Evergreens, hemlocks and lush rhododendrons make the grounds around Fallingwater a remarkable setting even in the depths of winter. Located in the Laurel Highlands and suspended over a waterfall, it’s one of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s most recognizable structures.
First designed for Pittsburgh businessman Edgar J. Kaufmann in 1938, the home has been overseen for decades by Director Lynda Waggoner, who said she plans to retire in the coming months.
LISTEN: “The Thrill of Fallingwater Never Faded for Her”
Thanks to Waggoner and one of the home’s first residents, Edgar Kaufmann Jr., the site still feels more like a lived in home than a historical institution.
“He didn’t want it to seem like a typical museum where you walk in and there are roped off areas that you would follow a path through and it would seem overly precious,” she said. “I hope what we’re showing here at Fallingwater is how architecture and art can exist in harmony with nature.”
Visitor experience has been a focus of Waggoner’s tenure. It’s a natural and intuitive space, so she looks at the site holistically, pushing for the acquisition of land along the roads leading to the home. An old farmstead was even restored to look like it did in the Kaufmanns’ days.
“So all of those things we think provide the context for the building, and prepare people for the experience of the site,” Waggoner said.
But getting to this point has been a long time coming. Waggoner first saw the house in 1968 while interviewing to be a tour guide. The home had been open to the public for just one year.
“It bowled me over,” she said. “I looked at it and realized to myself that my life had changed somehow.”
She came back in 1985 as a consultant and served as its curator before being named the site’s first female director. Today the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which owns Fallingwater, has many female leaders, she said.
“All the previous people in similar positions, there weren’t very many, were always men, and they were often not particularly qualified for this position,” Waggoner said. “They might have been in another industry all together, and you sort of have to prove yourself. My whole generation had to do that.”
In the 1990s, she led a campaign to address growing structural issues, which would require more staff and a lot more money.
“The cantilevers were in danger of collapse at that time, so we had to strengthen the building, and that was a major undertaking,” Waggoner said.
The campaign expanded to cover a sewage treatment plan and install internet service. The staff was later tasked getting a handle on the collections, which includes countless sculptures and paintings owned by the Kaufmanns.
“This is not an ideal building in any sense of the word for holding collections,” said Waggoner. “We have high UV light levels in the building, no curtains on the windows. Humidity, as you can imagine, is a challenge when you’re located directly over a waterfall. And no air conditioning in the building.”
But Waggoner’s biggest impact may be the expansion of the education program, including tours for public schools in Fayette County, which doesn’t have a traditional museum.
“We can teach a lot of the same lessons that one would gain at an art museum through Fallingwater, and we use it to teach a variety of subject matter,” Waggoner said. “Architecture covers so many disciplines. It’s math, it’s writing, it’s aesthetics, it’s all of those things.”
Fallingwater also offers free admission days for residents of Fayette County, which is where Waggoner grew up. She said she hopes that these types of programs engender pride for place.
“Fallingwater will presumably be here for hundreds of years to come,” she said. “Frank Lloyd wright’s star might not be as high in 200 years as it is now, but it will assure that people will continue to value this building.”
Although the site’s economic impact on the region has grown, Waggoner hopes to take it even further with a UNESCO World Heritage site nomination, which could draw many European visitors. She plans to keep helping with the process, which could take another nine months.
Looking back, she said the thrill of Fallingwater never faded for her.
“I wouldn’t have stayed as long if it had,” she said. “But there’s always something new. It’s nature, so it’s always changing. And the house — I think one of the testaments of a masterpiece is that it doesn’t grow old. You’re constantly finding new connections, new things about it that you hadn’t seen before, and it’s fabulous.”