Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Frank Lloyd Wright's Perfect House

Fallingwater at Bear Run

When I was five or six years old I visited a small shop on San Francisco's Maiden Lane with my grandmother.  It was kind of an amazing little building that you entered through a little glass arch with curving brass mullions. 

After passing through the entry the space inside the shop just seemed to burst open. It was an interior space filled with light and wrapped with an interior curving ramp to gently take customers from floor to floor.

Years later I came to realize the shop was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (and a mini prototype for his Guggenheim). I also came to realize the concept he demonstrated so well in that shop (where you move from a confined space to a soaring space) was what he described as "Compression and Release".

The revelation of that space, along with Julia Morgan's buildings at Mill's College, the Space Needle at the Seattle World's Fair and my first visit to the (then) new Oakland Museum, all contributed to my resolve to grow up and become an architect.

Visiting various Wright building's over the years made me put a trip to see his most famous residence "Fallingwater" on my "To Do" list. I made that visit a couple of weekends back, so Fallingwater is now officially ticked off!

Fallingwater is the iconic modern weekend home Wright designed for Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann during the depression.

It is located in the forests of the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania and is famously perched directly over a waterfall.

At the time of its design there was simply nothing like it anywhere in the world. Now, 80 years later, there still isn't.

Fallingwater at Bear Run

The house and the family that built it present one hell of a story.

Whenever you see an architectural tour de force like Fallingwater it is easy to just be taken in by the beauty. But beauty like this exacts a price in money, passion and ego. Such endeavors are typically chaotic, adversarial and (in this case) involved a constellation of people and events coming together at just the right time.

The story begins with the celebrated Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.

The Kaufmann's
• Edgar Kaufmann Sr. (EJ)
Edgar Kaufmann Sr. (referred to by friends as EJ) was heir to the the Kaufmann Department store chain (headquartered in Pittsburgh). EJ consolidated control of the store through a marriage of convenience to his first cousin Lillian Kaufmann.

Edgar Kaufmann Sr. was a smart, brash, handsome and charismatic retail merchant. He rode steeplechase (and had back injuries to prove it). He fenced (and had scars to prove it.) His personality was magnetic.

Under the creative and perceptive leadership of EJ and Liliane, sales revenue at Kaufmann's tripled. This led to an expansion of the chain and the building of his flagship store in Pittsburgh (where Frank Lloyd Wright would eventually design his private offices). His enduring relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright becomes pivotal in the story of Fallingwater.

As Kaufmann's wealth and fame grew, so did his philanthropy and desire to leave an enduring legacy. He was a generous patron of the Pittsburgh arts scene who commissioned muralists and financed Pittsburgh's Civic Light Opera Company.
 Edgar J (EJ) Kaufmann (1885-1955)

Kaufmann cared for his employees and his employees were devoted to Kaufmann's Department Store.

Edgar Sr. was also a serial philanderer whose infidelities were so overt that he issued his mistresses special platinum charge cards for use in his stores.

• Lillian (Liliane) Kaufmann
Edgar's marriage to his first cousin Lillian took place in 1909. The marriage was conducted in New York (were such marriages were legal).

Lillian was smart, progressive, detail oriented, well-traveled and multi-lingual. She spent much of her time in Paris as a buyer for the store. She was a natural at interpreting trends and possessed an exceptional sense of design and style. One of those trips provided an introduction to Liliane de Rothschild. Lillian was so enamored with her, she decided to change her own name (from Lillian to Liliane) as she felt it to be more sophisticated.

Liliane's style sense was responsible for the transformation of Kaufmann's previously unsuccessful 11th Floor Women's Fashion department into the Parisian influenced (and very profitable) Vendome Shops.

She was also famous for her commitment to public health (serving as President of the the Board of Trustees for Montefiore Hospital for 9 years).  

Liliane was famous for carefully managing the social calendar of the family homes with both charm and military precision. She was admired by the staff that worked in the various Kaufmann residences. When Mrs. Kaufmann was in residence so were her long haired dachshunds.

Liliane Sarah Kaufmann
Photo 1942 Eero Saarinen Archives

• Edgar Kaufamann jr.
The Kaufmann's had one child, Edgar Kaufmann jr. (he preferred "jr" to be lower case) born in 1910.

Edgar jr. grew up to be exceptionally well read, well traveled and artistic. Prior to 1934 he lived in Europe studying painting and architecture.

In 1934, after a period studying painting in Europe, Edgar jr. began an apprenticeship at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin Studio in Spring Green Wisconsin. During that period Edgar jr. developed a deep respect for Wright and his design philosophy. His apprenticeship was cut short however by Wright who sent him home for lack of "circumspection" (which historian Franklin Toker speculates was actually code for Edgar jr's sexual activity while in the program).

In 1935 Edgar jr. began working at the Home Store of Kaufmann's. Then, in 1937 he began an 18 year career at the New York Museum of Modern Art. 

Although EJ left much of his estate to the Edgar Kaufmann Sr. Charitable Foundation, Edgar jr. was well provided for.

After his parents death Edgar began the process of carrying out his father's wishes for the transfer of Fallingwater to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

1963 became a pivotal year for Edgar jr. He completed the transfer of Fallingwater, began serving as an unpaid adjunct professor of Architecture and Art History at Columbia (a role he would maintain until just three years before his death) and he began a 36 year relationship with architect Paul Mayen. Incidentally, Mayen was the design architect for Fallingwater's welcome center.

Upon Edgar jr's death in 1989 his ashes were scattered at Fallingwater. Similarly, when Mayen died his ashes were also scattered there.

The Second Coming of Wright
As the nation entered the depression Frank Lloyd Wright's career was effectively over.

While undoubtedly a genius, Wright's well publicized marital infidelity, the stigma of the grisly 1914 mass murder at his home in Wisconsin, his nasty divorce and his well earned reputation as an egotistical pain in the ass to work with, all resulted in a dwindling pool of clients willing to finance his vanity and endure his tantrums.

The situation came to a head after his return from Japan (after completing the Imperial Hotel). By 1927, with no meaningful work and a bank foreclosing on Taliesin, Wright began selling off prized possessions. In 1932 Wright began an apprentice program where students would actually pay him to work in his "Fellowship".

It is frequently suggested that EJ and Liliane met Wright for the first time during a visit made to see Edgar jr. during his apprenticeship at Taliesin.  However, historian Toker pretty well discredits that as a myth. In fact, Toker supposes that Wright and EJ had prior contact and may have conspired to enable Edgar jr's apprenticeship.

However it began, the relationship between Edgar Kaufmann Sr. and Frank Lloyd Wright would prove to be complex and confrontational.  Wright, who had openly expressed his suspicion of Jews, now found himself with his most important client, a successful Jewish merchant.

Yet, their relationship went on to last a lifetime.

The combination of Edgar jr.'s enthusiasm for Wright, coupled with Edgar Sr's appreciation for Wright's work, led him in 1934 to take a chance on hiring the down and out architect to design a weekend house at Bear Run. 

Neither could have realized the result of this effort would be America's most prized home and the catalyst for Wright (at age 71) to resurrect his career.

Design and Construction
Wright had the Bear Run site carefully surveyed. He wanted to know the size and position of the falls and every tree and rock outcropping. He then spent time contemplating how a design would work on the site.  

Here is where another of Fallingwater myth's is oft repeated. The story goes that after receiving nothing from Wright, Edgar Sr. called Wright to give him 2 hours notice his impending arrival at Wright's Taliesin studio.  Supposedly Wright answered the phone and told "EJ" that his timing was perfect and that "we are all ready for you!".

Then in only 2 hours Wright feverishly transferred what was in his head to paper. In reality, the plans had been developing for considerable time.

It is true that Edgar was very surprised when Wright presented his design for the house (which he called "Fallingwater") placed directly over the falls, instead of down the hill where the Kaufmann's felt it would be afforded a striking view of the falls.

Kaufmann, with some skepticism, approved Wright's initial designs and the main house began construction in January 1936. 

Wright's design required opening a local sandstone quarry, recruiting highly skilled stone masons and the engineering of heroic concrete cantilevers.

The construction process unleashed Wright's usual series of cost overruns and outbursts of ego. Liliane and Edgar demanded design adjustments, Wright sniveled.

Kaufmann discretely had Wright's structural system reviewed and approved enhancements to Wrights design (including doubling of the rebar).
Meanwhile as the rude correspondence and angry demand letters flew back and forth, Fallingwater began to emerge.

The design was tweaked down to minute details. Desks were carefully notched to allow for window openings. Window glass "disappeared" into stone walls. Black walnut furniture veneers were selected with horizontal patterns to reinforce the lines of the house. Even toilets where positioned low to aid "colon health".

 A Design The Emphasizes Soaring Cantilevers

 Interior Floor Planes "Float" Boldly Over The Falls

Window Glass Recessed Directly Into Stone Walls 
Internal Floors Are Not Expressed Stressing Verticality

The enduring magic of Fallingwater is how it seems to float weightlessly over the falls and up the hillside. Spaces allow you to effortlessly move from indoors to outdoors from most major rooms.

However, the magic came with a price. Persistent cracks in the structure over the years confirm EJ's decision to upgrade the structure.

By the 1990's forensic assessments confirmed that the house was close to toppling into the falls. To preserve the house massive reconstruction efforts were undertaken in 2002. Floors were extensively re-engineered and carefully post-tensioned (a process not available when the house was designed).

 Terraces Emerge From Every Major Room

The siting of the house carefully sequences visitors in their arrival. First, there is the initial view of the home, then the crossing the water, then the recess leading to the front door.

 Entry Sequence

The Stream Fed Foot Bath 
Next to the (Recessed) Front Door

The home itself then presents space that reaffirms Wright's concept of compression and release. Similar to my childhood experience at the little Maiden Lane jewelry shop at Fallingwater, you walk through (very) low corridors into rooms that open up and blur any distinction between indoor and outdoor space.

  An Boulder Becomes a Fireplace Hearth

In Fallingwater horizontal planes are expressed as solid while vertical planes are stone. Rock outcropping are incorporated in walls and fireplaces. 

 Shelves Are Aligned With Built-in Furniture and Window Mullions

The house celebrates water. Water drips down the face of stone walls lining the driveway. Water flows from the stream into the swimming pool and then (unchlorinated) out of the pool to rejoin the stream. In the summer Mrs. Kaufmann complained about how the house (directly over the falls) felt "clammy".

 And, like most Wright houses, water flowed freely through the roof.

The Swimming Pool

Despite the perceived size of the overall home, many interior spaces feel very intimate. The only bedroom with window blinds for privacy was this guest room. And the guest list at Fallingwater was impressive. Albert Einstein and Frida Kahlo were among its house guests.

The house was Ayn Rand's inspiration for The Fountainhead. 

The Main House Guest Room 
(The small painting is one of two original paintings in the house by Diego Rivera)

The Other Rivera Painting
(Located in the bridge that leads to the guest house)

• Wright
In 1937 EJ persuaded family friend Henry Luce (publisher of Life an Time magazines) to put Wright on the cover of Time Magazine with the rendering of Fallingwater in the background.

The barrage of EJ's PR machine delivered Wright an avalanche of new commissions. His second chance at a career was in full swing.

His "second chance" allowed him to produce a second major masterwork; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Until his death at age 90 in 1959, Wright was never again without work.

• EJ
EJ went on to commission architect Richard Neutra (a former employee of Wright) to design a desert home in Palm Springs. The house was likely designed to provide a new venue for his affairs.  At this point EJ finally pissed off his wife, his son and Wright (furious that the Palm Springs commission went to Neutra, whom he now counted as an enemy).

EJ and Liliane moved from house to house sometimes carefully avoiding each other.  

• Liliane
Despite vocal misgivings about Wright's design, Liliane grew to appreciate the light, sounds and smells of Fallingwater.

And, as life with EJ got tougher to bear, she came to spend most of her time there. 

Liliane, balanced her time at Fallingwater with time spent in Palm Springs. But she never liked Neutra's boxy house. She toyed with the idea of building her own (EJ free?) second home in Palm Springs. She went so far as to attempt to hire Wright to design another house on the same Palm Springs compound. Wright blew her off until the commission came from EJ. He then designed the Boulder House for Palm Springs. But Wright's Palm Springs "Boulder House" was never built.

On September 7, 1952 Liliane locked the door to her bedroom at Fallingwater and overdosed on booze and EJ's barbiturates (for EJ's back pain).

EJ had her bedroom door forced open and, upon finding her overdosed, attempted to drive her to a hospital in Pittsburgh (having no confidence in local doctors). She died en route. Had he gone to a close by doctor and had her stomach pumped, she would have likely survived.

• Edgar jr.
Edgar's adoration of his mother and growing disgust with his fathers affairs culminated in 1952 with the death of his mother. The circumstances of Liliane's death would haunt Edgar jr. the rest of his life.

Upon the passing of his father in 1955 Edgar jr. brought his parents together for the last time by creating a mausoleum at Fallingwater. He commissioned Alberto Giacometti to cast the bronze doors for the crypt. He then had Liliane's remains moved from Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh and placed her side by side with EJ forever.

After donating Fallingwater intact with its furnishings and art (inclusive of 2 Rivera's and a Picasso) to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy Edgar jr. presided over its preservation until his own death in 1989. Edgar jr. also appears to have used the years in between to carefully rewrite the history (create the myth?) of Fallingwater. In his version he overly emphasized on his own participation in the project.

• Grace Stoops
After Liliane's death EJ married his nurse Grace Stoops (who was half his age).  Seven months after the wedding EJ was dead.

Although EJ provided for her, Grace tried to acquire 1/2 of the $10,000,000 Kaufmann estate. Grace's efforts failed however because of the prenuptual agreement she signed.

Just six years after EJ's death Grace burned to death when, wheelchair bound and crippled with MS, her heating pad caught fire.

• The Kaufmann Office
EJ's Wirght designed office was removed from Pittsburgh and gifted by Edgar jr. to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London where it may be viewed today. 
• Palm Desert
The 3,800 square foot Neutra house in Palm Desert (that EJ loved and Liliane hated) was purchased by a succession of wealthy owners and celebrities, each changed walls and personalized it. Barry Manilow owned the home from 1973 to 1993 with Filmmaker John Waters and Suzanne Somers as guests.  

The condition of the house was eventually considered to be pretty well wrecked. So much so that Realtors marketed the house as a tear down.

It was however, purchased by a wealthy new owners Beth and Brent Harris who cared enough about its architectural integrity to oversee its meticulous restoration. Mr. Harris still owns the home.

The Kaufmann Residence in Palm Springs Residence
(In photographer Julius Shulman's famous photo
Liliane was persuaded to recline on an airbed
by the pool to block glare from the pool light).

Plan your Fallingwater trip in advance. Especially if you will be visiting in summer. Reserve your tour online. Arrive on time. Wear comfortable shoes and plan to walk the grounds after your tour. Parking is free. Photographs in the house are prohibited (unless your take the costly in-depth tour).

Also consider combining the tour of Fallingwater with a visit to Kentuck Knob (another close-by Frank Lloyd Wright home that offers tours).

Fallingwater proves that circumstance is everything. When the right circumstances come together, imperfect humans are capable of creations that inspire. © 2016

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