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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house perched atop a waterfall in Mill Run, Pennsylvania reminds me of Coco Chanel’s famous tweed suit. Both timelessly designed masterworks reignited their respective designers’ flagging mid-careers. Moreover, just as Chanel sewed metal chain weights into her suits’ seams to assure their structure would hang properly, in recent decades Fallingwater’s floors have been embedded with steel cables to keep the cantilevered building’s shape securely fixed. There is nothing like experiencing these iconic works by moving about in them and, while perhaps I cannot yet afford to wear a Chanel suit, one of the great things about living in Ohio is that it is within range of this most singular monument of modern architecture.
Having recently made the pilgrimage to Fallingwater, I was struck by the dueling forces at work on the structure at its most essential level. On the one hand, members of the American Institute of Architects have voted it the most important building of the 20th century. Wedded to a difficult landscape, it is a rare a feat of organic modernism and somehow uniquely “perfect.” On the other hand, Frank Lloyd Wright completely embraced uncertainty and inherent imperfection in his architectural design.
Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr. (1885–1955), patriarch of Kaufmann’s Department Store of Pittsburgh, commissioned Fallingwater as the family’s weekend retreat. Since its completion in 1937 (followed by the guest house in 1939) the home has not only been at the mercy of the natural elements, but also imprinted by the family’s resolute informality that now carries over into museum experience.
I had the privilege of taking a private tour with longtime director Lynda Waggoner. Rarely does an institution benefit from such long stewardship and during candid interruptions in our discussion I realized she was vigorously defending the family’s wishes in both minimal and massive ways. What follows is a portion of our conversation as we wound from the entry path, through the main house, guesthouse, and finally to the former servants’ house above.
Lynda Waggoner: [Explaining the history of the site as the recreation location for the Kaufmann family department store employees and transition to weekend home.] This was the driveway, how they would have originally come into the property in the beginning. It’s really an old railroad bed. There was a tram railway to take lumber out. This whole area at the end of the 19th century, there wasn’t a tree around here [due to logging] … It’s called a mixed mesophytic forest. It’s one of the most diverse forests on the planet, so it’s a great timber area, a large variety of trees, and hardwood in particular … [She transitions to talking about the family’s son, Edgar Kaufmann jr. (1910–1989) who was in Europe studying painting at the time the site was changing].
LW: [We come upon a couple taking a photograph, the woman lounging full-weighted on a horizontal tree branch.] “Excuse me, please don’t get in that tree. That tree is almost dying because of people sitting in it for photographs.” [laughs hesitatingly]
CW: [Knowing I already like Waggoner’s moxie and defense of trees.] There is such a duality about the house, you know, that it is always recognized as the most important architectural structure in America but it was already sort of imperfect in that it was their second or getaway home, so it’s already … I have read the book that you wrote and edited, and I love the story you tell about the Tiffany vase that was broken, because when [Edgar Kaufmann jr.] said that the house was a repository for damaged …
LW: They got sent to the weekend house. There are just some things that are too good to throw away.
CW: But also that sort of impermanence or that imperfection … that room for imperfection is something that Frank Lloyd Wright would have espoused himself.
LW: Mm hum. I’m sure. I mean Frank Lloyd Wright only built buildings to last for fifty years. That’s the whole thought behind the modern movement, it’s the temporality of it—that it is for its time and they never expected these buildings to be like Palladio’s Villa Rotunda or something to last well into the future. They were built for their time and they were designed like, um, custom shoes, designed according to the program of the client.
CW: So he didn’t think that the house would still be …
LW: Not in the same way. It wasn’t designed for the ages. Nothing is today.
CW: Well, that’s true.
LW: And that all started then.
CW: So what does that mean? It’s seems like your job is so, not confusing, but dual in that you have to embrace that impermanence and also the conservation aspect.
LW: And it’s a challenge. I can tell you, because I started out as a curator with the idea that that meant making things as permanent as I could. And Edgar Kaufmann taught me very quickly that that wasn’t necessarily the goal here. He thought the model for important houses like this—the better model—was the English Country House model, like Downtown Abbey. What is it [Highclere Castle]? Where the house was meant to be lived in and used, and at the same time preserved, knowing that over time things will change. He once told me he didn’t care if we lost ten objects a year as long as the character of the house was maintained. So while it didn’t depend on—and this was a bit more cavalier than I could probably accept—while it didn’t depend on the objects necessarily there was a certain attitude that the house should have and that there was a variety of objects within the kind of collecting that they did that we could use if something were lost or damaged. So that—and it is really easy for the former owner to say that. It’s not something that we can probably accept, but I do believe that the house is best when it is used and people can enjoy it …
CW: You know, I was going to ask you about that because my interests fall somewhere between material culture and fine art, and so I am interested in historical museums, and house museums, and regular traditional museums. I know that Edgar Kaufmann jr. had very decided ideas about the visitor’s experience …
LW: Long before that was a buzzword for every museum in the country.
CW: Yea, I guess I wondered how you see the role of a house museum, or if you even consider this a house museum, or a monument, or how you see it?
[Opening a door to the patio and hearing the heavy sound of the waterfall]
CW: I love the sound. I didn’t realize it would be this loud [Neither of us competed further with the noise as we walked across the terrace taking it in.]
[Walking from the patio, through the living room. Waggoner realizes the pillows on the couch are perfectly aligned and begins to toss them asymmetrically as the family would have wanted.]
LW: I don’t categorize this as a house museum … House museums are often celebrating history as opposed to art, or an event, or a person, what kind of person lived in the house. Or they tend to be an attic where everybody’s stuff ends up. I think of Fallingwater as architecture, which is our primary object, with a collection …
CW: [Seeing a visitor break away from a tour and touch a wooden desk.] Are people allowed to—like I see that she just touched that desk.
LW: No, they aren’t allowed to touch … It’s one of the problems of having everything left out in the open. The goal is to make most people feel as comfortable as possible and even though they are warned … the public hears about, they say, maybe ten percent of what you give them in directions and they just have so much information coming at them …
[Moving into the kitchen and sitting down at the table.]
CW: So, you were here as a high school student in 1965?
LW: Uh, huh. Yes.
CW: So, I want to know what it was like then, when it was just two years into the transition [after the family donated it to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963]. And also what it meant to that time period, what it meant maybe in the 1960s in particular.
LW: You could hardly even think of it as a museum and there wasn’t a curator here. The management was a fellow who had worked for NASA who had happened to have been my biology teacher in high school. He had left to work at NASA and was coming back to the area. And somebody knew he was coming back and he had done education programs for NASA across the country. So they brought him in thinking—I mean they really weren’t sure how this thing would be received and how it would eventually work out. They thought initially that people would have an equal interest in the landscape, and perhaps more the landscape than the architecture and they were really surprised when that conception [turned out to be wrong] … So the first administrator of the site [Roy Crim] had worked for West Penn Power Company … He was an executive who had retired. You know, they were all nice people but they were—it was as if they were running it like an attraction. Edgar still maintained ownership of all the collections in the house [and was transferring things in and out].
CW: Did they catalogue it at all at the time? No, [objects] just came in and out.
LW: We had gang shots on photos and we would try to remember what the objects were and write it down … And so I would come back for the summer from [high] school and see things would go out. Stuff would be totally gone. You know that kind of thing, because [Edgar jr.] felt the objects were his. It was his collection … And then when I came back in a professional capacity in ’85, at that time they had—Fallingwater was criticized for the lack of control of the collections and lack of conservation, and indeed … they had polyurethaned the third floor … Clearly water was not going to damage it anymore but it looked a lot like Formica after the polyurethane. So I was able to say, you know, let’s just not do this, let’s just stop right now and not do any more of this. Let’s see if I can get some money to have this properly conserved. So we got the first grant for furniture conservation that the NEA ever gave and the first one from the Getty. And we were able to conserve everything in the house and then when I was able to show the Conservancy how much better it looked when it was refurbished and restored as finish, as opposed to a stripped down and changed finish, they were enthusiastic about it. And then we were able to get additional funds to take the polyurethane off the floors. So that was really the approach, you don’t want to come in—the worst thing you can do is come in and tell everyone that they’ve been doing everything wrong, rather than just quietly show them what could be done.
In the years between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s, Lynda Waggoner earned degrees in architecture at the University of Kentucky and art history and anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. After leaving school, she became the curator of the Museum Without Walls, an outreach program of the Baltimore Museum of Art where she made active use of study collections. She then became curator of the Jay C. Leff Collection, which belonged to the Fayette Bank and Trust Company, where she stewarded an important collection of non-western art. Wagonner was later named director of the Touchstone Center for Crafts in Farmington, PA before finally returning to Fallingwater in 1985 as a curatorial consultant. The range of professional and artistic training that she brought back with her ideally suited the home’s mission and collections. She is also a weaver with a great love and knowledge of textiles that meshed well with Edgar Kaufmann’s interests. Edgar jr. died in 1989 and with him the last of the Kaufmann’s nuclear family was gone. Lynda became full curator in 1986 and was named director in 1996.
LW: [Speaking about the 1990s] … So we started bringing people in to do technical analysis to make sure the site was stable, because we weren’t so sure it was. It turns out it is. We had a lot of cracks in the building. We brought in experts in concrete and I really thought, by the mid-1990s, late 90’s, that everything was really under control and that was when we got the call about the [problems with the site] … So that was the whole second life of Fallingwater …
CW: That must have been really frightening, actually.
LW: Well it wasn’t something I wanted to hear. It’s not the call you want. It’s like being told you have cancer. No one wants to hear that …
CW: I recently for the first time went to some French cathedrals, including Amiens, which is cracking and has a giant iron chain built into the walls [a recent addition to keep the building’s walls from splaying out further and collapsing], and I think of that—if you have this dream to make [the structure] as tall as you possibly can and let in as much light—and now [Fallingwater has] steel cables embedded in the floors. And I think in both cases—I can’t decide if there was something about the incredible hubris of the extreme vision of the place or if it really was just that there was just something left off, like at Amiens the buttresses are in the wrong place …
LW: Well here the seal was not put in the right place [Waggoner discusses post and lintel construction and stresses] … In cantilever construction … you want the seal at the top of the beam and not the bottom … So that was an engineering error. Yea, I mean according to our engineers and so forth there is absolutely no reason this building couldn’t have been built and that while it looks very, very daring …
CW: It’s perfectly reasonable.
LW: It’s not a big deal. It’s an early use of reinforced concrete with a cantilever, particularly in a domestic application but Wright was on the right track …
CW: I know you have behind the scenes conservation and storage projects going on, so what do visitors here not see that is actually typical of Fallingwater today?
LW: I sort of think of Fallingwater as theater and you want to see what is going on in front of the curtain, not behind the curtain. So, we are in the midst right now of moving our maintenance facility to an offsite location … because there is a lot of maintenance work that has to occur … and then we do have an artifact storage building which, right now we are putting a small addition on the front of it … but those things that are stored there are, for the most part, objects that we can’t put on display for one reason or another. Either they are too compromised, too damaged, or they might be textiles in our study collection that would be too fragile. We actively buy textiles because it’s the one thing that won’t hold up in the house and it’s one of the things that Edgar told me, he said as long as you keep the upholstery looking fresh and the textiles in good condition, then I think the house will speak to the ages. Because it kind of has a timeless look about it in terms of the decorative style and so forth, and the textiles are really important because, especially with really hard materials around you—you know, stone and concrete, glass and steel, it doesn’t get harder than that—and the textiles really soften it.
Throughout the tour with Waggoner, I felt the alternating expansiveness and contraction of space created by Frank Lloyd Wright’s corner entryways (designed to create the illusion of space) and low ceilings. My eye followed the lines of his ubiquitous horizontals streaking across stone slabs and wood grains, countered by softy-rounded half-moon shapes in the furniture. I watched Lynda encouraging workers to support a hanging cantilevered parapet before they walked on it to repair cracks. She could talk about floods and copperhead snakes, Frank Lloyd Wright’s post-affair appreciation for privacy features, and chair design with equal finesse.
In the guesthouse I saw the Tiffany vase—the one mentioned earlier that Edgar Kaufmann jr. damaged and glued. Lynda recounts the story in her book Fallingwater (2011) about how she saw the cracked vase years ago and thought the staff had damaged it. After retraining them and sending the vase out for conservation, she apologized to Edgar. He told her he had done it and gave her an explanation about the house being the relaxed home where the family sent broken or imperfect things. Because the vase’s long vertical crack was front and center, Waggoner reached up high to reach the shelf and turned the vase concentrically until the crack faced the wall. It was just another in a line of personal intersessions.
To my mind, the vase and the house embody the Japanese concept of wabi sabi, and that is what is most humane about its sleek modernism. Wabi means simplicity, and quietude. It is the rustic beauty that emerges from accidental occurrences and irregular “flaws.” Often, this concept is applied to Japanese pottery with small chips or irregularly flowing glaze patterns. Sabi complements this by implying the beauty that comes from age. It provides a glorious patina. It also means an artful mending and the Japanese are known to celebrate broken pottery by filling cracks with gold rather than throwing them away or masking their imperfection.
It is nice to know that cracks happen. Sometimes you fix them, sometimes you turn them away from sight, and sometimes you just accept them and move on. Between the roar of Bear Run’s falls and the voices of the tour groups coming continually one after another like an assembly line, that is the quiet lesson Fallingwater teaches.
Catherine Walworth is a writer living in Pittsburgh. View more articles by Catherine Walworth.