5 Things You Should Know About Fallingwater

Falling Water Frank Lloyd Wright HouseExterior of house with waterfall
Courtesy Western Pennsylvania Conservancy)

More than 80 years after its completion, Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater stands as a marvel of modern architecture.

An open floor plan. Built-in storage. Clean, organic lines, and a harmonious indoor-outdoor balance. These hallmarks of mid-century modern design tend to be associated with American architecture in the 1940s, ‘50s, and '60s—the actual mid-century—but the style took root well before that. One of the most iconic examples of the genre is Fallingwater, a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, built in the ‘30s, that puts an organic spin on stark mid-century simplicity. Just over an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh, the last 20 miles or so via a stretch of curvy, tree-lined, two-lane state highway, the home isn’t visible from the road; guests park in a lot and check in at the visitors’ center for the guided tour, the only way to set foot inside this storied property. 

It’s a short walk from there to the house itself, and when it finally comes into view, it's hard to believe it went up some 80 years ago, thanks to its ultra-modern handling of space and forward-thinking design touches. Arguably the pinnacle of Wright's influential career, the home was designed as a weekend retreat for the Kaufmann family, department-store moguls from Pittsburgh who hosted such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo in their splendid new digs. In 1963, Fallingwater was deeded to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and it opened to the public the year after. Since that time, more than 5 million visitors have passed through to pay homage to the fruits of a visionary’s labor. You'll have to book a tour to really experience this quintessential piece of American architecture, but here’s a sneak peek of what awaits behind the falls.

1. MAKING A MASTERPIECE

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When Fallingwater was conceptualized in 1935, Wright was nearing 70 and in a bit of a lull career-wise, thanks to some personal scandals that made him untouchable among the upper crust he relied on for commissions. Some 30 years prior, in his early work in the Midwest, he had embraced the philosophy of organic architecture, and the Kaufmanns’ weekend retreat would turn out to be one of the most striking examples of his approach. Contrary to the family’s expectations of a home overlooking the falls, Wright told his clients that they’d appreciate it more if the waterfall became a part of their everyday life—and if they had to travel to take in the view—so he opted to incorporate the rushing water and natural landscape into the very build. 

He cantilevered the entire building over the falls, making the water the focal point, its sound a constant companion and source of ambiance. The wealthy Kaufmanns agreed to pay $30,000 for a main house and a guest house, both fully furnished. ($4,000 was the average cost of a three-bedroom/one-bath home at the time.) They owned the land, and the materials were on site, so they expected that to be the end of discussion, but the final tally spiraled to $155,000—the equivalent of nearly $3 million today. But it proved worth it. The family moved in in December 1937, and Fallingwater became an immediate sensation, starring in a Museum of Modern Art exhibit and features in Time, Life, and Architectural Forum the next month.

2. PLAYING WITH PERCEPTION

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After butting heads with the Kaufmanns over his proposed vision and the costs it would entail, Wright began building in 1936, with concrete, native Pottsville sandstone, glass, steel and other materials excavated on site and brought in by draft horses and rail. With the idea of compression of space in mind, he created the entrance as a tunnel so visitors would approach the house from the front. You squeeze through that shadowy passageway to get inside, and when you reach the main room, it practically explodes with natural light, made to seem even brighter thanks to the preceding darkness. Wright relied on that sense of compression throughout the house to manipulate the experience, and you'll notice the contrast between darkness and light, open spaces and tight ones, as you move between the cave-like interiors and the broad outdoor terraces and walkways. Frank Lloyd Wright is widely recognized as the father of the open floor plan, a lynchpin of the Prairie school of architecture he pioneered in the early 20th century, and even as late as the ‘30s, Fallingwater’s open layout was a surprising deviation from the norm. 

3. HOME IS WHERE THE HEARTH IS

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Wright believed that the fireplace was the centerpiece of the home, and Fallingwater is no exception. In keeping with the architect's commitment to organic materials and design, the hearth here springs directly from the natural setting. Wright fit the house into and around the boulders surrounding the waterfall on which it’s perched, and one boulder is even weight-bearing and built into the decor. It's a huge piece of rock: Half is in the kitchen, and the other extends into the living room from the outside, creating the hearthstone itself. Under foot, the floors are boulders treated with wax to make them look wet, shiny, and reminiscent of the water.

4. WINDOWS ON THE WORLD

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If the moving water is the star, the windows take the award for best supporting player. With steel sashes that practically float into the the walls and no blinds or curtains to distract from the view, the soaring windows welcome the outside in. (And if Wright had had his way, they would’ve been even more welcoming; for aesthetic purposes, the architect argued against installing mosquito screens, but the Kaufmanns drew the line at that.) On their own, the banks of windows are dramatic, but the understated details are just as impressive, if not more so. Take, for example, the corner windows: An innovation of Wright’s own making, the bevel-edged panes open up entirely, bringing in light where it hadn’t been before. It was a groundbreaking design element that would, in the following years, become popular worldwide. 

5. THE DETAILS

Nothing in the house is behind glass or protected in any way, so there’s a strict no-touching rule in effect. Guided tours are offered daily from 10:00 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closed Wednesdays); tickets start at $30 for adults and $18 for kids ages 6-12. Advance bookings are strongly recommended, and children under the age of 6 are not permitted. Admission includes access to the grounds as well as a small gallery adjacent to the visitors' center, with exhibits that put Fallingwater in the greater context of Wright's work and the Kaufmann family's background; there's also an extensive gift shop worth browsing as you wait for your group's number to be called. And, for a light bite before or after your tour, there's a surprisingly good café on site. Sandwiches and salads are prepared with more care than you'd expect, but the desserts steal the show. If it's available, definitely grab a slice of Wright's traditional birthday treat, a lighter-than-it-sounds layer cake with strawberry jam and copious-yet-ethereal tiers of whipped cream. fallingwater.org.

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