A house not built on sand, but not built to stand

February 8, 2019

Once, there was a favorite of the gods of space, named Frank Lloyd Wright. He worshipped his gods by building houses that flowed from the landscape, that sculpted space, so their residents would know it was there. And the gods were pleased.


But gods like to test their favorites, and when Wright’s hair began to show the hoar of age, they abandoned him for others. Fewer chances to build came Wright’s way. Hungry, he took apprentices, who paid to work for him in Spring Green, Wisconsin. One of these was Edgar Kaufmann Jr., a rich man’s son who had studied painting.


Edgar’s father directed a Pittsburgh department store founded by his immigrant uncles. He vacationed in a mountain wood, graced by laurels, rhododendrons, and a small waterfall. The Kaufmanns and their guests played in the creek, and sunbathed on a flat rock just above the falls. The Kaufmanns invited their son’s mentor to the woods, thinking that he might build them a house there.


The Favorite ordered a topological site plan, including each rock and tree. Months passed during which his apprentices did not see their teacher work on the project. Edgar senior was obliged to travel to the Midwest, and called to request an audience. “Fine, Edgar. We’ve been waiting for you,” replied The Favorite.


A train trip later, Edgar called from Chicago, and the two repeated their conversation, then repeated it upon Edgar’s arrival in Milwaukee. Wright had still not put pencil to paper. The next morning, 140 miles from Spring Green, the client called to say he was driving over.


“Fine, Edgar. We’ve been waiting for you.”


The Favorite covered the site plan with tracing paper. A plan appeared for a house straddling the waterfall, with the sunbathing rock as hearthstone and part of the first floor. Section drawings appeared, and The Favorite titled his drawings “Fallingwater, a house for Edgar Kaufmann, Senior, by Frank Lloyd Wright.”


Kaufmann appeared, and while he and The Favorite dined, the apprentices hastened to draw elevations. “How soon can you begin?” asked the dazzled client.


“Right away,” replied The Favorite.


Fallingwater, seen from without, is a beautiful object, a sculpture in gray stone, beige concrete, glass, and red steel. Concrete corners are rounded, and the masonry is beautifully patterned. It is a composition in verticals and horizontals, cantilevered terraces cascading right and left in a rhythm that climaxes with gushing water underneath.


Ribbon windows frame continuous foliage, tops and bottoms unseen. There are no corner mullions, so when the window casements open, corners disappear and the outside flows in. The gray stone continues past the glass to form interior partitions. Floors are waxed stone, including the flat hearth rock, still parting stream. Red mullions and a huge, round “grog” pot swinging at the hearth punctuate the design. Sofas are cantilevered from the walls and there are stairs from the living room to the stream.


Fallingwater was an immediate sensation. It was on the January 17, 1938, Time magazine cover. In 1991, the American Institute of Architects named it the best all-time work of American architecture. In 1963, Edgar gave it to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and 4.5 million people have visited it. It is one of the Smithsonian Institution’s “28 places to visit before you die.”


But the fable is myth. The woodland palace was built to collapse into the creek.


Cracks began to appear in the concrete almost at once. The Kaufmanns patched the cracks, which returned again and again. The 15-foot cantilever settled seven inches.


In the mid-’90s, the Conservancy asked engineers Robert Silman Associates to investigate. Visual inspection and radar showed that three large concrete beams were cracked and carrying 95 percent of their load capacity. Fallingwater wasn’t safe.


Silman built scaffolding to support the house while the Conservancy raised funds for repairs. Purists supported leaving the scaffolding, not beefing up the structure. Eric Lloyd Wright said that his grandfather was interested in space, but not the space within the floor. The Conservancy elected to strengthen the structure.


In 2002, contractors numbered and removed the floor stones, and tore out the subflooring. They filled cracks in the concrete beams and ran five post-tensioning cables. Hydraulic machinery pulled each cable tight. The floor was reassembled and the facade repaired.


It turned out that, in the rush to build a great house, an engineer neglected to specify “negative reinforcement,” tension bars that should have spanned the length of the cantilever. In fact, the East Coast contractor had told Kaufmann that the reinforcement was inadequate, and Kaufmann forwarded their report to The Architect, who replied, “I have done more for you than any owner has a right to expect. If that’s not good enough for you, then to hell with the whole thing.”

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