Being an architecture geek, I’ve ogled photos of the most famous house in America, Fallingwater, by Frank Lloyd Wright, for years. Often, I pondered:
“Does Fallingwater live up to the hype?”
How can a residential house be that remarkable? I finally found out. This week, the stars aligned for me to journey with my husband to the Laurel Highlands: the lush, hilly region of southwest Pennsylvania in which Fallingwater is nestled.
First things first: WOW. The structure exceeds all expectations with its in-person power. But why? To explain, here are…
11 facts about visiting Fallingwater!
1. No photos allowed inside Fallingwater.
Before detailing why the house is phenomenal, I must explain why I took no photos of the interior: it is prohibited! With good reason, too. First, there’s no way to capture the splendor of the in-person space on film, and focusing on a camera would ruin EXPERIENCING the magic of the house.
Second, snapping shutters would clog the efficient flow of over 160,000 visitors each year. This no-inside-cameras rule is a good one.
2. EVERY detail is intentional and nature-embracing.
Here are just a few examples of Fallingwater’s dance with nature. First, a boulder from the 30-foot waterfall outside crosses through the wall to the indoors to become part of both the kitchen counter, AND the fireplace in the living room! I didn’t even know that was possible!
Second, the main living space has a brilliant axis: On one side of the room sits the fireplace, while diagonally across lies the “hatch”: an open staircase right down to the water outside, See what Frank Lloyd Wright did there? An axis of fire and water for elemental balance!
Third, the slabs of long, layered floors in Fallingwater reflect the stones‘ pattern in the waterfall outside, while the tan paint echoes dry rhododendron leaves surrounding the home. Being inside the house, you realize with a start that window stretch all the way to each corner, meaning your entire view is an unobstructed vista of forest — even gazing through the walls’ corners.
I have never before been inside a structure that so perfectly brings the outdoors inside.
3. Thank the Kaufmann family for preserving Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece!
The reason Fallingwater exists for us to enjoy today is because of the generosity and openness of the family that founded Kaufmann’s Department Stores.
In 1935, Edgar Kaufmann commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to construct a weekend home for his family in the hills of southwest Pennsylvania. However, when Fallingwater was completed in 1937, it was 5300 square feet and cost $155,000 — FAR larger and more expensive (by over $120,000!) than expected.
Imagine if the Kaufmanns had insisted on the original plan! Our country would have missed out on one of its most beloved pieces of architecture of all time.
Continuing with their generous and open spirit, the Kaufmanns decided — after years of adoring Fallingwater as their private residence — to open it up to the public in 1964. They also provided a grant for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy for upkeep and tours.
Since 1964, over FIVE MILLION people have visited Fallingwater from around the world. THANK YOU, Kaufmanns, for your gift to the world, and thank you to all of the wonderful people who help keep Fallingwater fabulous and open.
4. Fallingwater tour guides are A+.
As a travel writer and teacher, I go on a lot of tours, and can be highly snooty about the effectiveness of logistics and education methods… so I am happy to report that all of the above are excellent at Fallingwater.
Tours run like clockwork (make sure to get your tickets in advance, and arrive when directed!) and guides are passionate experts. They’ve thought of every detail, including providing umbrellas for each visitor during rainstorms so that you don’t carry your own soggy umbrella into the house and smash or splash precious furniture.
For more information about footwear (comfy), age limits (6 or older), ticket purchases, and more, pop over to Fallingwater’s useful site.
5. Fallingwater is great to visit in all weather and seasons — even during “falling water”!
Speaking of rain, do not worry if it’s pouring on the day you visit, because the house is so intertwined with nature, that it’s actually designed to USE any and all outdoor situation for the better.
Here’s an example: Our guide exclaimed, “It’s lucky that you’re here during pouring rain, because if you stand right here in the covered stairway between the main house and the guest house, Wright designed it so the water pours off it in waterfalls around you!” Sure enough, the silvery streams surrounded us as our group ascended the stairs, but the canopy kept us dry. Genius!
The only problem with Fallingwater’s interplay with nature is it means a visit during one season is totally different than coming later in the year, which means you’ll crave to come back! I loved seeing the house surrounded by lush green, but now I’m hungering to return during blankets of snow, or riots of rainbow autumn leaves…
6. Plan photos of the house well, as they are challenging.
Know that photography outside in Fallingwater (in the permitted outdoor viewpoints) can be challenging because of the interplay of light and shadow. Here are some tips to get better photos at the iconic viewpoint.
First, make sure your camera aperture is set to have all parts of the frame in focus. (On Auto, this is often “Landscape” mode.) If you don’t do this, you’ll get a photo like the one below… with Fallingwater completely blurred out from “bokeh” blur! Also, take a TON of photos so there is a higher probability that one will be good. (My ratio of bad to good photos is usually 30 to 1.)
Next, I’d suggest wearing something in the red, purple, orange, or pink range to contrast with the greenery, especially if you visit in spring or summer. See more travel fashion tips here.
Finally, be prepared for uneven lighting. It’s likely that because of tree cover at the viewpoint, your face will be too dark, and Fallingwater too light, so consider using a fill flash (I wish I’d done that!), or setting your camera to high resolution or RAW format so there’s enough data to do edits like shadow lightening afterwards.
The “before editing” version of the photo below was just a dark blob in front of a white blob! Thank goodness for Lightroom.
7. Fallingwater isn’t a world heritage site yet?!
I hope this shocking fact has changed by the time future readers get to this paragraph, but it turns out that Fallingwater is not yet a UNESCO World Heritage Site, despite its fame, popularity, and general awesomeness. The submission has now been altered to include all of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings in the area.
As a lover of World Heritage Sites (heck, my last article was about a whole CITY that is one), I look forward to the day when Fallingwater takes its place among those ranks, and I’m confident that it will, soon.
8. Take time to explore the setting Frank Lloyd Wright picked.
Don’t just focus on the house — the 1,500 acres surrounding Fallingwater are half the fun!
On these lush grounds, towering trees meet jagged stone walls, kissing dew-dropped flowers and hopping bunnies. There is a bit of poison ivy peeking around, but stay on the path and you’ll be fine. In fact, I highly recommend exploring the whole Laurel Highlands region over several days, and will elaborate more on that point in a subsequent article.
The photo below shows the towering scope of nature at Fallingwater. As you begin scrolling the photo, you’ll think, “Are these trees still going? Are they really that tall? Wow, they’re still going — wait, are those tiny dots PEOPLE?! Zowie!”
9. Fallingwater loves art and education.
I was stunned by the cosmopolitan nature of the art (all original to the Kaufmanns’ decor) that adorns Fallingwater. Pieces from Asia, Latin America (Diego Rivera even spent time there!), and elsewhere around the globe layer the rainbow of humanity upon Fallingwater’s rainbow of nature.
To continue supporting the arts and education, Fallingwater actually has a number of arts and education programs, including several residencies. Do spread the word among people you know who might want to apply. What an opportunity these programs are!
10. There’s a great place to stay nearby.
Colin and I had an AMAZING 2-night stay in a surprisingly affordable private luxury cabin at Oak Lodge 40 minutes away. (That link is my article with photos of the unique things making that B&B so different and delightful.)
Want more evidence? All the 5-star TripAdvisor reviews (affiliate link) seem to agree!
11. Visiting Fallingwater is WORTH IT!
I had my doubts before seeing it in person, but Fallingwater, like the Taj Mahal, exceeds all expectations in a way that can’t be put into words.
Just go. It’s only a 1 hour drive from Pittsburgh (which we visited before Fallingwater and LOVED — especially Randyland!), and 3 hours from Washington D.C. or Cleveland.
What is YOUR Fallingwater Story?
So what about you? Have you visited Fallingwater in person? Did you have the same awe-struck reaction as me, or different? If you haven’t been, would you like to go? Do share!