Wednesday, May 19, 2010 American Icon

     Preface: For years I tried to picture the setting and surrounding countryside at Fallingwater, a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece.  In May of 2007, with the sunlight sifting through the Pennsylvania woodlands, I finally made the architectural pilgrimage to the house, located on Bear Run (creek).  As I walked from the visitor’s center, deeper into the woods, a peaceful feeling enveloped me; time and the outside world faded in importance.  Walking into, through, and around what is arguably the most famous house in America gave me a great appreciation for the three-dimensional aspects of the architectural icon.  The cantilevered outdoor terraces seemed like tree-house platforms above the creek.  I was spellbound by the natural surroundings that were integrated into the design.  I breathed the country air and listened to the creek, full from spring rains, rush over the waterfall.  I fell in love with the space and when the tour ended I wanted to linger as long as possible.

The cantilevered terraces of Fallingwater
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA
(used with permission of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy)

Fallingwater…an American Icon
Non-fiction Research
by Gregory E. Larson, AIA
copyright 2010

     Frank Lloyd Wright. Clients loved him, or hated him, or both.  Enigmatic, egotistic, and iconic…he was an original American architect whose design philosophy was built into the American landscape, from the Wisconsin farmland to the Arizona desert, and was in the details of houses and buildings from coast to coast.  His flat-brimmed hat mimicked the prairie-style roofs and cantilevers. His bright suit reflected the color of stucco.

     Although his long and storied career was legendary, one project was the most defining, the most recognized and revered.  Tucked into the forest of maples, oaks and beeches, in a valley of the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, and resting on the sandstone ledges of Bear Run (creek), Fallingwater embraces the natural surroundings.  The holy grail of American architecture, a mere country home for its original inhabitants, juts over the creek, creating a daring and unique design which marries the house to the site.

     By 1934, Wright was sixty-seven years of age.  He had established himself as a well-known architect through a prolific career in Chicago, but many believed he was past his prime.  His practice languished in the depression era and he had retreated to his family’s property near Spring Green, Wisconsin, where he established the Taliesen Fellowship, a design school for architectural apprentices.  Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., the son of a Pittsburgh department store merchant, wanting to learn more about architecture and Frank Lloyd Wright, applied to the fellowship and was accepted to attend in the fall of 1934.

     Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr., and his wife Liliane traveled to Taliesen to visit their son and meet Wright.  Their conversation with the famous architect was engaging and lengthy.  Thus began a famous relationship that blossomed and made Fallingwater a reality.

     Wright traveled to Pittsburgh in December of 1934 to visit Kaufmann, Sr., at his downtown department store and office.  The trip included a visit to Bear Run Creek (approximately 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh), where Wright walked the property, viewed the falls on the creek and inspected the woodlands.  Kaufmann, told Wright that he and his family used the property and a small cabin there as a retreat, but wanted something more permanent and livable.  Wright asked Kaufmann for a detailed survey of the property, including locations of the large trees.  This would assist Wright in designing the house and establishing its location.

     Wright’s design process for the house was slow, though one can imagine him continually designing and redesigning it in his mind, hesitating to commit pencil to paper.  By September of 1935, Kaufmann was anxious to see Wright’s progress.  He traveled to Milwaukee and called Wright to let him know he would arrive in Spring Green in just a few hours.  According to the apprentices, Wright quickly developed detailed sketches of the floor plans and elevations, using his colored pencils to enhance the drawings.  The design that had been established in his mind flowed freely to the paper.  Upon Kaufmann’s arrival, Wright suggested lunch, which allowed two of the apprentices to create some additional drawings for discussion.  After lunch, Wright shared his design, while Kaufmann, not knowing the drawings were freshly completed, absorbed the presentation.  Once Kaufmann understood that the house was built over the waterfall, he was somewhat shocked, but accepted the design.  Over time, he fully embraced Wright’s bold creation and allowed the architect to continue with the construction drawings.

     In his excitement, Kaufmann arranged for some natural stone on the property to be quarried for the house.  Without Wright’s knowledge, Kaufmann also retained an engineer who had worked on some of his projects in Pittsburgh.  Being cautious, he wanted to have the design reviewed independently.  The engineer expressed concerns about the condition of the soil and rock where the house was to be situated.  Kaufmann ignored those concerns but did take heed of one of the engineer’s recommendations…to increase the size of the reinforcing bars from one-half inch diameter to three-quarter inch diameter…to which Wright surprisingly agreed.  Even though the size of the reinforcing bars was increased, structural problems, as described further in this article, were not eliminated with the change.

     By June of 1936, construction began on the house.  As with any project, many issues and obstacles had to be overcome, but a paramount issue with Kaufmann was his continued concern over the concrete structural design for the cantilever beams.  Without Wright’s knowledge, Kaufmann hired another engineering consultant from Pittsburgh.  Their recommendation was to increase the size and the amount of reinforcing steel in the beams…from three-quarter inch diameter to one inch diameter bars, and from a total of eight bars to sixteen in each beam.  Additional reinforcing was added prior to construction without Wright’s knowledge, and once he was told, he became furious with Kaufmann, telling him that he was insulted for being second-guessed.

     The change, although an improvement which prevented collapse of the beams during the twentieth century, did not provide the proper strength needed for structural integrity.  When the forms were removed, the cantilever beams deflected downward a full one and three-quarter inches.  As the construction progressed, cracks began to appear on several cantilevers, including some on the second floor balcony.

     The cost of the project mushroomed to over $150,000, well over Kaufmann’s originally expressed desire to spend only $25,000, but he allowed Wright to continue with custom furniture designs for the house.  Kaufmann wanted to position himself in Pittsburgh society and impress those of importance with his bold and unique country home.  With construction complete, the family was able to move into the house in November of 1937, prior to Thanksgiving.

Fallingwater...timeless beauty in the woods
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA
(used with permission of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy)

     The Kaufmanns enjoyed their new retreat, and added a guest house further up the hillside, where many famous people came to stay and be comforted by the natural setting.  The family enjoyed the house until the 1950’s; Liliane died in 1952, and Kaufmann, Sr., died in 1955.  In 1963, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., who wanted the house to be preserved, donated it to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

     In the 1990’s, renewed attention was given to the structural condition of the house, and studies were made by engineering students and professionals.  After a seventeen month study by Robert Silman, a structural engineer, it was determined that the cantilevers had deflected downward as much as seven inches since the house was constructed.  The deflection would continue to increase over time, and if not corrected, the structure would ultimately collapse onto the waterfall.

     The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy moved forward with plans for structural and architectural repairs, and hired the necessary consultants and contractors to restore integrity to the house.  The structural solution was to strengthen the cantilever beams with post-tensioned cables, hidden in the floor cavity.  It was a high-tech solution not available to Wright and his engineers in the 1930’s.  In late 2001 and early 2002, the renovation was accomplished.  The flagstones on the terraces and in the living room were removed and numbered, piece by piece.  The structural repairs were executed, and the flagstones reinstalled like a giant puzzle.  Other repairs were made to the stairway, windows, cabinetry and furniture.  Although the house is now considered structurally sound, some of the deflection in the cantilever remains, providing a historical reminder of an issue that plagued the masterful design.

     Fallingwater, with its appearance and structural integrity restored, continues to be an American icon, visited by more than 130,000 people each year.  After their rendezvous with nature and the house, many visitors reluctantly walk the path back to the visitor center, straining to hear the waterfall, until the woods and underbrush cloak the senses, leaving the timeless beauty of the site for others to enjoy. American Icon
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA
(used with permission of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy)


Atkins, Jim. FAIA. “Fallingwater: The Story of a Country House.” AIArchitect. Six-part monthly series, 19 June 2009 through 13 November 2009.

Saving Fallingwater, directed and produced by Kenneth Love, written by Tom Dubensky and Bill Doorley, narrated by David Conrad. Kenneth A. Love International, 2006.

Toker, Franklin. Fallingwater Rising. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003

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