In 1934, when Edgar Kauffman Sr., a Pittsburgh department store owner, turned to Frank Lloyd Wright to design a weekend house in the country, it was to cost $35,000. At the time, Frank Lloyd Wright was 67 years old and a world famous architect, but thanks to the Depression of the 1920s and 30s, commissions had dried up and he faced an uncertain future. To counter this, he established the Taliesin Fellowship in Wisconsin, a venture whereby student architects paid to work under him and learn his methods. One of his students was Edgar Kauffman Jr. who introduced him to his parents. In the end, the house which was built in 1937 cost a whopping $150,000. Unsurprisingly given the final price of the house versus the estimate, existing correspondence between the two men shows that the building of the house was often – how shall we say – fraught? Yet it was and remains a masterpiece and in July 2019 was so acknowledged when it (along with seven other FLW designed buildings), became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Lloyd Wright was famously exacting; he designed most of the furniture in the house, both built-in cupboards and shelving – made of walnut veneer over ship’s plywood – as well as free standing hassocks, chairs and desks. Our guide told us the story of the desk Wright designed for Edgar Sr’s study which was too small to be effective. But the larger desk that the client wanted did not fit with Lloyd Wright’s aesthetic vision because it obstructed the opening of the ingenious stacked tower of casement windows he had designed as part of the stone tower. A compromise was reached when a semi-circle was carved out of the larger desk that allowed the window to open, a solution reached – according to our guide – when in responding to the architect’s complaints, Edgar Sr wrote that it was not possible to write the very large checks the architect required on a very small desk. Liliane Kauffman had a similar problem when she wanted to bring a torchère from her house in Pittsburgh to put next to her armchair for reading. Lloyd Wright forbade it – it did not fit the house. Liliane insisted and Lloyd Wright backed down.
He wanted to create the illusion that the house was part of its surroundings, to bring nature indoors, and at Fallingwater he did this by integrating the layered limestone of Bear Run as interior and exterior walls, in a way that echoed the natural form of the rock outside. He incorporated an open stairway from the main room that led to a plunge pool that was part of the creek, which was accessed the way you enter the interior of a sail boat, by sliding back the horizontal hatch, a panel which in this case is made of glass. In the summer time this helped cool the house which did not have air conditioning. Just feet from this plunge pool, the creek falls over the ledge of the rock – a view that has become the iconic vista of Fallingwater.
The horizontal planes of the cantilevered terraces are made of poured concrete and the floor inside is of flat, polished irregular-sized stones that remind one of the rounded smoothness of river stones. The central tower which ends in an enormous chimney in the main room, anchors the cantilevered part of the house. The house has no imposing entrance, in fact it does not have even an obvious front door which is tucked away off to the side, beyond a trellis of concrete that seems to link the house to the rock on the other side of the driveway.
A guest house further up the hillside is connected to the main house by a stepped concrete ‘canopy’ that mimics the lines of the main house. Fallingwater still houses the Kauffman’s eclectic collection of art including drawings by Picasso, Zuni pottery from the South-West USA, Mexican pottery, a slew of textiles including South East Asian ikat and Native American patterns, a large cast-iron Buddha head, Ming teapots, Japanese Imari ceramics, a Burmese wedding chest, European Medieval and Renaissance religious art, Pre-Columbian statuary, bronze sculptures by Lipchitz and Tiffany lamps.
Yet for all its unique design and extraordinary location, Fallingwater has something of a sad history. Edgar and Liliane were first cousins who because of their co-sanguinity could not marry in their home state of Pennsylvania and had to marry in New York, in 1909. But the marriage was not a happy one and they often lived separate lives. Although Liliane came to love Fallingwater, at first she found the interior of the house “cold, barren and monotonous.” She also thought the kitchen was too small and there was not enough storage space. By 1946, the Kauffmans had build another modernist house, designed by the architect and Wright protegée, Richard Neutra, in Palm Springs, CA, where they spent the winters. (Wright – as you might imagine – was not best pleased on hearing this.) By 1951 Liliane contacted Wright to say she was leaving Fallingwater for good and asked him to build her a house in nearby OhioPyle. (Other sources suggest she commissioned Wright to build something for her in Palm Springs.) He never responded, although she sent a follow-up letter, and it is not clear that he ever received the letters. In a letter to her son, she wrote , “I don’t think I can possibly go on living” and the following year, Liliane died of an overdose of sedatives. It was ruled an accidental death, although given the circumstances suicide cannot be ruled out. Within two years Edgar Sr. married his longtime mistress Grace Stoops, before succumbing to cancer seven months later.
In 1963, Edgar Kauffman gifted the house, along with 1600 acres, to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and today the house is a museum. You must book a guided tour of the house and it is a good idea to reserve in advance. We took the regular house tour but we became Friends of Fallingwater, and the next time we’ll take the more in-depth art tour. Only on certain tours, is photography inside the house permitted, which is why you don’t see any here. As for Kauffman’s department store, the turn of the 19th/20th century building is now shuttered. We saw a sign saying that it is to be converted into luxury flats.