If you had to come up with a list of things to see in Pennsylvania or day trips from Pittsburgh, a visit to Fallingwater certainly would top that list. Designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the home from the late 1930s has stood the test of time with its remarkable architectural flair. It’s also stood the test of that waterway that runs directly under the house.
While many “must-see” attractions are mostly just hype, Fallingwater lives up to expectations. For me, it far exceeded what I was expecting. Balanced just atop a waterfall, Fallingwater has to be seen to truly be believed. Photographs simply don’t do it justice. The wooded surroundings of mature trees and opportunities for hiking help to transport visitors away from the busy world and daily life of distractions where we all seem to live. You’ll leave Fallingwater wishing you could spend the night. If only!
Brief History of Fallingwater
Fallingwater was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Kaufmann Family and built between 1936 and 1939 in the mountains south of Pittsburgh.
The Kaufmann family — Edgar J. Kaufmann (the owner of Kaufmann’s Department Store in Pittsburgh), his wife Liliane, and their son Edgar Jr. — asked the famed architect to build them a modest wilderness retreat. They met Wright through Edgar Jr., who was interested in architecture.
The completed home was anything but modest. Given that this was during the Depression, the Kaufmanns did take into consideration how this lavish building project might appear. The total cost was more than four times the original estimate.
When Edgar Jr. eventually inherited the home, he and his partner made the move to make sure it was preserved. The house was entrusted to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. And in 2019 the home was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A visit to Fallingwater is considered by many to be a bucket list item that shouldn’t be missed. There are two tickets available. One ticket is for strolling the grounds and seeing the house from the outside via a self-guided tour. There is another ticket that includes a guided tour of the interior. I watched other visitors, literally, climbing the exterior walls. They used the stone facade as steps to boost them up for a peek in the windows. My recommendation is to take the interior tour, especially if you’re interested in architecture.
The tour is about an hour long and is given in small groups. During my visit with my husband, there were three other people in our group. Our guide was friendly and very well informed about the Kaufmanns and the home. There is a fair amount of walking involved in the tour, however, the pace isn’t too brisk.
“Fallingwater” is not simply just the name of the house, it is also indicative of the location. The house is, literally, built on a rock in a waterfall on Bear Run, a tributary of the Youghiogheny River. The unique location means there are stunning views of the house, and from the house, no matter from where you look.
The building itself is also special for many reasons. The concrete structure is cantilevered on one side of the waterway and extends spectacularly across the waterfall with spacious balconies. The home’s stone walls are from a nearby quarry that was reopened for the project. And all of this is before you ever even enter the home.
The main living areas are open concept with the foundation stone waxed to resemble the water. And that’s not where the influence of the water ends. Notably, there’s a stairway from the living area directly into Bear Run while elsewhere the swimming pool is filled with natural spring water.
Upstairs, the private quarters are smaller. But, because this home was intended as a mountain retreat, the intention is to be outside hiking or enjoying the exterior living space. And the balconies, with their remarkable views of the waterway framed by the trees, are very enticing.
The home did have a small live-in staff. Call buttons are discreetly placed throughout the home. But it’s worth noting that the Kaufmann family was generous with the home. The staff was allowed to enjoy the perks of this impressive home as were employees from the department store.
During the tour, it’s also difficult to miss some of the leaks. There are containers collecting dripping water. According to the tour guide, Wright’s homes tended to always have issues like this. And the location on the waterfall certainly doesn’t help.
The home isn’t just a work of art. Inside it’s also full of art. The Kaufmanns’ collection includes Picassos and Diego Rivera, as well as furniture that Wright designed especially for the property. The guide described how Mrs. Kaufmann rejected some of Wright’s furniture as impractical, specifically in the main living space due to the large rock floor. Instead of his custom-designed chairs, for example, she preferred her imported Alpine three-legged chairs for which an uneven floor is never a problem.
Hiking Around Fallingwater
In addition to a ticket providing access to the house, visitors to Fallingwater can also enjoy the surrounding grounds and hiking trails. You don’t have to go far along Bear Run to enjoy several smaller waterfalls near the picnic area.
If you’re looking to explore the woods, there’s a roughly one-mile trail to Paradise Overlook. Although not paved, the trail is relatively easy and clearly marked but a bit rocky at times. Hikers are rewarded with an expansive view over the Youghiogheny River. However, in summer, it’s worth noting that the greenery blocks out much of the view.
Due to its proximity, Fallingwater makes a great day trip from Pittsburgh. It’s less than an hour and a half from the city.
But, Fallingwater, simply put, is in the middle of nowhere. There are preserved recreation areas, state game lands, and plenty of camping grounds in the surrounding area. During my visit, I had difficulty getting a signal in order to use Google Maps on my smartphone. My recommendation is to download directions and having a paper map available certainly wouldn’t hurt.
Because the site sells a limited number of tickets, parking shouldn’t be a problem. There’s a parking lot a short walk from the visitor center. This area you initially enter is also where you’ll find the restrooms, the gift shop, and a cafe. Fallingwater is only a brief walk from the visitor center. The walk from the visitor center to the house is farther than the walk immediately around and in the house.
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All photos, as well as opinions, are my own.