Oak Park, Illinois, & Frank Lloyd Wright

Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright, Laurel Highlands

Fallingwater (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

This year marks the 150th year anniversary of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth, and the design world is using the occasion to reexamine his ideas and precepts, as well as to celebrate his lasting legacy. My parents were big FLW fans in the 1950s, and my dad designed our little house with many of his principles in mind. Although Wright died almost 60 years ago, in 1969, he’s probably still the architect most Americans can name.

He’s of course known for his many heavily visited landmarks: Fallingwater and the nearby Kentuck Knob south of Pittsburgh, Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, and if you go to the Guggenheim Museum, you’re in the Wright place. I’ve also visited the lesser-known, but beautiful Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Ill., but until this month, had never been to where it all started, in Oak Park, Ill.

If you go, the FLW Trust offers a guided tour of his studio and home, where he lived with his first wife and their children. There’s also an easy walking tour of nine Wright-designed houses in the immediate neighborhood. The Unity Temple, recently refurbished for millions of dollars, is nearby (not yet reopened for visitors as of early July).

After these experiences, you’ll recognize how Wright’s prairie-style designs, daring cantilevers, and use of simple materials for complex effects continue to influence architects today. You may be surprised at how many of his rooms are rather small. He emphasized the quality of the space people were to inhabit, not the quantity.

Wright was a larger-than-life personality—with a messy personal life—and maybe that’s what it took to break with the past and develop new approaches and methods to solve design problems. While he was a modern architect, he didn’t go in for the spare, unembellished approach we think of as “modern.” His work contains a surprising amount of beautiful decoration, in the form of leaded glass, wood carving, brickwork. He even designed the furniture and light fixtures for his buildings.

In a Wright structure, there is always something interesting to draw the eye, including nature—outdoor views he brought inside through thoughtful window placement. So in this 150th year, celebrate an American icon.

Frank Lloyd Wright at MoMA, New York City – an exhibit with much new material and insights
Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Ariz.
FLW Trust, Oak Park, Ill.
FLW Public Sites Directory

Special coverage:
Architectural Digest, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Beautiful Houses, Structures & Buildings”
Metropolis, July/August, “Wright, Relevant as Ever”
Bloomberg, “Frank Lloyd Wright Is Not Who You Think He Is”

Laurel Highlands Travel – Architecture

Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright, Laurel Highlands

Fallingwater (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

The Laurel Highlands comprise four counties of southwestern Pennsylvania—Cambria, Fayette, Somerset, and Westmoreland—that include a wealth of recreational activities (I’ve done the Class III whitewater rafting trip on the Youghiogheny River), but a recent visit focused on architecture and history (later this week).

Finally, I visited Fallingwater, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Kaufmann department store family of Pittsburgh, and nearby Kentuck Knob, commissioned by the Hagan family, which owned a large dairy operation in the area.

Fallingwater is perhaps Wright’s most ideal integration of site and structure. The Kaufmanns purchased the heavily wooded property traversed by Bear Run with the intention of building a house where they could see its lovely waterfall. Wright refused. He said they would tire of the view in time and even cease to notice it, whereas the higher location he recommended, pervaded by the sounds of the gushing stream, would be preferable in many respects. They came to agree with him. The expansive window walls in many rooms and cantilevered terraces over the falls make the viewer feel part of the landscape, not merely an observer.

Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright

Mr. Kaufmann’s desk (photo: Wally Gobetz, Creative Commons license)

Disagreements between the architect and the homeowners continued, though in the end, they were on cordial terms. One problem was that Mr. Kaufmann wanted a bigger desk. But if the desk were enlarged, the adjacent window couldn’t be opened, and Wright refused. Kaufmann reportedly said, “Well, I need a big desk, because I’m going to be writing a very big check and I believe it will have your name on it.” Wright solved the problem by cutting a semi-circle from the desk surface so the window could swing open.

The Kaufmann family occupied the home as a weekend residence from the time of its completion in the late 1930s until 1963, when Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., the family’s only son, donated the property to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Several million people have visited this remote gem since the conservancy opened it to the public. I especially admired the way the stone, obtained from a local quarry, was laid in alternating wide and narrow courses (photo below).

Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

As you may know, Wright balked at recommendations to strengthen the supports for his bold cantilevers, and the terraces began sagging immediately. Over the years, the problem increased, reaching a critical state in the early 1990s. A massive reconstruction plan began in 1995. The repairs, which took a number of years to complete, are now invisible to visitors.

Kentuck Knob, located just a few miles away at the top (“knob”) of Chestnut Ridge in the Allegheny Mountains, is a much smaller, less light-filled home. On the approach, it looks like a ship emerging from the land. From its grounds, the visitor can see three states—Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. Much of the view is obscured by the thousands of trees the Hagan family had planted, which make the site almost as forested as Fallingwater. In the house are many charming features, as well as some that reflect Wright’s well-known disdain for livability (the too-hot kitchen, for example). The house is privately owned, but made available for tours and now includes a sculpture garden in the meadow below.

Kentuck Knob, Frank Lloyd Wright, Laurel Highlands

Kentuck Knob (photo: wikipedia)

This architectural sojourn was complete with a house tour of Clayton, the Gilded Age mansion of Henry Clay Frick in Pittsburgh, one of the last surviving houses from the city’s once-grand “Millionaire’s Row.” The tour focused on Frick’s interest in collecting art, and some of his earliest acquisitions are in the house. You will know his name—and his remarkable eye for European art—from The Frick Collection at Fifth Avenue and East 70th Street in Manhattan. Quite an unexpected passion for a man from the Laurel Highlands who began his career supplying coke to Pittsburgh’s steel mills.

Clayton, Henry Clay Frick

“Clayton,” home of Henry Clay Frick (photo: wikipedia)