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12 Facts About Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater

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Tucked away in the sleepy forests of southwestern Pennsylvania sits one of the world’s most famous buildings: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Commissioned by wealthy department store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann and completed in 1937, the home’s cantilevered tiers hang suspended atop a 30-foot waterfall—Wright’s ingenious way of melding the man-made structure with its natural surroundings [PDF]. Here are 12 facts about the work’s history and legacy.

1. FALLINGWATER HELPED FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT MAKE A COMEBACK.

Today, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) is revered as one of history’s greatest architects—but by the time he reached his late 60s, many critics considered him to be washed up. Wright had only built a few buildings in the previous decade, the Great Depression had diminished demand for new projects, and, adding insult to injury, his younger peers considered his style to be anachronistic. Kaufmann—whose department store, Kaufmann’s, was later incorporated into Macy’s—helped resuscitate Wright's career when he asked the architect to design a weekend home in the Laurel Highlands for his family.

Nobody quite knows how the Kaufmann family and Wright first became acquainted. However, we do know that Kaufmann’s son, Edgar Kaufmann Jr., admired the architect's work, and studied under Wright as an apprentice at his Taliesin Studio in Wisconsin. In 1934, the young student's parents visited Taliesin and met Wright in person. Shortly after, the Kaufmanns asked Wright to build Fallingwater.

With Fallingwater, Wright proved to the world that he wasn't quite finished yet, ushering in a final, fruitful period of his career. Near the end of his life, Wright designed a handful of other renowned works, including the Monona Terrace Civic Center in Madison, Wisconsin and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

2. FALLINGWATER’S CONSTRUCTION SITE WAS ORIGINALLY A “SUMMER CAMP” FOR KAUFMANN’S EMPLOYEES.

The site Kaufmann chose for his home was a swath of wilderness near the villages of Mill Run and Ohiopyle, on a mountain stream called Bear Run. Once upon a time, the wooded area had been home to a small cabin where Kaufmann’s employees sought refuge from Pittsburgh’s pollution. But once the Great Depression struck, the employees could no longer afford to travel there, so Kaufmann decided to convert it into a country getaway.

3. WRIGHT IS RUMORED TO HAVE SKETCHED FALLINGWATER’S DESIGN IN ONLY TWO HOURS.

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According to legend, Wright sketched Fallingwater in only two hours. In 1934, the architect visited the home's construction site and asked for an area survey. Then, he did absolutely nothing for nearly a year—until Kaufmann traveled to Milwaukee and called up Wright, announcing he’d be paying a surprise visit to his Wisconsin studio, Taliesin, to view the plans. Wright and his apprentices reportedly drew Fallingwater in the time it took his wealthy patron to drive to Taliesin.

Needless to say, Franklin Toker, author of Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E. J. Kaufmann, and America's Most Extraordinary House, is skeptical of this claim. “We want to believe drawing up Fallingwater needed only two hours, just as we want to believe—despite massive contrary evidence—that Lincoln scribbled the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope,” he writes. “We don’t want to hear that Lincoln struggled through five drafts on his historic oration because that makes the speech less of a work of genius.” And in this case, one of Wright’s associates remembered Wright and Kaufmann discussing that the house would be built on the falls months before the supposed rush of inspiration.

4. THE KAUFMANNS DIDN’T KNOW THAT THEIR HOME WOULD BE BUILT ATOP A WATERFALL.

According to another legend (many of Wright’s apprentices disagree on key details of how Fallingwater was conceived, so learning the truth is difficult), Kaufmann thought that Wright would design the home on the banks of the river, facing the waterfall, so he was surprised when he looked at Wright’s plans and saw that his country estate would sit on top of it. Wright explained that he wanted to integrate the house with the waterfall so it would be an essential part of the structure instead of simply serving as a pretty backdrop. (You can’t actually see the waterfall from Fallingwater, but visitors can hear rushing water if they listen closely.)

5. FALLINGWATER'S INTERIOR IS DESIGNED TO RESEMBLE NATURE ...

Wright wanted Fallingwater’s interior to feel like the surrounding forest. The 5300-square foot home’s walls and floors are constructed of local sandstone; a rock outcropping is incorporated into the living room's hearth; each bedroom has its own terrace; and its cornerless windows open outward so windowpanes won’t interrupt visitors' view. There’s even a glass hatchway in the main level's floor that opens to reveal a staircase leading down to the stream below.

6. ... BUT ITS OUTSIDE WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE COVERED IN GOLD LEAF.

Wright opted for a rustic, natural look when he designed Fallingwater. Only two colors of paint were applied to the concrete, sandstone, glass, and steel structure—light ochre for the concrete, and Cherokee red for the steel. However, Wright originally envisioned a more flamboyant aesthetic: He proposed that the home’s concrete exterior be coated in gold leaf.

The Kaufmanns thought that gold leaf would be too over-the-top for a country house, and after rejecting Wright’s secondary proposal (a white mica finish), they settled on the ochre, which, according to Wright, was inspired by “the sere leaves of the rhododendron.”

7. FALLINGWATER STILL HAS ALL ITS ORIGINAL FURNISHINGS AND ARTWORK.

Wright didn’t just design Fallingwater—he also custom-designed its furniture. Around half of the furnishings were built into the house, which Wright said made them “client-proof” (i.e., unable to be removed and replaced with tackier/incongruous purchases). Today, Fallingwater is the only remaining home designed by Wright that still has its original furnishings and artwork.

8. FALLINGWATER HAS STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS.

Fallingwater is an architectural marvel, but it still has a few major flaws. Its skylights leak, the waterfall promotes mold growth (Kaufmann nicknamed Fallingwater “Rising Mildew”), and—even worse—the builders didn’t use enough reinforcing steel to support the first floor’s concrete skeleton.

Kaufmann had initial doubts about the technical feasibility of Wright's concept, and he hired consulting engineers to examine Wright's plans. They discovered that the main floor's girders needed additional reinforcement, but Wright dismissed this claim and forged ahead with construction.

Over time, gravity caused the home's first floor cantilever to sag, and in 2002, the structure’s foundation was reinforced to prevent a future collapse. In the process, the first level’s stone floor and furniture had to be ripped out.

9. FALLINGWATER WOULD BE WORTH MILLIONS OF DOLLARS TODAY.

Kaufmann's original budget for Fallingwater was somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000, but in the end, it and a guesthouse ended up costing the family $155,000. (This sum included $8000 worth of architect fees and $4500 for installed walnut furnishings.) That amount now translates to over $2.5 million after calculating for inflation.

10. FALLINGWATER RECEIVES THOUSANDS OF VISITORS PER YEAR.

Fallingwater remained in the Kaufmann family’s possession from 1937 to 1963. Edgar Kaufmann Jr. inherited the home after his father's death in 1955, and he later donated the home and its surrounding 1750 acres of land to a nonprofit trust called the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Nearly 5 million people have visited Fallingwater since 1964, and the home received more than 167,000 visitors in 2015 alone.

11. AYN RAND'S THE FOUNTAINHEAD WAS PARTLY INSPIRED BY WRIGHT AND FALLINGWATER.

Both Frank Lloyd Wright and Fallingwater are believed to have inspired writer Ayn Rand’s seminal 1943 novel The Fountainhead. Its protagonist, the iconoclastic architect Howard Roark, bears a striking resemblance to Wright, and several of the homes Roark designs for clients resemble Fallingwater. Toker even goes so far as to guess that the book’s title—which Rand changed from Second-Hand Lives to The Fountainhead—pays homage to Fallingwater, as both monikers are 12 letters long, begin with the letter “F,” and conjure the image of cascading water.

12. FALLINGWATER HASN’T MADE THE CUT FOR THE UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE LIST QUITE YET.

Fallingwater has received plenty of accolades and honors over the years. It was named a National Historic Landmark in 1966, and in 1991, an American Institute of Architects poll voted it as the "best all-time work of American architecture." However, the home has yet to be added to the United Nations’s World Heritage List of significant cultural landmarks.

The U.S. Department of the Interior nominated 10 of Wright’s buildings (including Fallingwater, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and more) for inclusion in 2015. But last summer, a UNESCO committee decided they needed to review additional information before making a final decision. Their requests included a revised argument for why Wright sites should be considered to be of “outstanding universal value,” along with clarified specifics of how the individual properties would be managed.

Additional Source: Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E. J. Kaufmann, and America's Most Extraordinary House

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Dutch Tiny House Village Provides Houses for the Homeless
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The new residential development outside the Dutch city of Eindhoven is no ordinary community. Skaeve Huse is a special place designed for Eindhoven’s most vulnerable populations, according to Inhabitat. It’s aimed at providing permanent living quarters for previously homeless people with mental illness or drug addiction, or who otherwise struggle to live in traditional city residences.

The community was designed by the Amsterdam-based architects at Studio Elmo Vermijs for the Trudo Housing Corporation, a Dutch developer. (The company previously offered a rental discount for tenants who assist refugees.)

A bicycle is parked outside a slanted green tiny house.

“In recent years, several Skaeve Huse have been built in the Netherlands, always temporary, mostly in containers,” the architects write in their description of the project. “Trudo wanted a permanent and energy-neutral design so that this vulnerable group could benefit from the homes in the long term. Skaeve Huse Eindhoven is the first of its kind designed and built with these principles as starting point.”

The Trudo Housing Corporation partnered with the European Investment Bank in 2016 to create more environmentally sustainable social housing programs.

A bicycle is parked outside a slanted green tiny house.

Skaeve loosely means “slanted,” and some of the walls of the colorful houses do indeed slant, giving them a whimsical look. The high ceilings are designed to give the 355-square-foot houses a more spacious, airy feel despite the small size, while maintaining privacy with windows high off the ground. Each of the homes has a living room with a small open kitchen, a bathroom, and an entrance foyer.

The homes are spaced apart to help give people who have trouble living in the typical, cramped spaces of an urban environment extra room, which the designers hope will help limit disputes between neighbors. The land was formerly a forest, and the homes are placed between trees along a winding path.

Though designed for people who didn’t have homes, this tiny house community looks cute enough to replicate for traditional housing, too.

[h/t Inhabitat]

All images courtesy of Elmo Vermijs.

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9 Notable Buildings With Secret Floors
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Secret floors have long captured the imagination; conspiracy theorists love to imagine that government buildings keep their darkest secrets within sealed-off stories. In the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “The After Hours,” the ninth floor of a department store is where the mannequins mysteriously come to life. Meanwhile, the hidden 7th-and-a-half floor of the Mertin-Flemmer building in New York was a portal for John Cusack into the actual brain of John Malkovich in the movie Being John Malkovich.

While these mysteries may have come from a writer’s imagination, there are notable buildings that have whole secret floors right under your nose—if you know where to look.

1. THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING, NEW YORK

One of the world’s most iconic and recognizable skyscrapers, the Empire State Building is also one of Manhattan’s premiere tourist destinations. The gleaming Art Deco elevators speed thousands of visitors to the observation deck on the 86th floor every day, and there’s also an observation pod on the 102nd floor. But just above, hidden out of sight, is the secret 103rd floor. Off-limits to the public, there is no glass protecting visitors from the elements, just a narrow walkway surrounding the top of the building. Original plans are thought to have allowed airships to dock to the top of the Empire State Building, with passengers disembarking on the 103rd floor, and the 102nd being their official port of entry into the United States. The plan never came to fruition, however, and the hidden 103rd floor remains sealed off high above New York City.

2. THE FIFTH FLOOR OF THE YANGGAKDO HOTEL, PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA

For Calvin Sun, of the adventurous travel blog Monsoon Diaries, a hotel in the world’s most isolated nation held a particularly odd secret. The hotel Yanggakdo’s elevator has no 5th floor. Getting out of the elevator on the 6th and walking down, his group reached something peculiar: an entire concreted hidden floor, filled with locked doors and no people. The floor was covered with what looked to be government-issued propaganda posters, with messages like “Let’s prepare thoroughly in order to defeat the invaders” and “Our General is the best.” Other intrepid adventurers have reported bunkers, steel doors, official-looking men with computers, and others listening to headphones. Some have speculated that there is another floor hidden within the 5th, but its purpose remains unknown.

3. THE GREENBRIER RESORT, WEST VIRGINIA

The Greenbrier is a luxury hotel and resort located amid the mountains of West Virginia. The local waters have been attracting guests since 1778, and the glittering guest list of the hotel, now a National Historic Landmark, has included 26 presidents. But hidden under the glamorous rooms and sprawling grounds is a massive underground complex, codenamed Project Greek Island. During the Cold War, it was built to hold the entire United States Congress in safety—just in case Washington was attacked by a Soviet nuclear strike.

The 112,000-square-foot bunker was big enough to hold both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and came complete with six months’ worth of food, 25-ton blast doors, decontamination chambers, water purification equipment, and its own hospital. The government’s construction of Project Greek Island was covered up by the building of a new west wing added to the existing hotel. To avoid detection, the huge amounts of land unearthed in the creation of the project were used in a new golf course, while the army of workers posed as employees of a fake audiovisual company called the Forsythe Associates, who “maintained” the hotel's 1000 television sets.

Project Greek Island fortunately remained unused, and was never officially acknowledged until a story in the Washington Post in 1992 exposed the secret. Today tours of this remarkable relic of the Cold War are given at the hotel, which still operates as a luxury resort.

4. OUR LORD IN THE ATTIC, AMSTERDAM

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There’s an old house in Amsterdam that looks much like the other Queen Anne-style homes along the canals that give this old part of the city its distinctive character. This particular house, however, holds a remarkable secret hidden away in the attic: a miniature, fully functioning church. Complete with marble altar, pews enough for 150 worshippers, and elaborate gilt decoration, the church was hidden due to the persecution of Dutch Catholics in the 17th century. Access to the clandestine church is gained by a false wall in the living room that leads to a narrow spiral staircase. Today the church is a museum, but still regularly holds services hidden away in the attic, as they have done for nearly 400 years.

5. THE NEW YORKER HOTEL, MANHATTAN

Luke Spencer

When the New Yorker Hotel opened on 8th Avenue and 34th Street in 1930, it was one of the most technologically advanced hotels in the world. It came complete with its own in-house radio station, printing press, 50-chair barber salon, and a dining room that featured a retractable ice rink and skating show to entertain the guests. With 2500 rooms, it was promoted as a “vertical village.”

Underneath the lobby was a giant power plant, occupying a hidden floor around 80 feet below the sidewalk. The DC generating plant was so huge, it was powerful enough to provide electricity for a city of around 35,000 people. The plant was also so sophisticated that one of the hotel’s most famous long-term residents, the inventor Nikola Tesla, who lived there for the last decade of his life, is reported to have wandered down under the lobby to tinker with the plant and talk with the engineers. Remarkably, the plant is still down there, the switches for the old skating rink, coffee shop lights, and ballroom silent and unused. (Much of the plant was modernized in the 1960s, however, and switched over to the alternating current Tesla championed.)

6. WALT DISNEY WORLD, FLORIDA 

Observant visitors to the Magic Kingdom, upon disembarking from the monorail and heading toward Main Street, USA, may notice that they are walking on a slight incline. Indeed Cinderella’s Castle, which lies ahead, appears to be on a hill. In reality, the thousands of daily guests are unknowingly climbing over a vast hidden complex of secret floors, rooms, walkways, and tunnels. Disney World itself is built on top of an intricate hidden infrastructure that Cast Members consider the first floor. (The entire Magic Kingdom itself is technically the second and third floor.)

The story goes that Walt Disney was walking through the original Disneyland in California, and saw a Cast Member dressed as a cowboy walking from Frontierland through to Tomorrowland. Thinking that this would ruin the fantasy illusion for the visiting children, Disney World was designed on top of a hidden 9-acre system that would house walkways for Cast Members, trash collectors, kitchens, and break rooms. Today, tours are available for adults to see behind the curtain of the Magic Kingdom.

7. JOHN HANCOCK CENTER’S 44TH FLOOR, CHICAGO

The John Hancock Center on North Michigan Avenue is one of Chicago’s most iconic landmarks. When it was completed in 1969, it was one of the tallest buildings in the world, second only to the Empire State Building in New York. But what many people don’t realize is that it is actually possible to live inside one of America’s most famous skyscrapers. The residential floors run from the 45th to the 92nd floor, but it is the 44th floor that holds all the secrets. Off-limits to all but the residents, the 44th floor is home to a vast 5200-square-foot supermarket. There is also a library, concierge service, a high-ceilinged sky lounge, and the highest swimming pool in the United States. During elections it even has its own polling station.

8. PLYMOUTH CHURCH OF THE PILGRIMS, BROOKLYN

Luke Spencer

Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights is a church steeped in history. One of the oldest Congregationalist Churches in New York, it was once presided over by the inspirational orator, minister, and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. Described then as “the most famous man in America,” his fiery anti-slavery rhetoric was so renowned that Plymouth was the only church in New York visited by Abraham Lincoln. Beecher would hold mock slave auctions on the site, where parishioners would raise money to free slaves.

But the extraordinary events on the church floor covered a remarkable secret below it: a hidden floor, with the entrance through a door behind the organ. Dry, dusty chambers, brick archways, and tunnels are all that remain of one of the principal stops on the Underground Railroad. This hidden floor provided a sanctuary for so many escaping slaves that it became known in hushed voices as the Grand Central Depot. At great risk to themselves, the brave parishioners of Plymouth Church, led by Beecher, vowed to help as many slaves as possible. “I will both shelter them,” Beecher said, “conceal them or speed their flight.” The church is still vibrantly active today, and tours are available to visit what was once one of the most secret places in America.

Luke Spencer

9. THE OLD OPERATING THEATRE AND HERB GARRET, LONDON

Luke Spencer

Hidden in the roof of St. Thomas’ Church in London is something as chilling as it is fascinating. Climbing the circular staircase of the old church to the garret (or attic) leads to one of the oldest known operating theaters still in existence. Once part of the ancient St. Thomas’ Hospital, visitors today can crowd into the tiny theater and stand on steep wooden terraces overlooking the operating table. Here 19th-century medical students would watch the pre-eminent surgeons of the day practice their craft; one notable surgeon was said to be able to amputate and cauterize a limb in under a minute.

In the attic above the theater is the old herb apothecary and garden where herbs were stored and cured. Still well-stocked today, the Herb Garret resembles a Victorian cabinet of peculiar curiosities, featuring wormwood, poppies for opium, and a “bath of sheep heads for Woman suffering from unknown illness.” After St. Thomas relocated, the church garret was sealed up and forgotten for decades, until it was rediscovered in the 1960s. Today operating as a museum, tours are available for those who want to experience the lancets, blades, and bone saws of over a hundred years ago. 

Luke Spencer

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