MILL RUN, Pa. (MCT) — Masterpiece. Art. Perfection. Many fancy words and rapturous phrases have described Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous house.
It's all true. But what is also true is that I kept thinking, wow, this house is not childproof. A 2-year-old could tumble out that low, unlocked window and fall to his death! A toddler would drown in that unfenced plunge pool! The railings aren't high enough. The floor is too hard. And that giant open fireplace, what a safety issue. And where is the kitchen, anyway?
Obviously, I'm not the arbiter of architectural masterworks, only a hapless visitor with the pedestrian vision of a suburban housewife.
I do have to say that whoever designed the tour of Fallingwater must have been a man. You see the dining room, but not the kitchen, which is hidden away through a side door with its AGA stove and boring utilitarian uses. It's not part of the regular tour, but in this day and age when chefs are celebrities and people swoon over cooktops, it should be.
I also noticed the incredible shortage of closet space. Where did they put the coats? The bathrooms are tiny. The single beds look as wide as a monk's. And can you imagine people lounging on those little tweed floor pillows?
But ah, picky, picky. As I said, these are small quibbles. Fallingwater does have a few redeeming features. Such as, it's built over a waterfall. It seems to hover in midair, over the water, cantilevered into the rock. Every stone is individually beautiful, every handmade desk a wonder, and a marvelous curving concrete canopy connecting the house to the guest suite is held up on only one side, as if by magic, with magic decorations that appear from one angle and disappear from another.
I have heard that some people weep when they see Fallingwater. I didn't see anyone do that, but one man did wander away from our tour group to look out the window and got a reprimand. Maybe he cried, I don't know.
About 5 million visitors have trooped through Fallingwater since it was bequeathed to the public in 1963, in a generous gesture by the Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh. Department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. and his wife, Liliane, hired Wright to build Fallingwater in 1936 on their wooded vacation property in the Laurel Highlands, where the family escaped the smoky city.
Wright, who at 69 found his career in the doldrums, took up the challenge. He designed the iconic house over a waterfall and stream. Luckily for him, the Kaufmanns were huge Wright fans and had an eye for design on their own. The house cost $155,000 — $120,000 over budget — and was famous even before it was finished.
Now owned and maintained by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the house appears exactly as it was — the Picasso, Hiroshige and Rivera prints and paintings on the walls, original furniture on the floor (including that Wright favorite, severe long built-in bench seating), Tiffany lamps, even the original record player. Not mentioned in the tour is the fact that the bones of Fallingwater have been knitted together more times than a prizefighter's — and in 2002, major work was done with steel cables to prevent the cantilevered terraces from tumbling into the river.
Visitors on the tour cannot take photos inside. There is no touching or even standing near artwork or a rare butterfly chair. Small groups are escorted by tour guides and drift through the house like party guests looking for the host.
There are stories of ghosts here. I don't believe them. This is a house of warmth. It is human scale, spun with lines, circles and grace. Wright's steel-framed windows and flagstone floors, the odd and quirky stairs leading up and down, the narrow halls, sunny splashes, hidden terraces that jut into the forest, brown cabinets, red bedspreads, yellow mums — all are vivid and alive.
Today, Fallingwater is like polished old leather. It was lived in. Books line the walls, especially in their son Edgar J. Kaufmann Jr.'s suite. One can picture him here, waking up in that bed, standing up and looking out the horizontal casement windows at the fall splendor around him, feeling part of the scenery, listening to the water fall.
If you go…
Fallingwater is in southwestern Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands, a traditional resort region south of Pittsburgh at 1491 Mill Run Road (Route 381) in Mill Run. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily (except Wednesdays) from mid-March to Nov. 30, plus Fridays to Sundays in December. $20 adults in advance; no children under 6 are allowed on regular tours.
Portions of the tour are not handicap accessible, and there is a lot of walking. Specialty tours include a brunch tour where you get to see the kitchen. www.fallingwater.org, 724-329-8501)
Duncan House: Super fans can stay at this Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home that is open for overnight guests. It is part of a group of Wright-inspired homes called Polymath Park about 25 miles from Fallingwater; 187 Evergreen Lane, Acme. ($399 per night for up to three people; www.polymathpark.com, 877-833-7829)
The Summit Inn: This homey 1907 resort is perched high atop a precipice on Route 40, with unbelievable views, about 11 miles from Fallingwater; 101 Skyline Drive, Farmington. ($140-$205 for bed and breakfast; www.summitinnresort.com, 724-438-8594)
Nemacolin Woodlands Resort: Elegance galore at this huge 1987-era resort with multiple lodgings, including Chateau Lafayette, a hotel complete with sparkling chandeliers. Nemacolin is a self-contained resort for families, about 12 miles from Fallingwater; 1001 Lafayette Drive, Farmington. ($395 and up per night; www.nemacolin.com, 866-344-6957)
The Laurel Highlands seems to be such a peaceful place. However, a whole lot has happened in this corner of Pennsylvania besides the construction of Fallingwater in 1936-39:
Flight 93: Visit the year-old Flight 93 National Memorial that honors those aboard the jet that went down in a field on Sept. 11, 2001, as passengers thwarted a terrorist attack. Free, 5424 Lincoln Highway, Stoystown. Open daily, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. in summer (April 1-mid October), 9 a.m.-5 p.m. in winter. (www.nps.gov/flni, 814-893-6322)
Ft. Necessity: This small, melancholy fort and National Parks battlefield shows where 31 British/Virginian soldiers were killed and 391 captured in the opening round of the French and Indian War in 1754. The inexperienced commander of the forces? A young George Washington. Entry fee, $5, 1 Washington Parkway, Farmington. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (www.nps.gov/fone, 724-329-5805)
The first highway: The National Road stretched from Maryland to the western lands of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. Built in the early 1800s, it carried a flood of settlers and tourists. Still standing along today's Route 40 are toll booths and taverns that fed and housed the travelers. One is the Washington Tavern, where your family could sleep in the hallway. (www.nationalroadpa.org, 724-437-9877)
The Quecreek Mine Disaster Memorial: In 2002, nine miners were trapped underground for three days until they were rescued by drilling crews. See a small memorial dedicated to the rescue workers at 151 Haupt Road, Somerset, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday from April to October (www.quecreekrescue.org, 814-445-5090)
Things to do near Fallingwater
Fallingwater Visitors Center Museum Store: Want a replica of the famous house? A pop-up card is $6.95. A Lego Architecture version is $99.95. An exact-scale replica is $61,000, but they haven't sold any yet, a clerk told me. "For that money, you could buy a real house," she said. (1491 Mill Run Road, Mill Run; www.fallingwater.org/11/shop )
Countree Cupboard & Christmas Shop and Downer House Antique Mall: Browse away the afternoon, especially hunting for vintage dishes and glassware. (2958 National Pike (Route 40), Chalk Hill; www.thechristmasshop-chalkhill.com; 724-439-6500)
Old General Store: Look for locally made chocolates, preserves, vinegars and syrup. (3822 Pa- 31 in Donegal or 240 Countryside Plaza, Route 819 South, Mt. Pleasant; www.oldgeneralstore.com; 724-593-7105)
Ohiopyle State Park: Just three miles from Fallingwater, this pretty state park has big waterfalls, bicycling on the Great Allegheny Passage trail, hiking, ziplining and major whitewater rafting along the Youghiogheny River. (www.dcnr.state.pa.us; 724-329-8591)
More Wright stuff: Kentuck Knob, another Wright-designed house, is only about 6 miles from Fallingwater; open for tours (www.kentuckknob.com; 724-329-1901)