August 3, 2015
It may have taken me two decades, but I can finally cross “visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house” off my bucket list.
In the nearly 20 years I worked at Masterfile, a stock photo agency, I frequently heard clients call in to request images of this magnificent estate. Unfortunately we couldn’t supply the images, because the commercial rights are closely guarded by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Over the years the client requests would put the idea front of mind that “I really should go see that place”, but any time I found myself in Pennsylvania I was always in a rush to get somewhere else.
Last fall we were too busy for the road trip through New England we’d hoped to take. By early November the foliage was nearly all gone, but the air still had that invigorating fall crispness and strangely appealing smell of wet leaves that makes me itch to get out of the city. Trying to think of a new experience that would be relatively close to get to, I suggested a tour of Fallingwater to my wife. In typical fashion she responded, “Fantastic, let’s go! What is it?”
Tour tickets were booked, dog-friendly accommodations were found, and we hit the road with our two old girls. The view that I love of the Toronto skyline from the Gardiner is even more beautiful when I’m on my way to another adventure!
The towns in upstate New York were just as quaint as I remember, and we took our time exploring smaller roads to wind our way south. It was nearing Remembrance Day, and a patriotic display in Salamanca moved me enough to pull the car over and photograph it.
It wasn’t long until we crossed into Pennsylvania, and made our way through the Allegheny National Forest. Even with bare trees, it was a beautiful drive.
It took us just over four hours (including bathroom breaks for ourselves and for the dogs) to reach a small town called Kane, where we stopped for lunch. We added a few minutes to stretch our legs and walk down the main street, which was surprisingly quiet for the middle of the day on a Wednesday. Upon closer inspection we realized a great many of the stores were closed, and several buildings were in disrepair. There were one or two shops open then a few that were vacant, and so on down the street. You know a town is in trouble when even their Salvation Army discount store is closing down.
A few more hours of driving, and we arrived at our lodging in Seven Springs, which we found on the website www.homeaway.com. It was a one-bedroom guest house on the grounds of a former Christmas tree farm, with the owners close by in the main house. We weren’t there long enough to take advantage of everything it had to offer, but it really was a small home away from home for us and both of our dogs.
We had an early start the next morning to get to Fallingwater for our 8:00 tour, so thankfully it was a short drive. The overcast, rainy morning was actually appealing; likely fewer people on the tour, soft light, and fabulous earthy smells as we entered the forest.
We would find out later that this beautiful geometric pavilion entrance and gift shop was designed by the architect Paul Mayén, the life partner of the estate owners’ son Edgar Kaufmann Jr. The pavilion is open to the air on all sides, and the large gift shop is walled in glass on all sides, so the entire structure is as integrated with the environment as the main house.
Our group consisted of just five people, including an architect who had toured the estate before. We were introduced to our guide Ken, who worked at Fallingwater as a young man, then left for a career in the corporate world for 25 years before returning to Fallingwater in his retirement. He was knowledgeable, personable, and seemed as enthusiastic about the tour as we were despite having given it hundreds of times!
His stories began as soon as we left the pavilion and began our trek through the forest to the house. Ken told us we were on the original path cleared by the construction team, and were following in Frank Lloyd Wright’s footsteps.
We rounded a corner and there it was, looking completely improbable and incredibly magnificent. The photos I’d seen just couldn’t do it justice. Even on a dreary day, the scale of the building and wizardry of the design just stopped us all in our tracks. Hard to imagine it was built for the Kaufmann family as just a weekend retreat from their department store business in Pittsburgh!
It seemed appropriate that the sound of the rain mixed with the sound of the flowing stream. We were facing a man-made masterpiece that was not only completely surrounded by nature, but incorporated it wherever possible into the design. The seamless integration of the house with its surroundings was Frank Lloyd Wright’s main goal, and Ken helped us to appreciate some of the finer details.
All of the stone was quarried on site, the house itself is anchored on an enormous boulder, and in several areas the house was built around living trees, which have since been replanted. Water features are plentiful, such as the plunge pools and this hand washing station at the front entrance – complete with the same soap on a chain favoured by the Kaufmann family!
The entrances and doorways are noticeably small and narrow, which then lead you through into larger open spaces. Ken told us this theme of “compression followed by expansion” was a favourite of Frank Lloyd Wright’s. It was also his habit to optimize design elements to suit his own height of 5’8″! However, the primary reason for the lower ceilings was to draw the eye towards the wraparound windows and the natural world outside.
The tip of the boulder on which the house is anchored was incorporated into the hearth of the fireplace in the living room.
Every single window pane is set with museum glass, providing the clearest view of the outdoors with a minimum of distortion or reflections. The amount of natural light and spectacular views from nearly every angle is truly astounding.
Couldn’t you just picture yourself writing correspondence at this desk with the terrace doors open, the wind in the trees, and the sound of the stream running right beneath your feet?
Frank Lloyd Wright also designed most of the black walnut furniture inside Fallingwater. What looks spare and very utilitarian was sometimes not, since he preferred floating cabinets/shelving that couldn’t always support the weight of the books and art pieces they were meant to display.
So intent was Frank Lloyd Wright on bringing the outdoors inside that he designed notches in the desks which allow doors to fully open. The window panes are also cleverly hinged to swing open like French doors, so that no frame obstructs the centre views.
Nearly every room has access to a stone terrace (complete with very valuable sculptures), and views of the forest and Bear Run.
Although most of the bedrooms are spacious, Edgar Kaufmann Jr moved his bed to a sitting area, as he was apparently an early riser and preferred the view over the one from the actual bedroom.
The guest bedroom was another matter. Empty of furniture and undergoing repairs to the concrete, it was just one example of Fallingwater’s never-ending, expensive fight against the elements.
There were some serious issues with the design and construction right from the start: there were no fewer than 17 serious water leaks when the Kaufmanns moved into Fallingwater in 1937. In addition to this, the cantilevered terraces began to slope downward almost as soon as construction was finished, and required constant monitoring and repairs over the years. By the late 1990s one terrace had sagged by nearly 7 inches, putting maximum stress on the concrete. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (gifted with Fallingwater by Edgar Kaufmann Jr. in 1963) spent $1.5 million diverting the creek, drilling new supports into the bedrock, securing the cantilevers with steel cables, and raising the terrace by just 0.5″. This permanent repair will stop any future displacement.
In at least one area of the house the water was allowed to have its way. Runoff from the roof was channeled down the side of the boulder on which the house was built, and through the floor to the stream below. Even though the entire house was prone to mildew, the Kaufmann family still ensured every area was filled with priceless art: this original Diego Rivera hangs next to the indoor waterfall.
The hall passage leads to an outdoor path to the guest house, which is only included as part of the “in-depth” tour package. It’s also important to note that interior photos can only be taken on the in-depth tour, so it’s well worth the price for that privilege alone.
The stairs to the guest house are under the cover of a ribbon of concrete, which is supported on one side by metal posts and slightly sloped so that rain runs off in a sheet from the other side. Of course Ken explained that the design was also meant to visually mimic the flow of the waterfall on which the house was built. It was also pointed out to us that even though Fallingwater is closed to visitors over the winter, groundskeepers must still keep the concrete features like this passage cover and the terraces free from the weight of snow. The amount of funding it takes to keep the estate going is astounding.
Ken pointed out another Fallingwater fact that all of the windows in both the main house and the guest house face Bear Run, meaning there is total privacy for occupants of either building.
The guest house interior is very similar to the main house with the same stone walls, picture windows, furniture, and priceless art (we passed by an original Picasso hanging nonchalantly in a hallway). Ken shared the anecdotal story that the Kaufmann’s liked to invert the tree stump table in the living room to utilize the larger surface area, but this so disturbed the architect’s sensibility that they had to flip it over each time he came to visit!
The bedrooms in the guest house have been converted to office space for a few employees. Imagine doing your paperwork on Frank Lloyd Wright furniture!
We concluded our tour at the back of the house just as the sun broke through the clouds. Seeing the cantilevers and rock base from the rear should have made it easier to grasp the physics of the design, yet still left us gaping in wonder.
Words and pictures can’t convey the true magic of this place. You have to go to this house that is forever frozen in 1963 and stand on the balconies and walk through the maze of rooms yourself to truly appreciate the talent (and hubris) of Frank Lloyd Wright. I want to experience it in every season.
We had a generic lunch at the café on site, and spent a long time perusing (and purchasing) the wide range of Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired items in the large gift shop. There was a group of schoolchildren on a tour, and sure enough an enormous crash followed by the tinkling sound of glass shattering could be heard from their end of the gift shop. A reproduction pane of Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass was in a thousand pieces on the floor, and we made our exit as a frantic woman berated the culprit.
It was turning into a glorious day, and we made the spontaneous decision to take a different route home. The scenery in Pennsylvania and Ohio was beautiful as we aimed to spend the night in Toledo (at the dog-friendly Red Roof Inn), but I had a much different destination in mind for the next day.
Ever since seeing the disturbingly beautiful work of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre in 2010, I’d wanted to explore some of the run-down areas of Detroit. Their photographs led me to an intriguing blog by writer/photographer John Carlisle, which I read regularly. It was the Detroit version of “Humans of New York” but with more substance. When Instagram came on the scene, I started following some photographers who specialized in finding beauty in Detroit’s ruins. The question was, how could I find some similar locations myself on a spontaneous short trip?
We Googled what we could with the painful Internet connection that night, and set off in the morning with only the roughest idea of what to put in the GPS. Many of the buildings I’d seen in photographs could not be accessed without some serious trespassing, and many others had been completely demolished, but there was still plenty to explore. Our first stop was Michigan Central Station, although the barbed wire fencing and workers on site meant I’d only be shooting exteriors.
We turned the car around to head back to the highway, and saw a small building with cool graffiti on the same street as the station.
I gained a new appreciation for all the gorgeous photographs I’ve seen from intrepid photographers when I found more landmark buildings downtown boarded up and completely inaccessible. I have no idea how they were able to access places like the Farwell Building, but I wasn’t going to find out on this day. We just enjoyed a short tour of downtown, which was undergoing a surprising amount of construction activity aimed at rebuilding the area.
The suburbs were another matter. There was no shortage of abandoned houses and buildings in ruin as we drove through neighbourhoods like Brush Park, Grixdale Farms, and Brightmoor. Houses obviously occupied by families stood right next to homes that were abandoned, tagged, had every window missing, or worse – were simply burned-out shells, or vacant lots.
Much of my photography was done from the safety of our car for obvious reasons. In a neighbourhood with plenty of nice-looking, occupied houses, we passed one vacant corner lot where someone had set up a variety of old furniture in a circle: a dilapidated sofa and odd mixture of chairs, with a rather scary-looking guy seated in the middle. As we drove by, another car pulled up, rolled down the window, and did some sort of business with this fellow in broad daylight. I chose to watch the action in the rearview mirror as opposed to through my camera lens!
In nearly every area there are the remains of once-grand homes; ugly skeletons perched on unkept lots strewn with garbage. It was a mind-blowing difference from the gorgeous house we’d toured the day before.
The business areas we drove by hadn’t fared much better. One store might be open (with plenty of security bars and locks), followed by an entire block of abandoned shops.
While I love photographing derelict buildings and hope I can shoot more of them in Detroit, I also hope this city with so much history continues to rebound. It has a vibrant, growing arts scene, and people like Patti Smith think it could be poised to be the new New York. The Galapagos Art Space seems to agree, as the performance and visual arts centre is in the process of moving from Brooklyn to Detroit. Motor City might be down, but don’t write it off just yet…