October 07, 2003


Confession time. From the point that my dad reminded us that Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece house Fallingwater was just a couple of hours from Pittsburgh, our starting and ending point for the trip, we'd been hoping to squeeze in a visit. I checked out their webpage and saw dire warnings that reservations were a near necessity. We barely made reservations for anything on this trip, and even though the day we'd make it there had been fixed from the moment that we started on our clockwise turn around the region, I never managed to get on the phone to them until yesterday outside the Hershey Museum where I was told that their earliest open tour slot was at 2:30pm. That time was completely useless to us since we had to return the rental car at 3:30 and it's a 2-hour drive from the house to the airport. I knew that they had the option of a grounds pass where we'd be able to at least see the exterior of the house, but we figured we'd try to get there as early as we could in the hopes of slipping into a tour if there were cancellations.

Got up bright and early. Loading the car was super easy with only four bags instead of our usual 6 or 8. We backtracked over the territory we'd covered the night before in search of a motel and got to the Fallingwater park right at their supposed opening time of 10am. At the admission booth I told my tale of woe and asked whether it might be possible to sneak into a tour group without a reservation. They said that it was possible and probably only about 45 minutes away. Yay!

We put our names on the standby list at the desk and read through the exhibit about the house at the visitor center. The visitor center is kind of a cool structure in its own right. It's a big grid of hexagonal platforms held up on concrete pillars so that it sort of hovers over the landscape. It had a nice feel of being there, but not interfering with the site, which fits very well with the mission of the operating organization.

We figured we had to leave by 1pm at the latest so we were a little worried, but apparently a tour bus cancelled out because they had a completely empty tour group that we and the rest of the standbys filled up. It's a five-minute walk from the visitor center to the house itself. The last part of the walk is along the original drive to the house. We ended up on the bridge across the stream whose falls give the house its name. Here we were met by our tour guide.

Fallingwater viewed from the drivewayThe house was commissioned by Edgar J. Kaufmann and his wife to serve as a vacation spot. The waterfall was one of their favorite parts of the property and they asked Wright to design a home for the site. Wright was in his late 60s when he designed the house and integrated all of his experience into the project. Rather than place the house in a position to view the waterfall, he put it right on top of the falls. There is actually no view of the falls from within the house, it can only be seen from the terraces and then only by looking straight down over their edges. The sound of the water is omnipresent.

The Kaufmanns had one son, Edgar Jr. who lived until 1989, but the family's wish was that the house should never be sold, but be given into the public trust for enjoyment by everyone. To this end, the land, the house, and all its contents were given to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy on Junior's death.

On the tour (no photography inside the house again, though they do offer a 2-hour extended tour on which photography for personal use is allowed) you walk through all the rooms and terraces in the main living areas of the house. If the house weren't such a marvel, it would be worth the tour just to view the Kaufmanns' art collection which includes works by Picasso, Diego Rivera, and many other notables. Wright actually consulted with the family on appropriate locations for much of the art.

It was really thrilling to go through the house in person. I've seen multiple tv programs on the house over the years, but there's no substitute for seeing it with your own eyes. Everything is both bigger and smaller than it seems on tv. Many of the rooms in the house are small so that when filming, wide-angle lenses are used which make the rooms look much larger. Fallingwater from downstreamThe actual scale of the house is very human. Each room feels like it should be lived in. The architecture, dramatic as it is, fades into the background and you are drawn through the space. In the rooms with terraces, it's almost as if you're pulled physically to and through the doorway and onto the terrace. But the rooms themselves have a gravity that calls out for you to linger and live in them. It's almost like magic, really. I think my only regret of the tour is that there is never the opportunity to sit in a room and just be in it.

When our tour was over we were getting close to our departure time so we buzzed through the gift shop (lots of crap, but they did have some interesting looking books and cool (and expensive!) reproductions of some of the light fixtures from Fallingwater and some of Wright's other buildings.)

We grabbed some lunch for the road and headed out. 381 north to 711 west to 119 north to 76 north to 376 and west into Pittsburgh. We attempted to go to Point State Park which is on the point between the Allegheny River and the Monongahela where they join to form the Ohio. We overshot and went across the Allegheny on the Fort Duquesne Bridge then we went to the Steelers' stadium where Becky asked a gentleman for directions which he gave (lots of right turns and one surprise left) and we followed, going back across the Roberto Clemente Bridge and into sight of the park where we choked and overshot again, this time going straight into a minor traffic jam on the Ft. Pitt Bridge across the Monongahela.

Time was running out so we decided to drop back and punt, heading on to the airport. Filled the car up with gas, and ditched it back at the rental drop off. Checked in for our flight and shepherded our checked bags through x-ray (little bottles of maple syrup look suspicious on x-ray, FYI). Got all our carry-on bags and our persons through the security checkpoint and took the train out to the concourse. We had an absurd amount of time before our flight so we hiked out the moving sidewalk all the way to the end of the terminal just to see what was there, then grabbed some snacks and sat at a table in a food area. Becky wrote some postcards and I started yesterday's writeup (wrote this one back at home in Issaquah).

The flight back was uneventful, and Rachel met us outside baggage claim and brought us home to our kitties.

Posted by jeffy at October 7, 2003 03:31 PM
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