Visiting Fallingwater, America's most beautiful house

Road Trip 2010: Frank Lloyd Wright's 1937 masterpiece still wows hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Some call it the best home ever built in the U.S. Either way, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman finds it beyond impressive.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read

As part of Road Trip 2010, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman visited the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, Fallingwater. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

MILL RUN, Pa.--After seeing a few Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces, you might expect to be a little jaded when it's time for the next one.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have spent time inside the Marin County Civic Center--a stunning Wright creation that was the set for the movie "Gattaca." I've visited Wright's Scottsdale, Ariz., architecture school, Taliesin West and have seen a few other of his buildings along the way.

But nothing prepared me for my Road Trip 2010 visit to the incredible Fallingwater, Wright's 1937 piece de resistance, a relatively small vacation house in the woods here, just more than 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, the home of the Kaufmann family, for whom he designed and built Fallingwater.

For decades, the property here was a country club. Then, Edgar Kaufmann Sr. began renting this woodsy getaway as a retreat for employees of his Pittsburgh department store. Later, Kaufmann purchased the land. But it was only after the Kaufmanns had hired Wright for a Pittsburgh project that the famous architect was commissioned to built a house here. In part, that was because the Kaufmanns' son, Edgar Jr., had studied at Taliesin West and knew that Wright would be a good fit for Bear Run, as the property is known.

Click here for a full photo gallery from Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece Fallingwater.

The majesty of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater (photos)

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Wright designed Fallingwater in 1935 and completed it in 1937, adding a guest house in 1938. Lilliane Kaufmann died in 1953, and her husband passed away in 1955. Not interested in living a country life, Edgar Jr., who wanted to live in New York City, decided that the great house was too special to put in the hands of private interests, and in 1963, he turned it over to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which still operates it today. It opened to the public as a museum in 1964.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of people a year have made the journey here to see what some have called America's most important, or best, private home. Having not seen them all, of course, I can't comment on that honorific. But I can say unequivocally that Fallingwater is one of the most beautiful buildings I've ever seen, and it's a testament to Wright's imagination that the house blends in effortlessly into a woodsy scene otherwise untouched by humans and full of little else but trees, plants, animals, and the sweet sound of the stream flowing through the property and under the house itself.

As is well known, Wright was a huge fan of cantilevering elements of his buildings, such as terraces and stabilizing them by anchoring them to a single load-bearing wall. And that's precisely what he did with Fallingwater. The house is probably most famous for its terraces, which appear to float out over the water.

An artist's rendering of Fallingwater. The building attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, a very impressive number for a small house built in 1937. Western Pennsylvania Conservancy

But as the story goes, Edgar Kaufmann Sr. didn't necessarily believe that the terraces were structurally sound. As a result, he hired a Pittsburgh engineering firm to come and investigate--without Wright's assent. The firm felt that large steel beams were needed to stabilize the house and installed them.

Wright was not happy about that turn of events, but he went along with it. Years later, the terraces began to sag, and the unanswered question is whether Wright's inherent design was flawed, or whether the steel beams put too much weight onto the terraces and caused them to begin to list.

Either way, work was done in 1997 to support the lower terrace, and in 2002, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy completed a much more serious repair project that resulted in Fallingwater now being structurally sound and safe for the time being.

Wright built Fallingwater with a dependence on cantilevered terraces that were anchored to a single, load-bearing wall. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Of course, Wright's buildings--even his own--are well known to have all kinds of design errors. In some cases, such as with other parts of Fallingwater, that meant little inconveniences like leaks that couldn't be fixed.

As was related to me on my tour of Fallingwater, Kaufmann was upset that there was a leak in his study, to which Wright responded that Kaufmann should move his chair and replace it with a bucket.

In other parts of the house, such as at the end of one of its long, narrow, dark hallways, leaks could only be handled by putting in a drain.

Yet, despite these small blemishes, Fallingwater is seen the world over as an architectural gem. Its magnificent use of natural surroundings, clean lines, a commitment to an aesthetic dominated by vertical and horizontal lines, and a preference for bringing the outside nature inside, all make the house--like others Wright built--a treat to visit.

Perhaps the best example of Wright's use of organic design at Fallingwater is a choice he made--over Kaufmann's objection--to built a hatch into the house's Grand Room that, when opened, uncovered the stream below. The idea was to let the cool air from the stream rise into the house when it was hot and to bring in the calming sounds of the flowing water.

Wright was a fan of organic design, such as this hatch, which when opened, let in cool air and natural sounds from the stream below the house. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

But Wright also used design philosophies like folding ceilings that drew the inhabitant's eyes to the outside, more windows meant to allow the sounds of nature to come in, and abundant windows that let in sunlight for warmth in the cold seasons.

Throughout the house, Wright's own furniture adds to the decor. Indeed, in total, there are 169 pieces of Wright-designed furniture in the house, one of the world's largest such collections. As well, there are more Wright touches, like a Japanese wood print he had made as a present for Kaufmann.

Fallingwater can easily be seen as larger than life, yet the house--and its adjacent guest quarters--is actually fairly small, at least by the standards of the vacation homes of the very rich.

In total, the main house is just 2,885 square feet, while the guest house is only 500 square feet. Yet, because it is on several levels and leans out over the wonderful stream below, Fallingwater feels like much, much more than it is.

If you find yourself in western Pennsylvania in the future, I heartily recommend taking the time to wind through the backwoods there and head toward what may be Wright's most famous creation. But make a reservation. There are many others with the same idea. Even after all these years.

For the rest of this week, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American northeast. You can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.