Caring for the Fallingwater Collection
March 4, 2019
As the only major Frank Lloyd Wright work to come into the public domain with its setting, original furnishings and artwork intact, Fallingwater takes great care of its collection of paintings, textiles, furniture, and decorative art.
Those furnishings and artwork are rich in history, representing the Kaufmann family’s tastes and interests in a variety of cultures and styles. More than 2,700 objects make up the collection with nearly five times that number comprising the Fallingwater archives.
Scott W. Perkins, Fallingwater’s director of preservation and collections, oversees the house’s preservation and conservation projects, including the care of the unique collection assembled by the Kaufmann family.
“At any given time we have pieces of the collection that are in need of repair and conservation,” he explains. “Before beginning any conservation treatments however, we are careful to research the history of the piece to determine what treatments have been done in the past and if those methods are still the best. We do this, in part, so that visitors can experience Fallingwater’s artwork as the family did decades ago.”
Environmental factors – including changes in temperature and humidity – not only take their toll on the materials of the house, but also affect the appearance and structural elements of collection items. Wood veneers can lift in humidity and glues can fail, while severe freeze-thaw conditions can impact outdoor sculptures. A team of artwork and furniture conservators, along with a team of preservation architects, structural engineers and consultants help to maintain the appearance, integrity and appeal of Fallingwater for its visitors.
“Winter allows us to focus on wood furniture and finishes as well as larger art conservation treatments, when we can bring in a team to work without impacting tours or remove objects like paintings to an off-site conservation lab for care,” Scott added. “It’s all part of our commitment to maintain the historic and cultural integrity and authentic experience of Fallingwater.”
Periodically throughout the year, all of the house collection items are examined for conservation needs. Fallingwater’s registrar, Rebecca Hagen, monitors the relative humidity and temperature throughout the house to keep track of fluctuations that may cause concern. This can be challenging for a house in a forest setting, but diligent housekeeping methods, condition reporting and photographic documentation of any changes help to assign priorities for conserving objects.
In 2018, several smaller objects, those placed on tabletops or shelves, were treated at an offsite conservator, as well as two chests that were exhibiting paint flaking, loosened components, and surface grime. Specialized solutions to clean the surface of each were used to protect the wood and, in the case of loose members, wood adhesives were applied to repair the moldings. After any item is treated to help ensure its long-term preservation, Scott and Rebecca also employ strategies to reduce future damage.
“Oftentimes it could be as simple as relocating an object out of harm’s way, or adjusting how the object is handled,” he says. “Our housekeeping team is trained to think of our collection items much like an art handler. They know that when we care for the collection, we are preserving history. And that’s important to us.”