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Fallingwater
All he wanted was a modest, weekend hunting lodge to replace the ageing log house high on the bank overlooking Bear Run, deep in the woods of southern Pennsylvania. What he got was an artistic masterpiece, as much sculpture as architecture, a house so perfectly in tune with its woodland environment it was being featured on magazine covers even before its construction was complete. His name was Edgar Kauffman, the president of Pittsburgh's Kauffman's Department Store. It was land that had been in the family for more than a generation, and the site, with its massive boulders, flowing stream, and picturesque waterfalls, had been used for company picnics even before that. Kauffman's intellectual son, Edgar, Jr., was toying with the idea of becoming an architect. He was studying as an intern with a noted Wisconsin architect. And it was through his son that Edgar Kauffman met the illustrious and eccentric Frank Lloyd Wright.

The year was 1934, amid the coldest, hardest days of the Depression, and the cold and bluster of mid-December when Kauffman first took Wright to the Bear Run site. The barren splendour of the stream and its icy falls made a lasting impression upon the sometimes-cantankerous genius. It stayed with him as the image of the structure he would build there took shape in his mind. And that's where it stayed, incubating for almost a year. It was only when Wright got word the Kauffman would be coming to Wisconsin to look over the plans for the weekend house that he was finally forced to put them on paper. In fact the first rough conceptual sketches were begun just the afternoon before Kauffman was to arrive, floor plans sketched out that night, the first two elevations were finished in the early morning hours just before he came, and final two elevation drawings done by apprentices while Wright and Kauffman were having lunch. Yet amazingly as construction proceeded during the next two years, there were few and only very minor departures from these original drawings.

The house Wright called Fallingwater. It was not at all what Kauffman had in mind. He'd initially expected to spend twenty to thirty thousand hard-earned Depression dollars on a structure downstream from the falls where he might view their cascading beauty. The project ended up costing him over seventy thousand. He confided to Wright afterwards, "When I asked you to build me a house by the falls, I didn't know you were gonna build it on TOP of the damn thing." It is indeed, cantilevered, reinforced concrete, jutting out from a massive boulder and rock ledges, its stone quarried on the site, its daring, horizontal lines and seemingly weightless balconies perfectly mirroring those of the stratified rock that created the falling water which had so impressed Wright that cold December day in 1934. Although some might consider his Chicago Prairie Houses or his Johnson Research Center superior in form and function, it was the magical beauty of Fallingwater that revived Wright's sagging career of 40 years, and lifted him to the prominence, bringing him important commissions which allowed him to soar to greatness as both a working and teaching master architect. His Taliesin Fellowship has now spawned three generations of followers, and his design theories and philosophies even today are on the cutting edge of his art, some sixty-three years after Fallingwater began hovering over Bear Run.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
16 November 1999

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