Edgar Kaufmann Sr. was a successful Pittsburgh businessman and founder of Kaufmann's Department Store. His son, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., studied architecture under Wright briefly.
Edgar Sr. had been prevailed upon by Jr. and Wright to underwrite the cost of his utopian model city. When completed, it was displayed at Kaufmann’s Department Store and Wright was a guest in the Kaufmann home, “La Tourelle”, a French Norman masterpiece that celebrated Pittsburgh architect Benno Janssen (1874-1964) had created in the stylish Fox Chapel suburb in 1923 for Edgar J. Kaufmann. The Kaufmanns and Wright were enjoying refreshments at La Tourelle when Wright, who never missed an opportunity to charm a potential client, said to Edgar Jr. in tones that the elder Kaufmanns were intended to overhear, “Edgar, this house is not worthy of your parents…” The remark spurred the Kaufmann’s interest in something worthier. Fallingwater would become the end result.
The Kaufmanns owned some property outside Pittsburgh with a waterfall and some cabins. When the cabins at their camp had deteriorated to the point that something had to be rebuilt, Mr. Kaufmann contacted Wright.
Initially, the Kaufmanns assumed the idea of Wright designing a house that would overlook the waterfall. Wright asked for a survey of the area around the waterfall, which was performed by Fayette Engineering Company of Uniontown, Pennsylvania and included all of the boulders, trees and topography. They were unprepared to hear Wright's suggestion to build a house positioned over a waterfall. At the time of its construction, the structure cost $155,000.
Fallingwater was the family's weekend home from 1937 to 1963. In 1963, Kaufmann, Jr. donated the property to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. In 1964 it was opened to the public as a museum and nearly four million people have visited the house since (as of July 2006). It currently hosts more than 120,000 visitors each year.
Interior of Fallingwater depicting a sitting area in the living room
Fallingwater stands as one of Wright's greatest masterpieces both for its dynamism and for its integration with the striking natural surroundings. The extent of Wright's genius in integrating every detail of this design can only be hinted at in photographs. This organically designed private residence was intended to be a nature retreat for its owners. The house is well-known for its connection to the site: it is built on top of an active waterfall which flows beneath the house. The fireplacehearth in the living room is composed of boulders found on the site and upon which the house was built — one set of boulders which was left in place protrudes slightly through the living room floor. Wright had initially intended that these boulders would be cut flush with the floor, but this had been one of the Kaufmann family's favorite sunning spots, so Mr. Kaufmann insisted that it be left as it was. The stone floors are waxed, while the hearth is left plain, giving the impression of dry rocks protruding from a stream.
Integration with the setting extends even to small details. For example, where glass meets stone walls, there is no metal frame; rather, the glass is caulked directly to the stone. There are stairways directly down to the water. And in the "bridge" that connects the main house to the guest and servant building, a natural boulder drips water inside, which is then directed back out. Bedrooms are small, some even with low ceilings, perhaps to encourage people outward toward the open social areas, decks, and outdoors.
The active stream (which can be heard constantly throughout the house), immediate surroundings, and locally quarried stone walls and cantilevered terraces (resembling the nearby rock formations) are meant to be in harmony, in line with Wright's interest in making buildings that were more "organic" and which thus seemed to be more engaged with their surroundings. Although the waterfall can be heard throughout the house, it can't be seen without going outside. The design incorporates broad expanses of windows and the balconies are off main rooms giving a sense of the closeness of the surroundings. The experiential climax of visiting the house is an interior staircase leading down from the living room allowing direct access to the rushing stream beneath the house.
Pathway leading to the entrance of Fallingwater.
Wright's views of what would be the entry have been argued about; still, the door Wright considered the main door is tucked away in a corner and is rather small. Wright's idea of the grand facade for this house is from the perspective of all the famous pictures of the house, looking up from downstream, viewing the opposite corner from the main door.
On the hillside above the main house is a four-car carport (though the Kaufmanns had requested a garage), servants' quarters, and a guest bedroom. This attached outbuilding was built one year later using the same quality of materials and attention to detail as the main house. Just uphill from it is a small swimming pool, continually fed by a natural water, which then overflows to the river below.
Fallingwater's structural system includes a series of bold reinforced concrete cantilevered balconies. However, the house had problems from the beginning. Pronounced sags were noticed immediately with both of the prominent balconies - the living room and the second floor.
The strong horizontal and vertical lines are a distinctive feature of Fallingwater.
The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy conducted an intensive program to preserve and restore Fallingwater. The structural work was completed in 2002. This involved a detailed study of the original design documents, observing and modeling the structure's behavior, then developing and implementing a repair plan.
While Wright had been pondering the architectural design for months, results of the study indicated that the original structural design and plan preparation had been rushed and the cantilevers had significantly inadequate reinforcement. As originally designed the cantilevers would not have held their own weight.
The contractor, Walter Hall, who was also an engineer, produced independent computations and argued for increasing the reinforcement. Wright rebuffed the contractor and Kaufmann took Wright's advice. Wright's team did not update their design. Nevertheless, the contractor quietly doubled the amount of reinforcement in these. Even this was not enough, but likely prevented the structure's collapse.
The 2002 repair scheme involved temporarily supporting the structure; careful, selective, removal of the floor; post-tensioning the cantilevers underneath the floor; then restoring the finished floor.
Given the humid environment directly over running water, the house also had mold problems. The senior Mr. Kaufmann called Fallingwater "a seven-bucket building" for its leaks, and nicknamed it "Rising Mildew" (Brand 1995).