In the 1930s, Edgar Kaufmann Sr, owner of the Pittsurgh department store in the same name, commissioned famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright to build a retreat house for him and his family in the quiet town of Mill Run. The family expected something innovative from the architect as that was his expertise, so their only real request was that the house include a view of a waterfall located on the property.
But they didn’t specify what view of that waterfall they were after.
As usual, Wright shocked the world when he created a blue print of a home literally built on top of a waterfall. Fallingwater received notoriety before construction completed in 1939 as it was featured in Time Magazine in January 1938. It served as a retreat home to the Kauffmanns and in 1963 Edgar Jr., the son of the three-person family, donated it to The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, allowing visitors from all over the world to see what might be Wright’s most popular home.
The famous house is well-worth a visit, but requires a bit of dedication to reach. Mill Run is located in a remote area of Western Pennsylvania. The area is known for its skiing in the winter and river activities in the summer, but if you’re not from PA, chances are you wouldn’t have known that. Located one hour and 30 minutes from Pittsburgh and four hours and 30 minutes from Philadelphia, allow yourself plenty of time to reach this icon, because I neglected to do that.
I’m not sure when I first heard about Fallingwater or what it was that made me want to visit so much, but I had wanted to visit there for at least ten years. For some reason, I never planned a trip. I saw the Robie House in Chicago, IL and learned that Kentuck Knob, another FLW house was located only ten minutes from Fallingwater, but still I never managed to get out there.
When my dad was going on and on about a woman he had just fallen in love with, one of the things he said about her was that she had always wanted to visit Fallingwater, like me. It instantly became something we had to do, finally. So my dad, his girlfriend, Ric and I made the drive out on my last weekend in the States for the holiday.
While we didn’t get off to a good start due to poor planning by me (I thought Mill Run was three hours from our home in NJ, turns out it’s five), everything could not have worked out more perfectly on our trip.
We left at about 10 a.m. and with a few stops, arrived at our accommodation by 4 p.m. I had looked at pretty much every hotel available in the area. I was really hoping to stay some place a bit different, like a bed and breakfast, considering how quaint the area is. Unfortunately, every room in our price range at a place like this was booked. By far the best sort of accommodation I found up there was renting out an actual Frank Lloyd Wright designed house, but this was booked out as well.
I started to settle on Holiday Inn when I figured I would give the room share sites a try. The pickings were sparse as this place is really in the middle of nowhere, but I found a loft condominium on Airbnb, which was only $100 per night and located right on a ski resort. It was perfect, kitchen, fireplace, two bedrooms, even a Christmas tree. So we lit a fire, made sushi, played a few games, then went to bed early to be fresh for the following day of home tours.
As things worked out, we ended up visiting Kentuck Knob first. While this home was designed by FLW, he had very little to do with the building of it. A team of local contractors led by Herman Keys created the home based on the famous architect’s blue prints. Keys made a few changes of his own, which turned out for the best as the house remains in perfect shape today and is still privately owned by Lord Palumbo of England, but open to the public.
I’m actually glad we saw Kentuck Knob first, because while it was extremely impressive, I think it would have been a bit anti-climatic after Fallingwater.
I’ve seen Fallingwater a million times in photos before, but I was still amazed by it upon arrival.
How was this home built in the 1930s? It’s so modern.
Built directly over a waterfall, FLW made use of the rocks and shape of the earth, building the house literally into it. On top of touring what is already a piece of art, visitors can browse through the Kauffmanns’ private collection, including pieces by Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera.
There are a million and one details to and stories about Fallingwater that our tour guide went through with us along the way. I especially liked the steps in the lounge area that went down to the water and had glass doors, which serves as a sort of air conditioning for the house and is constant reminder of where the house is situated.
The house features FLW’s famous “deconstruction of the box” by joining glass windows together at the corners of the house and allowing those corners to look open. And of course, it was really special for me to finally see that famous view of the entire house in person.
The two houses exceeded my expectations in every way and were worth the time and money. Each tour costs $US20 per adult and lasts about an hour. Plan your visit in advance, tickets sell out quick, as does accommodation in the area. Plus, you’ll want to work out directions prior as the area can be a bit difficult to navigate on a GPS and know exactly what your travel time is.