Finally Falling Water

For the last 35 years, since I first fell in love with Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, I have looked for and, where possible, seen his buildings wherever I had lived or travelled. I even went to the spot in Tokyo where his Imperial Hotel (one of the few major buildings to survive the 1923 (magnitude 8.3 earthquake) used to stand. But for all my Wright worship, I had never quite made it to {Pittsburgh, much less to the tiny town of Mill Run, to see Wright’s masterpiece, Falling Water.

This year came my chance. We were planning one of our annual trips to Washington D.C. and were thinking of other things to do in the area. I thought this could be the time to build three long-anticipated Pennsylvania stops—Pittsburgh (see my previous blog), Gettysburg (see my next blog) and Falling Water into the trip.

Falling Water was all I had anticipated. Seeing it from the outside was breathtaking. Seeing it from the inside and learning the nuances of the design, inspiring. Standing on the deck, looking over the waterfall, in the company of the Kaufman family’s highly complementary Oriental sculptures, was practically Zen. And his was despite the crowds in October, the single busiest month of the year (more than 100,000 visitors per year), were large and continuous.

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Falling Water was hailed as a critical and popular masterpiece since the day it was completed in 1939. It even graced the cover of Time Magazine. True:

  • The $155,000 price tag (more than $1.5 million in today’s dollars) was several times what he Kaufman family had initially budgeted for their vacation home;
  • The structure never quite met the needs of the owners since Wright was, characteristically, unwilling to make many of the adaptations the family requested; and
  • The new construction techniques (flat roof and reinforced concrete, with no supporting beams for huge cantilevered decks) resulted in numerous leaks and sagging floors, which later (2001) necessitated an $11.5 million restoration.

But, heck, that is the price of buying, not to speak of living in, a piece of art.

To really appreciate the house and its seamless integration into and perfect harmony with its beautiful surroundings, see the virtual tour of Falling Water’s site, construction, exterior and interior.

For the real experience, take the tour. Our guide, Melissa, was extraordinary: Knowledgeable, engaging and extremely open. Too bad she had to turn us over to another person for the last segment of the tour who did little more than show us a video and deliver a cheap pitch for donating to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which manages Falling Water. Although we were prepared to donate before this pitch, our “closer: came off as being as schlocky as a timeshare salesperson. Not surprisingly fewer than one of ten groups from our tour ended up contributing anything to the fund for replacing the Falling Water windows and that none joined the foundation.

While Falling Water was awesome and the tour wonderful, it was a shame the experience was ruined with such a cheap, unprofessional pitch.

 

Kentuck Knob

While we were at Falling Water, we took the short 15 minute detour to Kentuck Knob, a house that Wright designed 20 years later for the Hagen family, friends of the Kaufmans. But, while Falling Water was a custom project, Kentuck Knob was one of Wright’s later Usonian houses, an effort to reduce the price of master architecture to make it affordable to more people.

Not that it was cheap, especially after the Hagen’s requested numerous upgrades to the original design. The total cost–$96,000 including Wright’s $12,500 design fee but excluding the $12,000 for custom George Nakeshima furniture and several thousand more for landscaping and planting trees on an entire mountainside).

The result, another lovely home that, to reduce costs, made a number of compromises and resulted in small rooms and in one case, a tiny (19-inch wide) hallway. Even so, Kentuck Knob, like most of Wright’s work, is beautiful in and of itself and not only blends seamlessly into, but also enhances nature.

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A tour of Kentuck Knob comes with its own bonus, a chance to see the Hagan’s 43-piece sculpture garden, with sculptures from Oldenburg, Goldsworthy and other artists.

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