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Sunday, August 21, 2011


Bear Run waterfall, 1912.
Today, Fallingwater would be visible
in the upper third of this photo.
(See photo at bottom.)
All he wanted was a modest, weekend hunting lodge to replace the aging log house high on the banks overlooking Bear Run, deep in the woods of southern Pennsylvania. What he got was an artistic masterpiece, as much sculpture as architecture, a house so perfectly in tune with it's woodland environment it was being featured on magazine covers even before construction was completed. His name was Edgar Kauffman, the president of Pittsburgh's Kauffman's Department Store. It was land that had been in the family for more than a generation, and the site, with it's massive boulders, flowing stream, and picturesque waterfalls, had been used for company picnics even before that. Kauffman's intellectual son, Edgar, Jr., was toying with the idea of becoming an architect. He was studying as an intern with a noted Wisconsin architect. And it was through his son that Edgar Kauffman met the illustrious and eccentric Frank Lloyd Wright.

Fallingwater (drawing), 1935, Frank, Lloyd Wright
The year was 1934, amid the coldest, hardest days of the Depression, and the cold and bluster of mid-December when Kauffman first took Wright to the Bear Run site. The barren splendor of the stream and its icy falls made a lasting impression upon the sometimes cantankerous genius. It stayed with him as the image of the structure he would build there took shape in his mind. Moreover, that's where it stayed for almost a year. Only when Wright got word the Kauffman would be coming to Wisconsin to look over plans for the weekend house was he forced to finally put them on paper. In fact, the first rough conceptual sketches were begun just the afternoon before Kauffman was to arrive. Floor plans were sketched out that night, and the first two elevations were finished in the morning hours just before he came. The final two elevation drawings were done by apprentices while Wright and Kauffman were having lunch.& Yet amazingly as construction proceeded during the next two years, there were few and only very minor departures from these original drawings.

Fallingwater, 1935-38,
Frank Lloyd Wright
The house Wright called "Fallingwater." It was not at all what Kauffman had in mind. He'd initially expected a structure downstream from the falls where he might view their cascading beauty. He confided to Wright afterwards, "When I asked you to build me a house by the falls, I didn't know you were gonna build it on top of the damned thing." It is indeed, made of cantilevered, reinforced concrete, jutting out from a massive boulder and rock ledges, its stone quarried on the site, its horizontal lines and balconies perfectly mirroring those of the stratified rock that created the falling water which had so impressed Wright that cold December day in 1934. Although some might consider his Chicago Prairie Houses or his Johnson Center superior in form and function, it was the magical beauty of Fallingwater that revived Wright's sagging career of 40 years, and lifted him to prominence, bringing him important commissions, allowing him to soar to greatness as both a working and teaching master architect. His Taliesin Fellowship has now spawned two generations of followers. His design theories and philosophies, even today, are on the cutting edge of his art, some 75 years after Fallingwater began hovering over Bear Run.


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