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Fallingwater Is Considered Frank Lloyd Wright's Masterpiece. Here's Why

Fallingwater
A view of the famous Fallingwater house by the late architect Frank Lloyd Wright near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. picture alliance/Getty Image

Acclaimed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, "The architect must be a prophet ... if he can't see at least 10 years ahead, don't call him an architect."

Wright proved his own words and became that prophetic architect when he designed Fallingwater, a private residence that is now preserved as a museum, and has captivated countless spectators for more than 80 years.

Set in the Laurel Highlands region in the mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania, Fallingwater remains open to visitors today, many decades after Wright's death in 1959.

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The History of Fallingwater

Pittsburg department store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr. hired Wright in 1935 to design a private residence for his family. The house would serve as their weekend home out in the country, roughly 75 miles (121 kilometers) outside of Pittsburgh. Kaufmann and his wife, Liliane, were impressed by Wright's work after visiting their son at Taliesin, an architectural school Wright designed and ran in Wisconsin.

"The Kaufmanns were innovative retailers with an eye toward good design. Their son, Edgar Kaufmann Jr., read Frank Lloyd Wright's autobiography and participated in Wright's apprentice program at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin," says Clinton E. Piper in an email. Piper works as a senior administrator of special projects at Fallingwater.

Since Wright had suffered from a lack of work during the Great Depression, which put a halt to many architectural endeavors, landing such a big commission helped put him back on the map as a top architect. Wright completed construction on the 5,330-square-foot (495-square-meter) main house by 1938 and finished building the 1,700-square-foot (158-square-meter) guest house the following year.

The home remained a private residence of the family until 1963, when the son, Edgar Jr., gave the deed to Fallingwater and the surrounding 1,500 acres (607 hectares) to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, dedicating the property as the 'Kaufmann Conservation on Bear Run, a Memorial to Edgar J. and Liliane S. Kaufmann.' Fallingwater first opened its doors in 1964 for public tours.

Fallingwater
An interior view of the concrete, steel, wood and stone living room at Fallingwater, as it appeared in 1937, shortly after it was built. Today, it's the only major Frank Lloyd Wright work with its setting, original furnishings and artwork still intact.
Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Since then, many entities have recognized the importance of Fallingwater's artistry. In the late 1970s, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the museum a National Historic Landmark. And in 2019, UNESCO added Fallingwater (and seven other Frank Lloyd Wright-designed sites) to its list of World Heritage Sites, marking an impressive international recognition of Fallingwater's legacy in the world of architecture.

More than 4.5 million people have visited Fallingwater since it opened to the public — among them architectural buffs and curious novices alike.

"Fallingwater is a humane experience, where Wright's insight, the Kaufmann family's way of life, and the natural setting are spread out for all to experience and question regardless of their background or previous knowledge," says Piper.

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Wright's Architectural Style

Wright popularized the Prairie style of design, which focused on residential houses in the Midwest between 1900 and 1916. The Prairie style emphasized neat horizontal lines, which became Wright's calling card. You can see these simple, blunt lines in the exterior of Fallingwater, which serve as a bold design statement.

Fallingwater particularly stands out as an exemplar of "organic architecture," which blends man-made structures with the natural world around them. Organic architecture became a staple in Wright's designs.

"Much of Wright's nearly 70-year architectural career created buildings and houses that connected one way or another to their natural setting," says Piper.

This was especially true of Fallingwater, which was surrounded by thousands of acres of wild beauty in the Bear Run Nature Reserve. Wright leaned into that natural setting by building walls of Pottsville sandstone — quarried on the property itself — to reflect the stone outcroppings found in Bear Run.

He also challenged the natural surrounding with concrete cantilevers, which he stacked to form bold terraces in multiple directions and offer beautiful vistas of the wilderness.

"The powerful symbolism of architecture seemingly erupting from nature was at the core of Wright's philosophy of organic architecture. Wright selected materials such as marine-grade walnut veneer plywood for the built-in furnishings to address the effects of living with nature," says Piper.

Fallingwater's most iconic attribute is, of course, its waterfall (hence the name 'Fallingwater'), which gently tumbles beneath the home. "The sound of the falls is the backdrop that ties the entire experience together," says Piper.

But designing such an architectural masterpiece made Fallingwater a pricy endeavor for Wright and the Kaufmanns.

According to Piper, the Kaufmanns set an initial budget between $20,000 and $30,000 for the construction of the house. But Wright well exceeded that initial budget. Fallingwater wound up costing $155,000, including an $8,000 commission fee for Wright and $4,000 for built-in furniture.

"As with any great artistic work of art, the house is really priceless," says Piper.

Here is some footage of the famous house shot by artist Max Deirmenjian:

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Visiting Fallingwater

According to Piper, famous guests, ranging from Albert Einstein to Frida Kahlo, have stayed at Fallingwater. Since being turned into a museum, Fallingwater no longer accepts overnight guests. But there are still plenty of ways that visitors can enjoy the museum.

During the COVID-19 crisis, guests may experience the outdoor setting of Fallingwater with an advanced reservation, and masks and social distancing are required.

If you can't swing an in-person visit, that's no problem. Try one of the at-home experiences, such as one of the virtual tours conducted via livestream weekly, each one offering information about a different aspect of the home.

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