If cracks, sags and
leaks in a weekend getaway blueprinted by a masterbuilder
dont bother you, skip this story. Edgar J. Kaufmann
would have. The Pittsburgh department store tycoon never
even minded that four concrete floors jutting out from
his vacation house over a waterfall were in danger of
collapsing from the day they went up in 1936.
That wasnt all he
didnt mind. During construction, a concrete bridge
across the creek from the house had to be rebuilt four
timespushing the cost from $2500 to $30,000. And
because of problems within the house, parts of it had
to be re-done before Kaufmann could move inmore
than doubling the cost: from the estimated cost $30,000
This is not a case of tarpaper
roofing flapping in the wind. This is the rise and fall
of a monument, a concrete Titanic, each floor a deck that
wasnt supposed to sink. This is Frank LLoyd Wrights
masterpiece, voted the best building of the 20th century
by the American Institute of Architects. New Yorks
Museum of Modern Art mounted photographs of the house
for an exhibition in 1938. Architectural Forum published
them. Time magazine also featured the house.
The history of this house
is both glorious and shameful. An $8.1 million restoration
of the house, donated to the nation by the Kaufmann family
in 1963, is necessary to salvage it.
There were also other problems
that Kaufmann abided in his waterfront home: no one could
swim from it, launch a boat from it or even look at the
waterfall from it. Clearly, he looked the other way a
A note Wright penned to
his patron suggests he cowed him: "I dont know what
kind of architect you are familiar with but it apparently
isnt the kind I think I am. You seem not to know
how to treat a decent one. I have put so much more into
this house than you or any other client has a right to
expect that if I havent your confidenceto
hell with the whole thing."
In the many photographs
of Wright through his 91 years, his is a pose of Olympian
detachment, head held high, as if sniffing something.
By the tenor of his note to Kaufmann, one imagines his
patrician nose pinched white with resentful rage at some
presumed complaint from Kaufmann.
At first, Kaufmann answered
in kind with a well-measured response: "I dont know
what kind of clients you are familiar with but apparently
they are not the kind I think I am. You seem not to know
how to treat a decent man. I have put so much confidence
and enthusiasm behind this whole project in my limited
way, to help the fulfillment of your effort that if I
do not have your confidence in the matterto hell
with the whole thing."
But Kaufmann blinked first,
and ended the standoff in a post script in the same letter:
"Now dont you think we should stop writing letters..."
His tolerance of Wright
can have one blinking in astonished silence, considering
what was known about him at the time. It was common knowledge
the architect was a deadbeat who drove fancy cars, and
seldom finished a project on time or on budget. His womanizing
made him a kind of Gary Condit of his day, but thats
another story. Living beyond his means and being in constant
debt also may not be relevant here. But Wrights
god-complexdefined by architecture critic Lewis
Mumfordmay be the big reason Fallingwater has been
falling for more than half a century. Mumford said, "He
lived from first to last like a god, one who acts but
is not acted upon."
Which may account for why
Wright ignored advice from the engineering firm that supplied
the slabs for Fallingwater. Engineers told him there werent
enough steel bars in the beams to balance the tension.
Scientific American reported in January that load
tests indicate stress in the slabs are past margins of
safetysomething Wright was told from the start.
Given to ignoring thinking that wasnt his, he also
pooh-poohed building codes.
In a recorded talk to aspiring
architects at Taliesen (Welsh for "shining brow), Wrights
school in Spring Green, Wis. in 1953, he said "A code
is a series of rules and regulations made to be foolproof
but succeeds only in being rules and regulations for fools."
Wright took control of
everything in a building he designed, down to the napkin
rings and the woman of the houses hostess gown.
Once, he even picked the breed of cow for its color: Guernsey
because its tan and matches the land better than
a black and white Holstein.
He also sought control
over his students. Edgar Tafel, a former apprentice at
Taliesen, noted in his memoirs Wrights resentment
of anyone who left him. He wrote to Tafel in 1942, who,
by that time, was married and about to become a father:
"Somehow I regard the advent of another Tafel in the world
as of inferior consequence compared to a Tafel able to
carry on a work in the world of loyalty based upon right-minded
ideas instead of selfishness."
As Tafel said, "He made
you feel as though you had left the Catholic Church."
Maybe Wright knew he needed
his students. "He was a great architect," said Tafel,
"but he needed people like myself to make his designs
workalthough you couldnt tell him that. If
something didnt work when sketches were made into
building documentssay a stair didnt reach
the second flooryou didnt say it didnt
work because Wright would argue that it was fine. But
if you said, Gee, I have a problem with getting
the stair to go to the second floor, hed say,
Well, we can fix that, and hed fix it."
Given Wrights personality,
its not unexpected that Maria Consantino reported
in her 1998 biography The Life and Works of Frank Lloyd
Wright, that Fallingwater wasnt the only house
in disrepair from the start. "By the time he was halfway
through with it," she said, "youd find out that
the price had doubled, or quadrupled, and that the local
rocks or sand or gravel or whatever he was using to blend
in with the surroundings was totally unsuitable, so one
side was crumbling down as the other side was going up."
Kaufmann first hired Wright
to design an office in his store on the beseeching of
his son Edgar, a wannabe architect at Taliesen. Wright
was 69 then and considered washed up. His reputation for
arrogance kept him from getting commissions. This, despite
making history with his Prairie designs, which rid mid-west
homes of damp basements and put living quarters above
ground level to allow prairie views.
When Kaufmann showed Wright
his woodland retreat over the waterfall, he took the architects
request for topographical maps as a sign of interest.
But he heard nothing from him. Wendy Buehr Murphys
1991 biography Frank LLoyd Wright reports that
the architect had "shoved the project aside and forgotten
Finally, Kaufmann called
to ask about the progress of Wrights plans. Tafel
remembers the architect telling Kaufmann, "Come right
along E.J., were ready for you," even though he
hadnt drawn a line of Fallingwater yet. An hour
and forty minutes after Kaufmanns calljust
in time for his arrival the drawing was ready.
No one can argue Wrights
genius at Fallingwater. All of its past glory is still
there. In the words of architecture critic Paul Goldberger,
who has witnessed it in recent years, "Like any kind of
great art, it ultimately takes you somewhere that words
cannot take you." Goldberg compared it to Chartres cathedral.
But theres a difference,
of course. The centuries-old Chartres doesnt need
$8 million worth of structural repairs.