Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece, restored with help from a Save America’s Treasures Grant
Western Pennsylvania Conservancy
Mill Run, Pennsylvania
Year of Award: 1999
National Park Service SAT Grant: $901,000
Matching Share Leveraged: $901,000
“Wright and my father were both outgoing, winning, venturesome men, and my father quickly felt the power of Wright’s genius.” Edgar Kaufmann, Jr (sic)
In 1935, at the age of 70, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) designed what is often referred to as his masterpiece, Fallingwater. The residence is located at Bear Run in a rural area of Mill Run, Pennsylvania, approximately 50 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. Completed in 1937, at a cost of $155,000, this iconic residence was designed for Edgar Jonas (E.J.) Kaufmann, Sr. a highly successful businessman, who was owner and president of the family business, Kaufmann’s Department Store in Pittsburgh. The story behind the unusual design, difficult and often contentious construction, and challenging restoration is complicated. The story reflects that unique combination of an architect’s vision and a willing client converging to create an enduring legacy. A 1999 Save America’s Treasures grant assisted with the study and structural repair of major portions of the residence.
Client, Architect, Ideas, and Theories
The clients, Kaufmann, Sr. and his wife, Liliane, enjoyed the company and creativity of artists, architects, and writers. They were familiar with Wright’s early work and his successful career as an architect. However the connection between the Kaufmanns and Wright occurred through correspondence between Wright and Kaufmann in January 1934 about another project of Wright’s, as Franklin Toker presents in his book Fallingwater Rising; or, through Edward Kaufmann, Jr., who adamantly insisted that the connection with Wright came through him, a student of Wright’s at Taliesen, where his parents came to visit in the fall of 1934 and met Wright in person. Nonetheless, the relationship that ensued between the eccentric and unpredictable Frank Lloyd Wright and the entrepreneurial and risk-taking Kaufmanns produced one of America’s finest architectural achievements and established a life-long relationship.
Wright’s theories and philosophy about “organic” architecture, respect for nature, and man’s harmony with his natural surroundings matched the Kaufmann family’s similar ideas for their Bear Run site. However, the unique design of the residence that makes it so appealing and extraordinary for its site, its views, and its being “one” with nature, have caused challenges for its long-term care and preservation. Wright’s use of a series of reinforced concrete cantilevered balconies and the related engineering aspects of the design created problems from the outset. Over time, the main cantilever over the waterfall has proven to be the most difficult area of the building to stabilize. Significant engineering studies conducted in the mid-1990’s revealed serious structural issues that needed immediate attention if Fallingwater was to remain viably safe and open to the public.
The Story Unfolds
Today, Fallingwater is surrounded by the 5,000 acre Bear Run Nature Reserve also owned by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Originally, the Kaufmanns owned a cabin and property that included a waterfall at Bear Run that they used for many years as a rural retreat. They regularly hosted many groups of employees to the site and enjoyed the surrounding landscape and rustic environment. By 1933, the Kaufmanns had amassed 1,914 acres at Bear Run. With the eventual deterioration of the cabin, situated near a road, and increasing traffic, Kaufmann, Sr. decided to construct a more substantial family retreat away from the original cabin site and closer to the waterfall. After meeting Wright at Taliesen, Kaufmann, Sr. eventually contacted him about a design for this new residence. Wright visited the Bear Run site in November 1934, and plans for a house began to evolve.
Ten months later, the following September, Kaufmann, Sr. surprised Wright with an unexpected call and visit to Taliesin to see progress on the plans. No physical plans had yet been drawn, although Wright had assured the Kaufmanns over that 10-month period that progress on a plan for a residence at the Bear Run site was well underway. With only two hours notice, Wright and his apprentices produced the drawings that were presented to Kaufmann, Sr. and on them was written in Wright’s hand “Fallingwater.” With minor changes, these drawings represent the residence as constructed.
Challenges and Conflicts
Although Kaufmann, Sr. had anticipated a view of the waterfall, Wright instead incorporated the waterfall into the design of the house. The result is Fallingwater as it exists today in its organic and natural setting with its series of reinforced concrete cantilevered balconies. Kaufmann, Sr. and Wright argued over the stability of the cantilevers, each overruling the other, changing structural designs, and ordering contractors to accomplish aspects of the project without the other’s knowledge. In the end, Kaufmann, Sr. ordered additional steel reinforcements added to Wright’s original plan for the main cantilever, although it was unknown whether this actually occurred until radar studies conducted in 1995 substantiated this fact.
The main cantilever exhibited a significant deflection immediately after the forms were removed. Over time, this issue created structural problems for both cantilevers. In the mid-1990’s, the Western Reserve Pennsylvania Conservancy had major engineering studies conducted of the residence. These studies revealed significant additional deflections that needed immediate intervention. Temporary shoring was placed under the first floor cantilever until a solution could be reached that respected the integrity of the building and would allow the site to remain open to the public. As a result, a post-tensioning system was developed to remedy the deflection problems and properly support the cantilevers. Four beams and east-west joists support the first floor cantilever over the waterfall. Post-tensioning cables were added to strengthen three of these beams. After the post-tensioning system was in place, the house lifted .5” and the cantilever itself was lifted off the temporary shoring below. The Save America’s Treasures grant was instrumental in developing and installing this post-tensioning system.
Construction on Fallingwater began in 1936. Many local craftsmen and unskilled laborers were employed to build the residence using local sandstone and boulders. Walter Hall, a self-taught builder from Port Allegany, Pennsylvania knew Wright’s work. Hall’s work with concrete and rough-laid masonry had been utilized at his own home “Lynn Hall.” He was selected by Wright to oversee the construction of the main 5,330 square foot residence completed in 1938. The interior encompasses 2,885 square feet, while the terraces consist of 2,445 square feet. Hall also oversaw the construction of the 1,700 square foot guest house.
A Family Legacy
Fallingwater served as the Kaufmann family’s weekend home from 1937-1963. After Kaufman, Sr.’s death in 1955, Kaufmann, Jr. (1910-1989), the only child of Kaufmann, Sr. (1885-1955) and his wife, Liliane (1889-1952), continued to use the house as a retreat. In 1963, Kaufmann, Jr., donated the residence and surrounding acreage to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC) and they opened the site to the public as a museum in 1964.
Kaufmann Jr.’s passion for art, architecture and preservation ensured the family legacy of Fallingwater and secured its place in the public domain. A curator at the Museum of Modern Art, a writer, and Adjunct Professor of Architecture and Art History at Columbia University (1963-1986), Kaufmann Jr.’s background, knowledge, and love for his family’s home made him the perfect steward to ensure Fallingwater’s preservation for future generations.
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966, Fallingwater is one of very few Wright buildings with its artwork, furnishings, and setting entirely intact. Over 5 million visitors have come to the site since it opened in 1964.
Established in 1999, the Save America’s Treasures program is managed by the National Park Service, with the National Endowment Agencies, to preserve and protect nationally significant properties and collections for future generations of Americans. Stories of saving those treasures will be shared through partnership with the American Architecture Foundation.
Featured photo courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith.