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Man of the House

In Pennsylvania, Wright's Fallingwater is as much about the builder as the building.

By David Taylor
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; Page C02

Perched atop a waterfall on a branch of the Youghiogheny River sits "the building of the century," so declared in 2000 by the American Institute of Architects. It's the Frank Lloyd Wright home known as Fallingwater, and it could be, as tour guides there say, the most famous residence in the world. Not long ago, though, Fallingwater almost became Fellinwater when an engineering flaw threatened to pitch it into the stream.

"We had to lift up all the stones of the floor," said the guide on a recent visit. "You could see the skeleton of the building." She pointed to the flagstones in the magnificent living room, coated with a clear film so they glisten as if damp with spray. Underneath, workers had found cement riddled with hairline cracks. So they reinforced the building's cement bracket (or cantilever) with steel cables. The cantilevered terrace -- a long horizontal shelf overhanging Bear Run and the house's trademark element -- is still not precisely level, but it feels fine, and it's safe.

Almost 4 million people have visited Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright's restored masterwork in Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands. (Christopher Little)

Now, after a 2 1/2-year, $11.5 million restoration, visitors are again relishing one of America's great houses. Built nearly 70 years ago for Pittsburgh department store mogul E.J. Kaufmann Sr., the house in Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands that revived Wright's career has had its own revival. Suspended over a rushing cataract like a shelf of books on a wall, this has been called the most serene building you'll ever enter. Along with Kentuck Knob, a somewhat more modest Wright home seven miles away, the place gives fresh meaning to the phrase "living on the land."

Fallingwater is all about dramatic vistas and narrow spaces. From the living room, your tour group of up to a dozen people ascends a staircase and slithers around a corner into a dark passage. A great wide window appears, barely interrupted by frames or sills, and you stand amazed, gazing at mountain laurel on the opposite bank of the stream. The scene seems to fill an Imax screen, complete with the sounds of rushing water.

Step outside. Look over the balcony's edge and watch droplets in the waterfall plunge 35 feet straight down. Transplant your childhood fantasy of life in a treehouse to an upriver, upmarket, Huck Finn existence.

Yet, like a movie star, it looks much bigger in photographs. It's immediately clear the shelf-like layers echo the sandstone slabs of the stream bank, but still it feels more futuristic than atavistic. The steps that descend almost to the water stop inches above the stream's rippling surface, floating in the air like part of the Jetsons' porch.

And like a star, it's wrapped in myths. In his 2003 book, "Fallingwater Rising," art historian Franklin Toker tried to dispel some of them, including the persistent one that Wright, after ignoring the job for nine months, scratched out the design in just two hours. Another canard is that all the ideas were his. It was Kaufmann, for example, who suggested leaving the hearthstone uncut in the living-room floor, breaking the flat surface like a whale's back. Wright grudgingly admitted it was a good idea. "That's one for you, E.J.," he reportedly said.

As with anything associated with Wright, the hype is half the fun. In the 1930s, Wright championed what he called organic architecture. Environmentalists now call Fallingwater a precursor of "green design." This refashioning of Wright as an environmentalist may be a stretch, even if he did anticipate current ideas, such as an emphasis on local materials: All the stones used in Fallingwater came from a quarry a quarter-mile away, for example. He also used the setting to make the inside comfortable through the seasons, arranging the terraces so that winter sunlight can enter through south-facing windows for warmth, while using ledges to shield those windows from harsher summer rays. On the top balcony he put an herb garden, where the cafe's chef still clips the day's seasonings.

"Wright started people thinking about green building," insists Cara Armstrong, Fallingwater's curator. Well, yes and no. Sometimes in his zeal to blur the line between inside and outside, he was downright extravagant. At Kentuck Knob, he refused the owners' request to use energy-efficient glass. Oil was cheap, he said.

Our Fallingwater guide did point out fluorescent lights, which were just coming into use in the late 1930s. Wright softened their glow behind unbleached muslin.

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