Before we get started, you might find it somewhat interesting to know that once my curiosity has been peaked, I turn into a bit of a detective to get to what the late great Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.”
My journey thus far has led me to (5) Frank Lloyd Whrite homes so far:
- Fallingwater (twice)
- Kentuck Knob (20 minutes away from Fallingwater)
- Graycliff (between Erie and Buffalo)
- The Darwin Martin House (Buffalo)
- The Hollyhock House (Los Angeles)
In my last post, I ended it with a question: despite all of their business success, what was the one obstacle that the Kaufmann family faced that held them back from being in the same class of society as other famous Pittsburgh families? The Mellons and the Carnegies?
They were Jewish. And that was enough to keep you out of the “important” clubs back then. So sad to think about today. But the Kaufmann family succeeded wildly in Pittsburgh with their department store. In fact, at that time Kaufmann’s was considered one of the most successful department stores in the entire world.
Before I continue, it’s extremely important to note that much of this material is being excerpted from a wonderful book I discovered a month ago: “Fallingwater Rising” by Franklin Toker. It’s a very deep dive into how the Kaufmann family and Frank Lloyd Wright came to build what is considered the most famous home in America: Fallingwater. You can literally stop here if you decide to order the book, which is a tremendous addition to your library if you happen to be a Frank Lloyd Wright fan.
I’ll be doing my best rendition of the old Reader’s Digest “condensed books” to keep things moving along here. I’m fully aware that most people reading this don’t share my passion for every detail.
The short version of the Kaufmann family’s success as a premier department store began many years earlier. Originally, the family business consisted of basically a group of immigrant peddlers selling their wares in the countryside surrounding Pittsburgh. Eventually, they would establish Kaufmann’s Department Store in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh. The ownership of this enterprise was equally owned by several different members of the Kaufmann family. For Edgar Kaufmann – a brilliant marketer – getting control of the family business was eventually going to come down to his own personal cunning instincts as well as a bit of luck.
And – as luck would have it – a few of the family stockholders passed away, leaving some opportunities available. E.J. not only bought the remaining stock from some family members, he decided the best way to get controlling interest was to marry his first cousin in order to get that side of the family’s shares in the business. He married Lillian Kaufmann in 1909. At that time, Pennsylvania law forbade the marriage of first cousins. so they were married in New York State. After several trips to Europe, Lillian changed her name to the more elegant Lillane, a more sophisticated version that suited the family’s growing status in Pittsburgh.
From the beginning, E.J. and Liliane were a power couple. It appears that they both shared a love of not only marketing and sales, but a deep love for the arts and architecture. Liliane ran an entire boutique floor at Kaufmann’s, and Pittsburgh residents flocked to purchase the items that she had selected from around the world for their own homes.
As the story goes – and usually repeated by the tour guides at Fallingwater – Edgar happened to apprenticing under Frank Lloyd Wright, and told him that his father was looking to build a country retreat on some property that the family owned near Pittsburgh. It was “junior” that brought them together, and it was junior who had the sophistication to guide Fallingwater to its completion in 1937.
However, records show that Edgar Jr. was away in Europe at that time, and the records also show that E.J. himself was an astute fan of architecture before that point, having already built an 18-room mansion in Pittsburgh called La Tourelle. As a learning point, wealthy people took their estate-building very seriously in the early 1900’s, even giving them names: San Simeon, The Breakers, The Billtmore, etc.
Kaufmann Jr. was a brilliant young man, but appeared to have no interest in inheriting the family business. At some point – after wondering around Europe – he returned to the United States in 1934 after attending several art-related schools in Vienna and Florence, Italy. In the end, it was his old E.J. himself that most likely asked Frank Lloyd Wright to take in his rudderless son as an apprentice at Taliesin, his studio in Wisconsin.
Wright’s own secretary warned him not to take him in before he had a signed contract in place to build the Kaufmann’s new summer home.
Finally, Frank Lloyd Wright made it to Bear Run in 1933. Edgar showed him the property, which included the waterfall. Wright returned to Wisconsin and requested a detailed drawing of the topography of the setting. Wright would sit on the design for months, as he refused to make any sketches until he had the entire design clear in his head first. As the legend goes, E.J. found himself in Chicago, and telephoned Wriight to inform him that he was on his way to see the plans for his new home. He would be arriving in just a few hours.
The legend tells us that Frank Lloyd Wright sat down and designed Fallingwater in just a few hours. While what he did from memory in just a few hours was remarkable, the design was far from complete. Wright basically showed an elevation plan of his proposed design, which would have included very few details. Edgar had always assumed that the proposed structure would be on the opposite side of the bank, overlooking the waterfall on Bear Run. Wright was proposing to place the structure on top of the falls.
It should be noted at the conclusion of this post that both men really needed each other at that exact moment in time. Wright’s star as an architectural genius was fading fast, he was almost 70 years old, and the Great Depression had left him with precious few clients. In fact the main reason he had started an apprenticeship program was for much-needed cash. E.J. on the other hand had the cash but was still looking to leave his mark in the world of architecture, along with finally cementing his social status with the Mellons and Carnegies in Pittsburgh.
My next post will be Building Fallingwater.