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A visit to Fallingwater, aka a day in real estate heaven

By , - Last modified: June 12, 2012 at 10:42 AM
A view of Fallingwater. Photo/Jeff Geoghan
A view of Fallingwater. Photo/Jeff Geoghan

Last weekend, my family and I had the opportunity to visit Pennsylvania icon “Fallingwater” – the Frank Lloyd Wright home that defined an era in home design in the United States. The visit affected me in unexpected ways.

The home, built in the late 1930s by Pennsylvania builder Walter Hall under Wright's supervision, is nestled in the Laurel Highlands two hours southeast of Pittsburgh. The site is in the Bear Run Nature Reserve, a picturesque region with multiple recreation opportunities. We passed through Ohiopyle, a few minutes to the south, and the town was literally bursting with enthusiasts of all stripes, from kayakers to bicycle tourists.

The original owners were the Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh department store fame – in fact, they had vacationed there for 20 years prior to the construction of the permanent home.

But about the house.

Frank Lloyd Wright was entering the most significant period of his long architectural career when he designed Fallingwater. An older, wiser Wright was moving toward private residences that emphasized harmony with the immediate natural surroundings. This thinking prompted him to inform the Kaufmanns that the home would actually hover over the waterfall they so loved, rather than be across the creek as they had envisioned.

This single alteration of the plan more than anything cemented Fallingwater's place in real estate history.

The home was built using a ground-breaking cantilever design to allow it to be suspended out into the air over the creek.

To actually stand and gaze over the low parapet of the terrace and experience the waterfall was what changed my perspective on our "tourist visit." I realized that this home represents a lot of what got me into real estate in the first place — the joy of the experience of our place on the land. It was a cool moment as I stood with my two young sons in the tree-filtered sunshine.

At 5,330 square feet, the main home is good sized even by 2012 standards. The extensive use of glass walls blurs the distinction between indoors and out, and Wright's use of simple spaces and limited furnishings creates a minimalist aesthetic that may not appeal to all.

In fact, Liliane Kaufmann found the change from their Pittsburgh home jarring. In time, though, she came to appreciate and even cherish the lack of distractions from the nature experience. A separate 1,700-square-foot guest house (equally cool) sits up the hill from the main home and boasts a pool and singular covered walkway that frankly blew me away. This is real estate nirvana — and all three-quarters of a century old!

The property was ceded by the Kaufmanns' son, Edgar, to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1967, and today it's easy and reasonable to come to, with an excellent visitors center located well away from the home site that includes a café and very nice gift shop featuring lots of modern home materials and souvenirs.

If you are into real estate or architecture, you should make the effort to get to Fallingwater. It's like going back to visit your roots. Let me know if you do, I'd like to hear about it.

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