Lifestyle & Culture

Virtual Museum: Fallingwater

The iconic view of Fallingwater, the house designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1935 atop a striking waterfall. / Photo from the Fallingwater.org website, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

IT’S HARD to imagine an American home of the modern era that is more storied than Fallingwater. Tucked in the deep green of the Laurel Highlands in western Pennsylvania, the house was supposed to be a simple “weekend home” for the Kaufmann department-store family, a place that would connect them with all the nature around them, especially the tiered waterfall.

Fallingwater is a collection of horizontal elements whose goal, in Frank Lloyd Wright’s words, is to be “of the hill; belonging to it.” / Photo from the Fallingwater.org website, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Well, as most know, the place has simple horizontal lines and breathtaking construction and placement on its hillside. But its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was far from simple. So the house sits astride the iconic waterfall, which can be heard but not seen from inside. And the ceilings are low, a Wright signature that presumably stems from his stature, or lack thereof; ditto the beds, which are much shorter than standard.

Also not so simple in these pandemic times is visiting the crown jewel of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Outdoors okay, inside not.

But the Fallingwater/Conservancy team has been inventive in addressing the desires of the visiting public and the need for funds to preserve the architectural icon, whose concrete slabs have required major rescue efforts. A program called “A Closer Look” is a weekly livestream that allows “visitors” at home to accompany a curator, each session concentrating on a different subject or area of the house. Each session costs $15. (See below for upcoming sessions.)

As with many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, the low-slung (remember Wright was a small man) furniture is largely built in, as are bookshelves and storage units. / Photo from the Fallingwater.org website, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Also on the website is a “computer graphic movie” by Cristóbal Vila that re-creates in a time-lapse animation the construction of the home, with all its tiered levels and terraces. Another video features images from above, provided by a drone. There are videos focusing on the Kaufmanns’ textile collection from around the world—shaggy Moroccan rugs, Indonesian batiks, Indian paisleys and more—and on the family’s collection of art objects from their travels. If these tropes have a 1970s vibe to them, remind yourself that the ensemble dates from the late 1930s, decades before most of us had heard of African mud cloth (or were even around).

All of these bells and whistles don’t quite add up to a real visit, but the very richness will make you feel architecturally less deprived.

—Nancy McKeon

Fallingwater, “A Closer Look: Weekly Livestream,” Wednesdays at 1pm or 6pm, Saturdays at 11am EST; $15 per connection, per session; fallingwater.org.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020, at 1pm or 6pm EST – A Closer Look: Preserving FallingwaterRegister now.
Join us in the living room and learn about the post-tensioning system installed in 2002 to prevent the house’s possible collapse.

The living room at Fallingwater focuses on the hearth. That large bulbous red object that seems attached to the fireplace? It’s an enormous hanging kettle that can be swiveled into the fireplace for, what else, mulling wine. / Photo from the Fallingwater.org website, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Saturday, January 16, 2121, at 11am EST – A Closer Look: The Kaufmann Collection in the Living Room – Register now.
Spend some time hanging out in Fallingwater’s living room and explore the Kaufmann family’s collection of fine art, decorative art, furnishings and more.

Saturday, January 23, 2021, at 11am EST – A Closer Look: Dining at FallingwaterRegister now.
Learn how the Kaufmanns entertained at Fallingwater through an in-depth look at the kitchen and dining area. Bring your own meal!

Saturday, January 30, 2021, at 11am EST – A Closer Look: Guests of the KaufmannsRegister now.
What was it like to stay at Fallingwater? Imagine being a guest of the Kaufmanns and take a virtual vacation as you relax in the guest bedroom.

In entrusting the house to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Edward Kaufmann Jr. wanted it be shown as a living home. So there are no museum-style ropes holding visitors back (in normal times) or commercial carpeting to protect the waxed stone floors. Textiles are renewed when necessary. / Photo from the Fallingwater.org website, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Saturday, February 6, 2021, at 11am EST – A Closer Look: Preserving FallingwaterRegister now.
Join us in the living room and learn about the post-tensioning system installed in 2002 to prevent the house’s possible collapse.

Saturday, February 13, 2021, at 11am EST – A Closer Look: Tiffany at Fallingwater Register now.
Learn about Edgar Kaufmann Jr.’s interest in collecting glass, ceramic and metal pieces created by Tiffany Studios in Fallingwater’s collection.

Saturday, February 20, 2021, at 11am EST – A Closer Look: Dining at Fallingwater – Register now.
Learn how the Kaufmanns entertained at Fallingwater through an in-depth look at the kitchen and dining area. Bring your own meal!

Saturday, February 27, 2021, at 11am EST – A Closer Look: The Kaufmann Collection in the Living RoomRegister now.
Spend some time hanging out in Fallingwater’s living room and explore the Kaufmann family’s collection of fine art, decorative art, furnishings and more.

A computer graphic movie on the Fallingwater website provides an animation showing how the house was put together, layer by layer. / Photo from the Fallingwater.org website, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.



2 thoughts on “Virtual Museum: Fallingwater

  1. Carol says:

    Fallingwater is close to where my husband grew up… I haven’t been there since I was in my 20s. Back then was too young and preoccupied with toddlers to appreciate the beauty and history of it. Hope to visit again (By the way, the Kaufmann’s of Pittsburgh owned one of our favorite department stores). Now is a Macy’s…

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      I want to get back to the Laurel Highlands as well, maybe even stay overnight at one of the Wright houses in Polymath Park nearby. From the park resort’s website, it looks as if they’re accepting overnight guests even now!

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