Bel Air News & Views visits Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater


The highlight of Bel Air News & Views’ recent leaf-peeping weekend was a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece Fallingwater in the Laurel Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania. My husband and I have toured several of his midwestern structures (Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis. and the Johnson Wax building in Racine, Wis.) and we had heard this vacation home he built for the Kaufmann department store family of Pittsburgh was worth the four-hour trip. It is. But it takes a bit of planning ahead. Buy your tickets ahead of time. They do sell out. The leaf peeping season is a big time for touring the house (now a museum of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy). After Thanksgiving weekend, it’s only open select weekends. It reopens in mid-March, when I understand the creek that runs beneath the house is surging. Be on your guard here. There are lots and lots of rules: No touching, no photos, no sitting, no leaning, no breathing too closely, no lingering too longingly. Seriously. If you spring for the $55 two-hour tour, I hear they let you take interior photos. We settled for the $16 version and felt it was just enough. There was no part of the house or grounds we felt we hadn’t explored. The house really is remarkable. The cantilevered decks peek out from the trees as you approach and find yourself standing atop a bridge over the very stream the Kaufmann family enjoyed so much they asked Wright to build them a house near it. Wright did them one better. He built them a house right on top of it. We learn the family loved to sun atop a favorite boulder that rises from the bank just above the first of two waterfalls. Wright decided to build them their house right there on that very rock. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering — especially as this was built in the 1930s using nothing more complicated than rock from the land nearby, glass, steel, poured concrete and wood. That beloved sunning rock now rises straight through the home’s living room floor and has become part of the fireplace hearth. (Not so good for sunbathing anymore, but makes great cocktail party chatter.) At the other end of the room, Wright designed a retractable glass trap door that opens to a staircase leading to the stream. The last stair hovers just above water. If you were to step off of it, I imagine the current would carry you right over the waterfall. (But again, makes for great party conversation.) The waterfall itself is kind of a tease. The sound of falling water can be heard throughout the house, from the cantilevered decks that project out over the stream to the windowed rock tower that forms the house’s spine. Yet, the waterfall can’t be seen — save for the very tip of it if you look out over the edge of the house’s decks. (Be careful, the surrounding concrete wall rises only a bit past your knees.) After the tour you’ll get your first chance to spy falling water at Fallingwater. The tour guide directs you back across the house’s bridge and down a path that follows the creek downstream. After a short hike you arrive at a tiny clearing (packed with tourists) that offers a view back at the house. As you wait your turn for a good viewing spot between the trees, you can now both hear and see the waterfall. (I imagine this was the view the Kaufmanns thought they’d get when they asked Wright to build the house.) This is the familar vision from the postcards and picture books with the house rising above a waterfall that seems to pour from its moorings. Wright often talked about how his structures were to fit into the landscape and be part of nature. This one comes across a little more like a magic act. You’re left wondering how he got it suspended there.