“A Spirited and Fresh Little Building”
June 25, 2020
Fallingwater’s Visitor Center at 40
After his father’s death in 1955, Edgar Kaufmann jr. assumed ownership of Fallingwater and placed importance upon the preservation of the surrounding landscape, equal to that of the preservation of the house. It was a mindset that would lead to his donation of the Kaufmann family’s weekend house and its environs to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963. Fallingwater had gained international prominence before it was even completed through publications and exhibitions especially, and by the late 1970s, visitors to Mill Run were approaching 70,000 per year.
This increase necessitated the building of a proper visitor center. Before a design program was formalized in May 1977, the Conservancy had relied on the former gardener’s cottage to serve the hospitality functions of the site, a woefully inadequate solution considering there could be up to 800 visitors touring per day.
Designed by Edgar jr.’s partner, Paul Mayén, with architectural supervision by the firm Curry, Martin & Highberger of Pittsburgh, the new Fallingwater visitor center was conceived to meet three criteria: conservation (of nature, materials, energy and maintenance), simplicity (a self-effacing structure with attention directed to the land) and hospitality (visitors should be comfortable and unrushed, yet informed). Mayén’s sunburst design—a multifaceted central core with covered walkways—was raised off the ground on concrete piers that themselves extended upward to support the roof. The core and boardwalks were without walls to allow for an immersive sensory experience, while the satellite “pods” could be walled for privacy, or fitted with floor-to-ceiling plate glass to celebrate their proximity to nature.
Mayén’s presentation drawing showed the center set within the forest, and indeed it was designed to be carved out in such a manner as to minimize the disturbance of trees, bushes and wildflowers. In plan, it is comprised of a 2,400 square foot, sixteen-sided form with information and ticketing counters at its center. From there, eight boardwalks fanned out as pathways to the historic property or terminated in 1,000-square-foot octagonal structures, each with a distinct function including public restrooms, a gift shop, an area for childcare and interpretive exhibition galleries—one for the history of Fallingwater and Frank Lloyd Wright and a second for a history of the Kaufmann family and the Conservancy. The elevated design, in essence, permitted visitors to walk among nature without touching it, while its geometric flexibility allowed for additional octagonal pods to be added in clusters, whether at the rear of an existing one, between an adjacent pair, or, in the case of the childcare area, merely suggested by the perimeter of its playground fence.
Construction began on the visitor center in late 1977 and was planned to be completed by the next winter. Mayén’s drawings were featured in Contract Interiors and Progressive Architecture during the summer of 1978 with the former noting its surprise at the “rough materials, rustic directness, and unobtrusive practicality”—features seemingly at odds with the industrial style of which the designer had become known. Delays prolonged its opening to the spring of 1979 when, shockingly, the structure was destroyed by fire on April 4 only one day after it opened. The center was declared a total loss.
A year later, in March 1980, reconstruction of the Fallingwater visitor center was underway with the help of an $800,000 grant from the Edgar J. Kaufmann Charitable Foundation. A duplicate of the first, it was constructed of cedar, concrete and glass, and early press touted its use of energy- and water-saving features such as Swedish composting toilets in the restrooms. Moreover, its ability to provide services to tens of thousands of visitors without being visible from Fallingwater itself relieved the physical crowding near the house and allowed for a contemplative stroll to the start of a tour. The concrete columns, supporting laminated wood beams, were meant to recall tree trunks and were further camouflaged with a wash of green paint, part of a color palette that extended to metal handrails and vinyl coated cables used in lieu of wood railings. The effect was one that, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, suggested “something special was ahead” for the visitor that “emphasize[d] the kinship between man and nature, the point of organic architecture, and a prime factor in the conservancy’s work of saving the land.”
On June 3, 1981, the new visitor center was officially dedicated in a private ceremony. Edgar jr. was honored by Pennsylvania’s governor Richard Thornburgh, who toured the center and its exhibition area with panels showing photographs, drawings, and descriptions relating to Fallingwater and its terrain. Before the new visitor center was added, attempts at interpreting the house were verbal. The new panel displays, as well as others on geology, local history and architectural concepts contributed to the larger Fallingwater story. The center also allowed for a dedicated space for selling books, souvenirs and craft and designed objects while another space allowed for supervised care of children too young to enter the house.
Following its opening, the American Institute of Architects assigned its AIA Journal editor and critic Stanley Abercrombie to visit Fallingwater and report on the new visitor center, which he did in August 1981. Praising Mayén’s design, and especially noting its materialistic and stylistic independence from Wright, Abercrombie exalted, “the new construction coexists happily with [Fallingwater] by having, on the surface, nothing to do with it.” Yet, he felt, Wright’s house cantilevered over Bear Run and Mayén’s “spirited and fresh little building” shared an attitude of loving care for their natural surroundings.
Over the past four decades, the Fallingwater visitor center’s organizational arrangement has gone unchanged, though some pods have taken on new functions. For example, the former gallery is now the Fallingwater Café and childcare is now home to The Speyer Galley, an exhibition space. There have also been additions, such as doubling the size of the gift shop and creating an open-air education and lecture space, and other renovations to accommodate the current level of visitors. In 2019, Fallingwater welcomed more than 170,000 people.
Paul Mayén’s realization of Edgar Kaufmann jr.’s vision for the Fallingwater visitor center remains an embodiment of Fallingwater as a place where “house and site together form the very image of man’s desire to be at one with nature, equal and wedded to nature.”