By the 1930s, America's greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was in a slump. He had disappeared to his singular home and school in Milwaukee, where Taliesin Fellows came to learn design from the Master, a refined philosophy of style that was acutely sensitive to its surroundings and also rejected the European old school that dominated the 19th Century. In fact, despite being a leader in this design movement and building many structures from that century into the 1920s, Wright had stopped taking commissions, withdrawing perhaps out of burnout, but also because of a handful of personal challenges including scandal (believe it or not, a mass axe murder at Taliesin) and divorce.
By that point, one wonders if Wright himself thought he was finished.
He was almost 68 when in 1935 he was approached by one of his students, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., the scion of a Pittsburgh, PA retail family, to design a summer retreat for his family near the Appalachian foothills. They had long held a large, uneven parcel of land there with a lively stream called Bear Run coursing through it. The rudimentary cabins the Kaufmanns maintained there had deteriorated and an upgrade of some kind was in order.
-- o O o --
This year, my son becomes a teenager. No longer can I baby him or touch him gently or affectionately, at home much less in public. The time has arrived for him to be treated like a man, so that, by the time he becomes one, the behaviors are already instinct. At the same time, my life reaches a mid-century. My 14 year law partnership is amicably -- but sadly -- dissolving as one partner is given a judgeship. My neglected health needs attention, and I've been getting by on decades of invincibility. I have been divorced for five years.
As a History major, I've always minded my past, treating it as an important touchstone. So, it was with great joy that I received the response to this last minute status on Facebook.
"If any yinz wanna grab a cold, frosty Yuengling, I'm in Steeltown the resta da week, an'nat. "
My son plays violin at a near professional level, and his school orchestra was traveling to Pittsburgh to compete in the National Orchestra Festival.
In response to my Facebook post, my two best friends from Georgetown were going to drop everything to drive down to meet me. Also, a law school classmate from Notre Dame, whom I knew mostly through Facebook, got a pass from her husband (who knows me not at all) to drive the two hours from Ohio to meet us.
To add to my luck, I learned that same day that, as part of the trip to Pittsburgh, my son's school arranged for a guided tour of nearby Fallingwater, possibly America's most celebrated private residential home. Thinking they were mostly in Chicago and points west, I didn't even know any important Frank Lloyd Wright structures were in Pennsylvania, much less his greatest masterpiece.
-- o O o --
Kaufmann's Department store made the family who owned it reasonably wealthy. Not as wealthy as Pittsburgh's steel magnates, like the Carnegies, but close enough. When the family first showed the property to Wright, they pointed out a beloved waterfall where for years Kafmanns would play and sun and swim. They hoped their new summer retreat would have a view of it.
The plans were finally revealed months later, in a classic surprise visit to Wisconsin by family patriarch Edgar Kaufmann Sr., in which Taliesin apprentices remember Wright calmly drawing the design he'd had in his head in the final two hours before his arrival. Kaufmann Sr., who had to be persuaded by his son to commission Wright, was angered to discover that the architect had decided to situate the house atop the rocky waterfall. During construction, conflict and disagreement continued when Wright subsequently learned that an independent engineering review of his cantilevered design was conducted behind his back at the behest of Kaufmann Sr. Wright threatened to walk off the project and Kaufmann Sr. relented. Apparently, to this day, legend has it that the engineering critique remains buried in a stone wall on the property.
Upon completion, the final cost of Fallingwater was $ 155,000.00 in 1937 dollars. Built of Pittsburgh steel, concrete, and stone quarried on Bear Run land, the family lived and entertained there for the next thirty years.
It is unquestionably a masterpiece, nearly voted the Eighth Wonder of the World (losing to Macchu Pichu), or so the joke goes. Embodying Wright's tenets of harmony with its environment, organic design, and Asian spatial aesthetics, no words can really describe a visit to Fallingwater without falling short.
-- o O o --
When we fly out of Honolulu, my ex-wife drives my son and me. We are friendly. Supportive of each other. We are family and always will be. And yet I feel alone when there's no one to kiss goodbye. It reminds me of that scene in When Harry Met Sally, where Harry sees Sally lovingly say goodbye to her lover at the airport and he observes, "You're obviously at the beginning of your relationship."
I find myself feeling that way a lot lately. Ennui. Cosmic ennui.
The perfect panacea for cosmic ennui, I hope, are the boys from Georgetown, the Jesuit and Thomas the Editor, and the person I shall call The Domer. The plan is an afternoon of cocktails and laughter in a reasonably hospitable publican's establishment, followed by an Uber ride to the PPG Paints arena for a face off between the Penguins of Pittsburgh and the Lightning of Tampa Bay.
After days of attending orchestra events with my son, his classmates, and their way-too-intense-and-invested parents, Friday comes and I finally break away to meet my friends. I'm just getting used to the feeling of my son so eagerly shooing me to walk off and leave him with his friends.
"I'm gonna head down to your lobby and mill around like Julia Roberts," the Domer messages on Facebook. She has a way of being familiar and chummy, and yet she refuses to engage in cellphone texting with me and the Georgetown boys. Too cozy. I love that. She and I were like ships passing in the night in Law School, sharing mutual drinking pals and seeing each other at every social event, yet probably never saying a single word to each other. I was in the Slow Learner's class, as Notre Dame's Prof. Charlie Rice quipped, and she, not. And yet, even then, I knew that she would be great fun to down beers and take in a hockey game with. I was not wrong.
I knew that this cocktail of people would work, otherwise I never would've stirred it in the first place. I've already painted enough of a portrait of Thomas, but the Jesuit deserves a bit more attention. As I've said before, he comes from the Eisenhower era. Unchallenged as our spiritual and moral center, around which Thomas and I whizzed and sparked around like electrons. The Jesuit was my guide through things literary and Catholic. He came from Buffalo and had a major league throwing arm. To that point in my life the Jesuit was probably the smartest person I knew.
And I was right. The Domer fit right in. Joke for joke, story for story, entendre for entendre, we entertained each other, running our fingers over the sometimes-pebbled, sometimes-polished texture of our fifty year long lives. We compared child raising notes, even Thomas, who was later to the parenting game than even I was. That night I went to a hockey game and a conversation broke out.
It was just what I needed.
-- oOo --
Over the years, people quipped that Wright and the Kaufmanns should have named the summer home Spreadingmildew. I've read that when owners of Frank Lloyd Wright homes meet each other, the first thing they ask is "how many leaks does your roof have". Walking through Fallingwater, especially as I did during the tour with my son's orchestra at the end of February, the spaces were cave-like and dank. Spectacular views out, yes. Beautiful built in furniture, yes. But cozy? Not exactly.
No matter, though. Perfection needn't be perfect.
It was still the most sublime space I'd ever stood in. Ample sunlight made for wonderful shadows everywhere. Generous glimpses of the nature outside from every spot inside. Rainfall shower heads in every bath, over a half-century before rainfall shower heads were even a thing.
In 1968, the Kaufmanns left the property in the hands of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, so that accomplished middle school string musicians could experience it for posterity. In 1981, a comprehensive report was written by an expert museum auditor on what could be improved at Fallingwater. This experienced curator recognized the pricelessness of the property and its contents (all of its furniture, after all, had been designed by Wright), and recommended numerous ways to improve preservation in the midst of daily tours. The report was shared with Kaufmann Jr., then in his seventies. Kaufmann, like Wright before him and the engineer's report, rejected it outright. He commented to the WPC Director that Fallingwater was a summer retreat to his family, a place where his family sent discardable things too beloved to discard. They felt no instinct to put these things behind glass.
-- oOo --
I tried to get Thomas and the Jesuit and the Domer on the list for that afternoon's private tour of Fallingwater, but there wasn't room. The Domer would rise early the next morning after the hockey game to be home in time to find her husband embarking on yet another ambitious home improvement project. No wonder she got the pass. "Next time, mai tais in Waikiki," she said, and I'm pretty sure she meant it.
Thomas and the Jesuit were really interested in the house but they had roughly ten hours of driving between them to their respective homes in Brooklyn and Buffalo.
Our orchestra group jumped on the tour bus that had taken us around Pittsburgh all week and we set out for the foothills. We enjoyed lunch in Ohiopyle, a speck of a town that existed only to guide river rafts in the summer and feed Fallingwater tourists. On the final leg of our drive to Bear Run, the Juicy Lucy I ordered put me to sleep as I listened to Steely Dan's "My Old School" from a playlist I had created just for my reunion with those three.
-- oOo --
We exchanged brief comments about the tour and the house and the drive, laughing like we always do. We hugged and I continued down the hill and they up. It was less than three minutes.
Perfection need not always be perfect.