Grant Received for Kitchen Preservation

June 25, 2020

For nearly 20 years while the Kaufmanns lived at Fallingwater, the kitchen was an important space where aromas from delicious cuisine and tasty desserts filled the house, especially when long-time Fallingwater Cook Elsie Henderson was the culinarian. As Fallingwater transitioned from a private residence to a museum and the public tour program began developing in 1964, the kitchen took on a different function, one of a curated interior. Furnishings, appliances and even its function within the household were interpreted for visitors. As the house aged over time, it became more important to include it in the routine preservation and conservation program that includes wood furnishings, artwork and decorative objects.

Cleaning of stainless-steel cabinet trim

Cleaning of stainless-steel cabinet trim

Frank Lloyd Wright gave the Kaufmanns a grand kitchen—one that was much larger than needed for a weekend house, much less a house designed for three occupants—and worked with them to furnish it with modern equipment. Fallingwater’s kitchen was a pinnacle of sorts, a carryover from Wright’s earlier designs for houses with servants, which the Kaufmanns had employed, preparing and serving meals behind a closed door. Fallingwater’s kitchen was furnished with steel cabinets by St. Charles, an Illinois company that specialized in factory-made modular units. Some had specialized features like flour bins and spice racks, which could be combined and fit to meet a client’s wishes. Countertops were finished with plastic laminate, making for an extremely maintenance-free workspace, and were trimmed with stainless steel to protect vulnerable edges from chips and dents.

Along with the cabinets, the room included a laminate-top work table—Wright’s only designed piece of furniture in the room—and four farm style wood chairs. Carefully selected appliances included an AGA brand cooker, a Frigidaire refrigerator and, later, a KitchenAid dishwasher. The most historic items in the room, the steel cabinets, work table and chairs, were evaluated for a treatment proposal by conservator Sean Fisher in early 2019 when missing paint and scratches were documented as part of his condition reporting. That work led to an assessment of the kitchen floor, which was showing significant cracking and scratching. Though not the original floor, a decision to replace it with a more historically sympathetic material was made.  Fallingwater preservation staff selected custom-colored “Cherokee Red” rubber tiles that were cut to the nine-by-nine-inch dimension of the originals.

This project was funded in large part by a 2019 grant from the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund for Historic Interiors of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Sean Fisher, whose firm Robert Mussey Associates performs annual wood conservation cleaning and repairs for Fallingwater each winter, oversaw this preservation project. Work occurred during days on which the house was closed for tours (weekdays in December and the entire months of January and February). The painted steel cabinets were thoroughly cleaned and spots of corrosion and minor chips and dings were filled in by hand-mixing acrylic paint to match adjacent surfaces, many of which had faded due to cleaning and sunlight.

As the kitchen interior grows in importance on the tour, Fallingwater’s archival material, especially oral histories taken of the Kaufmanns’ former housekeeper, cook and caretaker in the 1990s, will inform changes to the tour script. With the preservation of the kitchen now complete, it is hoped the interpretation of the house will soon represent all those who lived and worked at Fallingwater.