Fallingwater


In 1936...

"Young Bob Mosher arrived at Bear Run to oversee the construction of Fallingwater. Looking down the steep slope at the tangle of rhododendrons and boulders, Mosher asked Frank Lloyd Wright where the main floor level would be in relation to the wild and tilted terrain. Wright pointed out a large boulder and told Mosher to climb up on it. After Mosher had scrambled through the bushes and pulled himself up on the rock, Wright told him that the rock would be the datum, or floor level, and left for Wisconsin."

("Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater: The House and Its History", Donald Hoffman, Dover Publications, 1993, p. 34.)

How did he know that would happen?

One might bet that wild old guy called it "his" house until the day he died, even though the house was owned by E. J. and Liliane Kaufmann (Pittsburgh). When they approached Wright about building their country house, the current rage in those days was lots of wood shingles and antlers all over. Wright, of course, had something very different in his mind since the day he examined the site. Fortunately for both Wright and the history of architecture, the Kaufmanns were up to the challenge. Commissions for a man like him were hard to come by in the depths of the Depression, and very few people were spending 125,000 1930's dollars on a country house. Further, almost nobody indulged the sort of experimental abstractions of form from situation and purpose which were the only things Wright knew.

There appears to be absolutely no record that a single line of Fallingwater had been committed to paper before E.J. Kaufmann telephoned Taliesin to inform Wright that he'd just landed at Milwaukee, and would drive out to "look at the plans for my house". Edgar Tafel, then an apprentice, describes a flurry of dancing pencils, flying vellums, and frantic action, as "the design just poured out of him". It was the apprentices who were frantic: Wright was merely brisk, "talking sotto voce all the while. `Liliane and E.J. will have tea on the balconey...they'll cross the bridge and walk into the woods...'"

"Just before noon, Mr. Kaufmann arrived. As he walked up the outside stone steps, he was greeted graciously by the Master. They came straight to the drafting table. `E.J.,' said Mr. Wright, `We've been waiting for you.'"

It had only been 140 minutes since the phone rang.

It is quite startling, if not outright shocking, to clearly imagine a 1930's automobile pulling into Fallingwater's drive. It seems that there was never so clean and incisive a collection of lines and planes in the world in those days, and the bulbous contours of a car from that era must have been comically disjoint in contrast to the house. On the other hand, if it was a new car, then all the latest fashions borrowed from aviation design were pressed into the service of 60 mph statements of "modernism" on the highways. Guests would step gracefully over the brand-new "Body by Fisher" id plate gleaming in the light insinuating its way through trees and drive trellis, and step into something which was out of time, always awaiting patiently the next tick of the clock.

Of course, that automobile appears now as hopeless anachronism. Yet, the house remains as startlingly fresh to us, today, as it must have to the engineers who actually feared it would collapse into Bear Run.

Nobody in their right mind would hang almost 17 feet of reinforced concrete terrace (62 feet wide) out over a running, wooded stream, like that...not for a house. Who would want a 6x12-foot hole in their living room floor to accomodate a stairway which suspended its bottom landing in mid-air, inches above the water? Why, the entire building was not much more than terraces and glass, all piled up on the edge of disaster.

"Frank Lloyd Wright built Fallingwater
Where one would think he hadn't oughter."

(cartoon on the wall of a local cafe.)

Of course, he was right. The "datum" rock, which Bob Mosher climbed to, is now the hearth of the great fireplace on the main floor. This also worried structural engineers, who took a dim view of integrating that natural feature into the foundation of the house. Yet, the integration is perfect. Photos of the interior reveal the power of Wright's vision. He must have known that the boulder would play essential emphasis to the effect of Fallingwater as singular viewpoint on nature. The entire design is calculated to exploit its setting: the terraces must cantilever over the stream and keep it close. The "hatch" should be opened to the sound of the stream, morning and evening. Otherwise, neither house or stream might as well exist together.

The point was often lost.

"On one occasion the rough stone indoors led a lady visitor to ask my mother, after due compliments, `Tell me, Mrs. Kaufmann, how will you get the wallpaper to stick on these walls?'"

(E.J. Kaufmann, Jr.)

"The finish floor to finish floor height at Fallingwater is over nine feet, but the waffle slabs are so thick that the net ceiling height is only 6' 4" in some areas. Such low ceilings were typical of Wright's work; myth has it that he adjusted proportions to his own 5' 8 1/2" height. When William Wesley Peters, a long-time associate who towered well over six feet, entered a room, Wright would say, `Sit down Wes - you're ruining the scale of my architecture!'"

(Hoffman)

Such a presumptuous, domineering, bastard.

Before his death, E.J. Kaufmann and his son agreed that the house should someday pass into public domain. He was well aware of what his money had wrought, and that the house should be preserved to find its own time in history, at length. Thus, it is available to the inspection of students and others who would examine a concept set in reality. It plays its tricks of scale for any who enter and find their vision forced outward to the world brought inside, or who walk the rocks outside and delight in its weightless imposition on the stream.

One hundred twenty-five thousand dollars in 1936 was no bagatelle. One is grateful for the audacity of the architect, and the conviction of the client.

How else could one ponder the marvel of those three massive concrete beams, whose ends are set in rock, and which support sixteen feet of the western terrace thrusting into space?

June 9, 1994
Tucker, Ga.

Return to Anthology Contents

© 1995. e-mail =>