Carl Merkin: A Visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water”

We got to see the “Falling Water” house in Mill Run, Pennsylvania as part of the 2011 Leica Historical Society of America (LHSA) Annual meeting, held earlier this month in Pittsburgh. The house is perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright’s best known building project and has been listed on the Smithsonian’s Life List of 28 places to visit before you die. In 1966 it was designated a National Historic Landmark, and in 1991 the American Institute of Architects named it the best all-time work of American architecture.

We were granted special permission to photograph the interiors of the house, normally not allowed to the 160,000 visitors who pass through the house each year. Access is carefully controlled and our group of 39 was split into three smaller groups at 10 minute intervals to avoid crowding. No tripods or shoulder bags are allowed since there are many valuable artifacts everywhere as you can see in the photos.

Completed in 1937 and originally built as a weekend home for the family of Pittsburgh businessman Edgar Kaufmann, president of Kaufmann’s Department Store, it was donated in 1963 by his son, Edgar, Jr., to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. In 1964, it was opened to the public as a museum.

The house is set into a hillside and partly overhangs a waterfall, which passes right under the house and emerges below the lowest of three balconies. It is said that Mr. Kaufmann sat with Mr. Wright on a boulder next to the waterfall and discussed the design, and eventually that rock, a favorite picnic spot for the Kaufmanns, was incorporated into the house and can be seen next to a fireplace in one of the rooms. The water also flows through the house in places and fills two swimming pools, one for the main house, and one at the guest house higher up the hill. The presence and the sound of the waterfall is something you can hear and feel all over the house, and must be very soothing at bedtime.

The reinforced concrete and local stone used in construction were made to blend with the surrounding countryside and just looks like it belongs there. The cantilevered design allows the balconies to soar out over the water and allows dramatic views of the countryside. The site is so remote that there are no curtains on the windows.

Frank Lloyd Wright not only designed the house, but also specified most of the contents of the house including furniture, decorations and utensils. Desks, bookcases and closets are all built into the walls and the dimensions of the doorways and staircases were suited to the Kaufmanns’ actual size.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Edgar Kaufmann famously disagreed and argued about many details of the home. When Kaufmann saw the desk in his office he told Wright it was too small, but Wright said it was the correct size for the room. When Kaufmann told him that it was not big enough to open his checkbook and write a check to an architect, Wright gave in and made it bigger!

The art collection in and around the house includes paintings and drawings by Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera, prints by Audobon and Hiroshige, sculpture from Mexico and Asia, Tiffany lamps in many rooms, and a wealth of other treasures.

I hope the pictures give you some idea of this special place, but you’ll just have to go there to see it and hear it and feel it for yourself.

-Carl Merkin

All photos are by Carl Merkin and are published with the kind permission of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. You can connect with Carl Merkin on Facebook, by visiting http://www.facebook.com/carl.merkin.photographs.