Fallingwater, architectural masterpiece: A river runs under it


It must have been quite a shock for Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann and his wife, Liliane, when architect Frank Lloyd Wright presented them with plans he had drawn for their weekend home in the woods of southwestern Pennsylvania.

The couple had envisioned a secluded house facing a 20-foot waterfall on their property. Instead, the acclaimed architect chose to hide the cascading water from their view with an unconventional and daring design that placed the house over the water and on top of the falls.

"I want you to live with the waterfall, not just to look at it, but for it to become an integral part of your lives," Wright reportedly explained.

The house he designed in 1935 is now world-famous for its distinctive architectural features, which bring "the music of the waterfall" indoors and connect the building -- and its residents -- with the natural surroundings around them.

The house, named Fallingwater, is now a museum that attracts 135,000 visitors each year. The biggest crowds arrive during August and October, so this time of year is a good time for a visit. On a busy weekend, 1,500 guests may tour the house in one day. Weekday tours are less crowded, but reservations are strongly recommended year-round.

Fallingwater was opened to the public in 1964 by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy after the late Edgar J. Kaufmann Jr. gave it to the non-profit conservation organization in his parents' memory.

Fallingwater is hidden in the woods off Route 381 between the villages of Mill Run and Ohiopyle in Fayette County. The house is built into a hillside at the edge of Bear Run, a meandering stream which flows under the house, plummets over the falls and then continues its downward flow into the Ohiopyle valley, where it meets the Youghiogheny River.

At the edge of the river is the town of Ohiopyle -- a great second stop for visitors to the Laurel Highlands region of Pennsylvania who would like to taste the excitement of white-water rafting.

The water beneath Fallingwater is serene by comparison, although a severe storm in the '50s temporarily transformed Bear Run into a raging river that assaulted the house but caused no permanent damage.

Engineers who studied the original plans were concerned about the possibility of just such a flood. They were skeptical about the wisdom of the design and the stability and safety of the location at water's edge.

Nonetheless, Kaufmann put his faith in Wright, and construction began in 1936. The main house was completed the following year, and a guest and service wing was added in 1939.

Today, more than 50 years after it was built, the house still has an innovative, contemporary look. And although the design was not without critics in the '30s, it was also considered to be ahead of its time, an architectural work of art. It is generally recognized as one of Wright's finest accomplishments.

The house is the ultimate expression in concrete, stone and glass of Wright's philosophy about man's union with nature. With its strong horizontal lines which parallel the natural rock ledges and branching tree limbs at the site, the house seems to grow right out of the hillside. The beauty of the falls is undisturbed by the structure, which is projected over the water with little visible means of support.

Three floors climb the hillside

Three stories step up the hillside, with terraces projected over the water. The main part of the house is made of Pottsville sandstone quarried from the property. The terraces are constructed from concrete reinforced with steel rods that extend over the water without vertical supports at the end, which would intrude upon the natural beauty of the stream.

The terracing is accomplished by means of a cantilevered beam system capable of being extended beyond its support braces. At Fallingwater, the weight of the stone portion of the house counterbalances the terraces and provides unseen support.

Perhaps the most unusual feature of the house is a glass hatch in the living room floor that opens to a flight of hanging stairs which leads to the stream below. The stairs are an aesthetic connection to the water and are not meant to be used.

The beauty of the outdoors is also brought inside through continuous walls of glass. And a boulder, said to be Kaufmann's favorite spot for lying in the sun and listening to the falls, is incorporated into the living room, where it protrudes through the floor to form the hearth.

The 1,800-square-foot living room -- which includes a music area, a study, two separate conversation areas and a dining room -- is a progressive example of open-space planning.

The furnishings are simple yet elegant and include artworks and other possessions of the Kaufmanns as well as the original built-in furniture.

In-depth tours provide a more detailed look at Fallingwater than the standard tour, but none lasts more than two hours. That leaves plenty of time for overnight travelers to con

tinue down the road to nearby Ohiopyle State Park and the riverside hamlet of Ohiopyle, where thrill-seekers gather to experience white-water rafting.

Rafting on the 'Lower Yough'

The town itself is just a whisper of privately owned land surrounded by the third most heavily used park in Pennsylvania. With a population of 60, it is home to four Ohiopyle outfitting companies, which have contracts with the park to run guided rafting expeditions on the churning lower portion of the Youghiogheny River from March through October.

The park includes almost 19,000 acres of pristine mountain wilderness centered around the 1,700-foot gorge that the Youghiogheny River has cut through the Laurel Ridge of the Allegheny mountain range.

Each year, more than 100,000 visitors enjoy white-water boating on the Youghiogheny, which is regulated by the state park system. About 60,000 people participate in rafting trips with guides provided by the local outfitters. On a busy weekend, more than 1,800 rafts, kayaks and canoes may run the river in a single day, according to Douglas Hoehn, park operations manager. The park is much quieter mid-week.

To preserve the park and prevent overcrowding, limits have been placed on the number of daily boaters on the Lower Youghiogheny, and launch times have been staggered. Each of the four outfitters in Ohiopyle may take no more than 80 people on each of three daily trips. So it's important to make reservations well in advance, especially if you're looking for a weekend adventure.

Unlike many rivers that dry up in the summer, the Youghiogheny has white water year-round because it is fed from a large reservoir. And thanks to the past winter's heavy snowfall, "primo" white water is expected this season, according to Mark McCarty, owner of Laurel Highlands River Tours who also happens to be Ohiopyle's mayor and assistant fire chief.

The guided rafting tours on the "Lower Yough" (pronounced YOCK) begin just below the Ohiopyle Falls near the edge of town. On cool days, many rafters wear rented wet suits, certain of the drenching they will receive as the raft shoots through the rapids, rocketing skyward on waves and then crashing downward with a splash. In hot weather, most people wear bathing suits and shorts and enjoy the refreshingly cold water.

At the put-in site, river guides help boaters into heavily padded life jackets, demonstrate paddle strokes and discuss safety precautions. Handle the paddles correctly, they warn, or they can become a weapon which will give you or a boat mate a case of "summer teeth" -- some are in the raft and some are in the river.

Boaters then load into four- or eight-person rubber rafts for an exhilarating 7-mile trip through more than a dozen rapids.

When the river is full and rushing, the ride lasts an hour and a half with plenty of "water obstacles" such as waves and "hydraulics," which occur when water passes over a rock or a ledge and creates an upstream current that can stop a raft and toss boaters into the water, according to Laurel Highlands River Tours guide Matthew Jardine.

"You try to hit your hydraulics and waves straight on with everybody paddling hard," he explained.

Slow going in low water

The ride is slower and "more technical" when the water is low. Then, it's a four-hour trip to the last rapid at Bruner Run, with a stop for lunch.

"The people in the front of the raft see the most water and drink the most," said the 27-year-old Mr. Jardine. "The people in the back of the boat have the best ride. It's like being on a roller coaster. Sometimes you find yourself flying 6 or 7 feet in the air. The trick is to land in the boat."

Rafters who instead land in the water must remember their safety lessons from the beginning of the trip. Despite all the fun and precautions, white-water rafting is not without risks. Injuries and even fatalities can occur.

"The first thing most people do is panic," Mr. Jardine said. "What you don't want to do is stand up or swim. If a person gets his foot wedged in a rock, it's . . . next to impossible to rescue him.

"The thing to do is to free float," he explained. "Lie flat on your back with your arms out to the side for steering and your toes up out of the water. Your feet should be downstream."

Pulling people on board

Sometimes, the river guides will simply reach overboard quickly, retrieve lost passengers from the river and plop them back in the boat. Other times, they will toss a throw rope and pull the person back to the raft. Experienced kayakers accompany the trips in their maneuverable craft to expedite rescues.

The guides and kayakers are an enthusiastic and athletic bunch from varied backgrounds. Mr. Jardine is an attorney from Washington, Pa., who spends his weekends on the river. Fred Yerkey divides his year between white-water rafting and skiing. Jack Preston is a student, and Scott Rieger is a full-time white-water enthusiast. Other guides are teachers, paramedics and ski instructors.

White-water trips on the Lower Youghiogheny are for adults and children 12 and older. Families with younger children may enjoy a float trip on the Middle Youghiogheny, which flows serenely through a valley bordered by mountains and woodlands. In certain water conditions, there may even be some mild rapids for a touch of excitement.

IF YOU GO . . .

* Fallingwater is four to five hours west of the Baltimore area on Route 381 between the towns of Mill Run and Ohiopyle in

southwestern Pennsylvania.

The American Automobile Association recommends a route through Western Maryland. From Baltimore take Interstate 70 west to Exit 1. Continue west on Interstate 68 (old Route 40) to Exit 14, then take Route 40 west to Farmington, Pa. Turn north on Route 381 toward Ohiopyle, through the town to Fallingwater.

An alternate route through Pennsylvania: North on Interstate 83 to Interstate 76 (Pennsylvania Turnpike) going west toward Pittsburgh. Take Exit 10 at Somerset to Route 281 south to New Lexington, Pa. Head west on Route 653 to Normalville and south on Route 381 to Fallingwater.

Fallingwater is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, except Monday, through Nov. 15. Reservations are recommended to guarantee admission. Admission: $8 weekends, $6 weekdays. The cost for in-depth tours, which begin daily at 8:30 a.m., is $20.

Children under age 9 are not admitted to Fallingwater. Baby-sitting services are available at the entry pavilion for $2 an hour per child. Children's tours for youngsters between 5 and 9 are available by appointment for $5. Call (412) 329-8501.

* Ohiopyle State Park: The campground is open year-round. Reservations are recommended, and there is a $3 fee for this service. Additional charges are $11 per night for non-residents of Pennsylvania. Unguided white-water boating trips must be arranged in advance through the park office. Launch times are limited. Call (412) 329-8591.

Guided white-water rafting tours on the Youghiogheny River are offered by four Ohiopyle outfitters: Laurel Highlands River Tours, (800) 472-3846; Mountain Streams & Trails, (800) 245-4090; White Water Adventurers, (800) 992-7238; Wilderness Voyageurs, (800) 272-4141.

The cost ranges from $24 to $53 a person. Mid-week charges are the lowest. Outfitters also offer bike and boat rentals. For boating and biking equipment rental only, call Ohiopyle Trading Post, (412) 329-1450.

* Selected accommodations: Lodge at Chalk Hill, Route 40 East near Uniontown, (800) 833-4283; Mountain View Bed and Breakfast, Donegal, (800) 392-7773; Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, Farmington, (800) 422-2736; Ohiopyle Guest House, Ohiopyle, (800) 472-3846; Seven Springs Mountain Resort, Champion, (800) 452-2223.

For a complete listing of accommodations as well as maps and other tourist information, call Laurel Highlands, Inc., the convention and visitor's bureau for the region, at (800) 333-5661.

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