Pennsylvania – Day 4: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Masterpiece and a Visit to Gettysburg

Brittany Swanson   October 31, 2015   Comments Off on Pennsylvania – Day 4: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Masterpiece and a Visit to Gettysburg

Day four in Pennsylvania was back to being a little rainy and dreary, but it worked out rather nicely for me. My first stop was Fallingwater, the famous Frank Lloyd Wright designed house. The previous day I realized you had to get tickets in advance. I wanted to go first thing in the morning, but my ticket wasn’t until 1 p.m. because all the other times were sold out. I decided to leave first thing in the morning anyway and go straight to Fallingwater just in case they let me on an earlier tour.

That worked out perfectly. Since I was by myself, they stuck me on a tour that literally started two minutes after I checked in! Brilliant. It hadn’t started raining yet either so that was nice too. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the house on the tour I chose, but the other one was an hour longer and cost $47 more so I think I made the right choice, though I wouldn’t be opposed to coming back someday.

My first view of Fallingwater was a little different than I expected, Fallingwater, Mill Run, PA.

My first view of Fallingwater was a little different than I expected, but at least there were no people on the terraces, Fallingwater, Mill Run, PA.

Here’s a little of what I learned on the tour: Fallingwater was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1935 for the Kaufmann family as a summer retreat home. They asked for a place to view the waterfall on their property. Instead, Wright built them a house right over the waterfall making it a part of their daily experience. The house was built using cantilevers, which are long horizontal structures anchored and balanced by the back side of the house. The cantilever system allowed three sides of the house to have windows for walls because they didn’t need to be load bearing. Wright wanted to draw the Kaufmann family outside to enjoy nature, so there were a number of terraces (one off each of the main rooms) from which they could enjoy their surroundings. Additionally, the ceilings were super low to draw one’s attention out the windows and outside. For those of you who care or who this makes sense to: the house is 5,330 square feet, but only 2,885 square feet are actually indoors.

The doors and hallways were very narrow. So narrow, in fact, that if I stuck my elbows out on either side as I entered or exited a room I would bump them on the door frames. There were a lot of cross ventilation windows throughout the house and Wright enjoyed blurring the line between where the house stopped and where nature started. The most notable example of this is the staircase from the living room down to the Bear Run stream. A sliding glass “door” seals off the stairs from the house. The “door” is actually a sliding horizontal glass panel similar to the sliding doors that close a breadbox or a piano. When the door is open and one walks down the stairs, the top half of their body is still in the house, while the bottom half of them is outside. So, are they inside, or outside? Super cool.

Do you see the stairs from the livingroom to the stream? Fallingwater, Mill Run, PA.

Do you see the stairs from the livingroom to the stream? Fallingwater, Mill Run, PA.

Another of these blurred inside/outside places was on the other side of the house where Wright designed corner windows. The windows went all the way up along one corner of the house on multiple floors. When one opened the corner window the panes swung inward, literally eliminating the corner of the house and leaving it open to the air. Originally Wright designed the house without screens, but the Kaufmann’s soon learned that these were necessary to keep unwanted critters out of their home. The addition of the screens put the corner back in the house, but it is still a super interesting design element.

I fell in love with Fallingwater when I learned about it in an Art History class back in college. According to Fallingwater’s website, the house “was voted the ‘best all-time work of American Architecture’ in a 1991 poll of members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).” I can see why, it’s super impressive and no one had, to my knowledge, ever done anything like it before.

What really struck me from my visit though, was that this great American architectural feat would’ve failed, crumbled, and toppled into the stream, if Wright had done it his way, without the help of others. Our tour guide told us that Kaufmann Sr. had some reservations about Wright’s design so he secretly consulted an engineer to make sure Wright’s structure was sound. The engineer advised Kaufmann to have Wright add extra steel beam supports in the cantilevers and when Wright found out he was not happy. Eventually, Wright caved and agreed to add more supports so he could move on with the project. It’s a good thing he did too, or he might’ve lost the house, and his reputation.

In the 1990s the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the foundation who owns and maintains the Fallingwater property, hired an engineer to assess the site’s structural integrity. Robert Silman, the engineer they hired, found that the livingroom terrace of Fallingwater had shifted seven inches and without intervention would one day fall into the stream. So, after two years, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy raised the 11.5 million dollars needed and Fallingwater was restored. Learning about the near disastrous fate of Fallingwater taught me to take help where it is offered, because if I try to do everything on my own I might be more likely to fail. If you’re interested in reading more about the restoration of Fallingwater read this article.

Fallingwater in the fall is unbelievably gorgeous. Fallingwater, Mill Run, PA.

Fallingwater in the fall is unbelievably gorgeous. Fallingwater, Mill Run, PA.

Fallingwater was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1938, a year after it was completed. The feature gave the house instant fame. Since Edgar Kaufmann Jr. donated the house to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963 more than four million people have visited. I feel very fortunate to be one of those people and highly recommend a trip to anyone in the Pittsburgh area; it is well worth the $25.

I ended day four in Pennsylvania with a quick visit to Gettysburg. I opted out of the formal museum and video, choosing instead to do the Auto Tour on my own in the last bit of daylight. The battlefields are well preserved and far from city life so it almost feels like stepping back in time, if you ignore the cars.

Honestly, I found it a little creepy being on the battlefields. Knowing that at one point people stood in the same place and shot at each other and lost their lives. It felt ominous. Haunted.

Gettysburg Battlefield, Gettysburg, PA.

Gettysburg Battlefield, Gettysburg, PA.

Darkness was quickly approaching and since the battlefields were giving me the heebie-jeebies anyway, I didn’t stay long. I did stop by the Eternal Light Peace Memorial before heading on my way though. According to the plaque, the memorial was dedicated in 1938, seventy-five years after the final Battle of Gettysburg, to symbolize the unity of the United States and soldiers from both the Confederate and Union forces were invited. Over 2,000 attended, most of whom were in their 90s or 100s.

On the same plaque was a picture of a Union soldier and a Confederate soldier shaking hands over a battle wall at the memorial dedication. That sort of blew my mind. Sure seventy-five years had passed, but those two once sat in opposite camps, shooting at each other, and losing friends and loved ones for opposing causes they both were willing to die for. It’s pretty unbelievable to think that years later they’d be cordially shaking hands.

Day four was a pretty fantastic day. I don’t think I ever thought I’d see the classroom come to life in this way, but I really enjoyed it. Seriously, if you get the chance, go to Fallingwater, it is so freaking cool, especially if you love nature and are into architecture or interior design. Also, Gettysburg was a cute little town. I wouldn’t have minded wandering around more than I did.