she reveals much more than favorite family recipes.
Exerpt (text accompanies a recipe for chicken/avocado salad):
Elsie often featured avocado in salads when Edgar Jr. and his companion, Paul Mayén, were at Fallingwater. “Mr. Mayén loved avocados.”
Elsie Henderson, an African-American, is today 96 years old. A portion of the cookbook’s profits help support her.
The Mayén Connection
It is a curious fact that Paul Mayén, a Spanish-born industrial designer who for 36 years shared Edgar jr’s Manhattan apartment and retreat in Hydra, Greece, designed the gift shop, café and visitor center complex (built in 1978) set in the woods above Fallingwater. Everyone who tours Fallingwater passes through it. As well, one of Paul Mayén’s design creations, a red cubical sculpture, sits unheralded on the coffee table in Fallingwater’s living room.
Frank Lloyd Wright, who in 1956 had designed a retreat house known as Kentuck Knob for I.N. and Bernadine Hagan (just four miles from Fallingwater), suggested that they hire Edgar jr. and Mayén (as a couple) to assist in selecting furniture. Paul and Edgar jr. directed the Hagans toward furnishings by George Jensen and Hans Wegner. They selected Jack Lenor Larsen fabrics for the built-in Wright-designed seating area and purchased Moroccan rugs from Kaufmann’s department store in Pittsburgh. Now owned by a British Lord, Kentuck Knob is open for tours. While it is a fine example of a modest Usonian house, and in pristine condition, every interior surface is marred by excessive clutter from the present occupants. Wright would have had apoplexy.
In 1975, Mayén designed a country house for the Hagans in rural New York State. As well, Paul Mayén designed the jacket of a book about Wright, Drawings for a Living Architecture (1959), and provided photographs for a 1965 book about Fallingwater.
Given his professional contributions to such an iconic architectural site and his personal ties to its heir, it is astonishing that so little is known about Mayén and his work.
Below: Wright's office for Edgar Sr. at the Kaufmann Department Store, now on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.