Fallingwater is arguably among the most remarkable houses ever built. It’s also a house that’s been standing since 1935, dramatically perched over an actual waterfall, in a region experiencing increased rain and snowfall each year.
This past summer, after more than 15 years of lobbying from art and design experts nationwide, this one-time residence for the Kaufmann family was among eight buildings by the eminent 20th-century architect Frank Lloyd Wright to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Fallingwater and the other buildings were designed during a half-century of Wright’s influential career, and they’re the first examples of modern architecture in the U.S. to be added to the prestigious list. As another fall and winter approach in the Pittsburgh region, what does that honor mean for this local architectural treasure?
Speaking from the sidelines of this week’s Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy conference in Los Angeles, Fallingwater Director Justin Gunther chatted with NEXTpittsburgh about the future of the iconic Fayette County structure.
“World Heritage designation is the highest honor a cultural site can achieve, and it’s one reserved for places with outstanding, universal value,” explains Gunther. “It really is, first and foremost, about celebrating the significance of Frank Lloyd Wright.”
The designation doesn’t provide any funding. But “what it does do is give you an international stage to talk about the site’s significance,” he says. “It gives us a stronger platform to stand on as we look to fundraise for ongoing preservation work.”
While regular preservation and maintenance is a significant cost for any historical site, Gunther says the house poses particular logistical and financial challenges.
“The main inspiration for the design of Fallingwater is the waterfall itself,” he says. “It certainly informed every aspect of the design, yet it’s enemy number one for the house.”
The aging masonry and infrastructure, combined with rising water and snow levels across our region, mean that regular repairs — and thus, regular fundraising — are critical.
“The complexities of the design of Fallingwater, coupled with its placement over a waterfall, just magnifies the repair demands,” says Gunther, who previously worked as a manager at Mount Vernon and spent eight years teaching at the Savannah College of Art and Design before joining Fallingwater last March.
But even with these constraints, Gunther emphasizes that the organization continues to expand its educational offerings.
Their adjoining Fallingwater Institute, designed by the local office of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, opened in 2017 and provides innovative residency programs for artists, students and scholars around the region.
Online, the organization recently commissioned the Virgnia-based Skyline Software Systems to create an interactive, photorealistic 3D map of the building. It’s a valuable tool for Gunther and his team to use internally, and the map could one day greatly increase virtual visitorship to the Laurel Highlands landmark.
“School children on the opposite side of the globe could really benefit from being able to experience the house in the virtual realm,” says Gunther, though he cautions that the public VR tour will take more time to produce and launch.
Until then, Gunther says he and his network of fellow Frank Lloyd Wright devotees are still “just kind of reveling in the honor,” and looking forward to many more years of tending to this stunning example of a World Heritage site.
“We have a commitment to preserve Fallingwater,” he says, “as long as it will stand.”