Our Famous Neighbor by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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A good story is a big river that flows from many small streams. The story of High Meadow might well have begun in 1867—two years after the Civil War came to its sad conclusion—in Richland Center, Wisconsin. That’s when and where Frank Lloyd Wright was born. First mentored by the premiere American architect of the early 20th Century, Louis “form follows function” Sullivan, Wright went on to become the master of modern American architecture, updating Sullivan’s mantra into one uniquely his own: form is function. His masterpieces grace great public places like the Guggenheim Museum in New York, or are hidden away in private residences like the one hovering over Bear Run in the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania: the jewel in Wright’s crown—Fallingwater.

Or maybe the story of High Meadow begins much later—a couple of years before our Sears catalogue home came trundling up the gravel lane. That’s when father and one of his clients, Edgar Kaufman, jr, began discussing making a gift of Fallingwater, Mr. Kaufman’s home, to an entity to be called the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy that would preserve Wright’s masterpiece of cantilever architecture and make it forever accessible to the public. After one of these meetings—more a conversation than a meeting—Mr. Kaufman invited my parents to walk a trail that wound through the woods behind the main house before opening onto two large adjoining meadows, a total of some 75 acres. Mother and father walked the meadows and upon their return to Fallingwater, Mr. Kaufman asked mother where she would site a home if she had one. She pointed to a spot on the plat and said, “Here.” Mr. Kaufman smiled and said, “That’s exactly where I would build.” That evening, he conveyed the property to my parents for $1.

It was Edgar, jr’s parents, Edgar Kaufman, Sr (known as E.J.) and his wife Liliane, who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build Fallingwater in 1935. After months of delays and unanswered correspondence, Mr. Kaufman decided to visit the master’s lair in Taliesen, Wisconsin to address the problem. Apprised of the not-quite-a-surprise visit, Wright quickly sketched his remarkable design on the back of an envelop and when he showed the sketch to Mr. Kaufmann, the water wheel of modern American architecture began to turn.

Wright claimed the he worked for his clients, but it was often the other way around. “It’s (a client’s) duty to understand, to appreciate, and to conform insofar as possible to the idea of a house,” he once said and that idea was usually more his than theirs. He liked horizontal designs and built with wood and stone, never painting them so they would blend in with the landscape around them. He also believed in bringing the outdoors in, blending his creation with the natural world surrounding it. “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you,” he said and he set out to design buildings that complemented – even seemed part of – nature. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Fallingwater where windows have no frames, where the house spills down the hillside and is mysteriously anchored to rock formations and precariously balanced over a waterfall, and where glass-enclosed stairs descend from the living room into a natural rock pool where Mrs. Kaufman took her refreshing morning dip.

But for me, a young boy without any real appreciation of architecture, modern or otherwise, Fallingwater was a playground. I loved to stand under the waterfall below the house, to look for crawfish under the rocks in Bear Run, or to take a plunge in the icy spring-fed pool by the guest house. All the indoor furniture—tables, chairs, beds and desk, were lilliputian because the Kaufmans were diminutive and Wright designed his furnishings to fit them. I remember one evening when Mr. Kaufman invited us to dinner, the meal served by his housekeeper from a great copper kettle that was suspended within the stone fireplace. I couldn’t understand why Mr. Kaufman wanted to leave this place and go to live in New York, but he was a quiet, scholarly and unfailingly polite man better suited to Park Avenue than to the solitude of the laurel and rhododendron of Western Pennsylvania. He died in 1989.

Fallingwater opened to the public in 1963 and since then, more than 2,000,000 people have visited it. Today there are docented tours through the house, the trails through the rhododendron are clearly marked, and the gift shop sells tasteful Wright memorabilia. Whenever we welcomed friends to High Meadow, we always walked them down the meadow to that trail in the woods that emerged behind Fallingwater; I guess we thought it was ok to bypass the official visitor’s entrance. After all, we were neighbors. It never occurred to us that one day we would have to save the meadow, but that’s a story for another week…

(Next week: Triptych, Part 3: Save the Meadow!)

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Alexander says:

    Wandering through this wonderful house, I always wondered why the “tables, chairs, beds and desk, were lilliputian” Now I know.
    Being a 6’5″+ in stature, this architectural marvel was not designed for me.

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