I went on a trip to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s historic Fallingwater house, which is located in a forested state park area in the southwestern region of the state where I live, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is a large state, and in all the years I have lived here I’ve never managed to get to Falling Water; so I was excited. The day we arrived, the weather was perfect, the water was high, and we toured two Wright houses–this one and Kentuck Knob, one of Wright’s last residential design commissions.
Millions of people tour Fallingwater, so the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy folks (who have stewardship of the property) have their hands full maintaining the place, training docents and volunteers, and just keeping crowd control working. Kudos, by the way. They do a good job. Send them donations.
At the café (there’s always a museum café), my partner pointed out a letter reproduced on the informational wall–a note from Mrs. Kaufmann, owner of the house. She wrote that initially the home intimidated her a bit, as Wright’s designs tend to force the homeowner to live the way the house dictates, rather than the other way around. Curtains, a typical decor requirement for a 1930s residence in town, were anathema to Wright. In the middle of Bear Run forest, did Mrs. Kaufmann need curtains? No, she eventually decided–the trees provided color and changing light and privacy and were far more interesting than curtains. What initially seemed too austere for her tastes grew on her; she learned to do with less “stuff” and found that the simplicity made the things she did add to the house seem all the more valuable and aesthetically pleasing. The Kaufmanns must really have been special people to embrace the challenges of living comfortably in one of Wright’s homes, indeed, in his most unique residential design.
My husband and I designed our current home 17 years ago and have some idea of the compromises owners have to make, most commonly for financial reasons (that was not an issue for the Kaufmanns, who were department-store magnates). As we toured Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, one thing that hit us is that building codes have changed the way Americans build; you couldn’t get a Wright home design past most local zoning commissions in Pennsylvania nowadays.
For example, 19″ hallways? Nope. 6′ ceilings? I don’t think so. Some of the tight interior stair turns would be disallowed. And, let’s face it, the whole cantilevered balcony situation would set off a hundred bureaucratic red flags.
My own house had to agree with the local building code. There was also a budget we really could not exceed. Over the years, we have added to the deck, improved the porch railing, completed building interior doors ourselves, worked extensively on landscaping (first adding to it, then pruning back, then…well, there’s been a bit of mostly benign neglect recently). But we have generally lived comfortably in the house and adapted it to fit our needs, the way most people live in a home. As our living situation changes, with children growing into adulthood and moving away, with fewer pets and no more chickens, with less need for a large vegetable garden, we’re thinking of ways to alter the house. Or even to move out of it, and let some other family have a go at its joys and responsibilities.
Its sensibility leans toward a meadow-type or agricultural feel. That suits the region in which we have settled. Which may be the only way our house parallels Fallingwater: it suits the environment and the region in which it is situated. To me, that is one of the main purposes of good architecture, and the rule most frequently ignored by homebuilders.
Our home can boast an improvement over Wright’s houses: it doesn’t leak (I lived in one in Grand Rapids Michigan in the 1970s, and can attest to the leaking factor). 🙂
For a 3-D computer-animated “flyby” of Falling Water and a half-hour documentary on its history, see this page (Mental Floss). Pretty interesting!