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Holding the construction in place while the concrete is cured.

The waterfall located on Bear Run was part of 2,000 acres owned by the Kaufmann family, and for many years prior it was used as “Camp Kaufmann” and as a retreat for the employees at Kaufmann’s department store. As was mentioned in my last post, the thought of placing the home over the falls instead of facing them never really occurred to anyone until Mr. Wright came along.

The actual construction of the home presented many problems, including the remote location and the radical design incorporating the cantilevered porches. While the massive overhangs are still the most distinctive feature of the home almost 100 years later, it can also be said that they have presented a major headache from the beginning. Not only were the massive overhanging porches extreme but they were also made from structural concrete. E.J. showed Wright’s designs to a few architectural and engineering firms in Pittsburgh and was advised not to build it.

Thankfully for the rest of us, E.J.’s heart overruled his sense and he went ahead the the proposed plan. However, he also had a structural engineering firm calculate the amount of steel reinforcement rods that would be needed. It was concluded that Wright’s design was woefully short on how much steel would be needed to support the massive concrete overhangs. It should be noted here that his genius of design, Wright himself only attended one year of engineering college, and usually handed these calculations off to someone in his firm with more experience in these calculations.

Thus began the first of many passive-aggressive disagreements between the client and the architect. After Wright found out that E.J. was having the steel calculations redone, he was duly insulted and told E.J. that he “didn’t deserve an architect of his stature.” Not to be outdone, E.J. mimicked his response to Wright and informed him that he “didn’t deserve a client like himself.” In the end, E.J. slipped in the extra steel anyway, without Wright’s knowledge.

Almost immediately, cracks began to form in the concrete. Wright assured E.J. that this was normal for structural concrete during the curing process. While the finished product of Fallingwater remains one of the most famous homes in the world, it was slowly caving in for the next 60 years. Finally in 2001, steps were taken to shore up the construction by completely ripping up the living room floor and using post-tensioning cables to anchor the main cantilever to the bedrock behind the house. Fallingwater cost $150,00 to build in 1937. The repairs in 2001 cost over 11 million dollars.

Slight of Hand

It looks like water is literally coming out of the house.

One of the endearing misconceptions that I had about Fallingwater was my amazement of having a stream literally running through the house. I’m quite certain that is what most people think when they see the famous photographs of Fallingwater or visit the home in person. It’s very hard to get a lay of the land due to the density of the trees and other plantings around the structure. In reality, Bear Run makes a gentle turn before the falls, and Wright merely extends the main balcony/porch over it.

It should be noted that all of the stones used in the construction of Fallingwater were quarried nearby. The main woodwork was made from black walnut. And it was E.J.’s idea to expose the rock on top of the falls into the living room floor.

The construction was overseen by a variety of Wright’s apprentices and E.J.’s own men. Some were better than others. When the living room floor was lifted in 2001, they found a lot of haphazard and inconsistent placement of beams and structural support. My own research has taught me that Frank Lloyd Wright was so far ahead of his time, the materials and techniques that were required to build his designs were not perfected yet. It’s a common joke among private owners of his earlier designs that their roofs all leak, no doubt due to the extreme overhangs made of wood 100 years ago.

In the end, Fallingwater became not only one of the most famous homes in the United States but also celebrated worldwide. It resurrected Frank Lloyd Wright’s career, who would go on to design the Guggenheim Museum in New York City almost 20 years later. Mr. Wright had always considered himself the most famous architect in the world, and Fallingwater did much to cement that idea. And E.J. Kaufmann had finally cemented himself forever in architectural history, please pardon the unintentional pun.

Over the years the Kaufmanns added a guest house – again designed by Wright – behind and above the main house. It also included the servant’s quarters and a garage for vehicles. Wright never enclosed his garages with doors, as he believed that cars weren’t like horses and wouldn’t wander off on their own. Just one of the many little beliefs that he had about design.

As you can imagine, the building of Fallingwater ended the days of “Camp Kaufmann” and the employee retreats. The Kaufmann’s truly loved what they had created together with Wright and would entertain many celebrities and guests of distinction over the years. One highlight was the New Year’s Eve celebration every year where after the midnight toast, the champagne glasses were tossed over the porch and into Bear Run. I guess you just had to be careful the following summer if you decided to wade into Bear Run in bare feet.

However, E.J. wasn’t quite finished with burnishing his name in architectural history. In the late 1940’s he sold his shares in Kaufmann’s, finally making him as rich as he always pretended to be.

My next post on this topic will concern the final legacy of E.J., Fallingwater and the rise of Junior as the Lord of Fallingwater.

 

 

Phil Kerner

Phil Kerner

Phil Kerner is a life-long Erie, Pennsylvania resident. Married to The Queen, father of four sons, grandfather to Gracie Mae.