Saving Frank Lloyd Wright Masterpieces

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1964

Architectural legend Frank Lloyd Wright designed the house known as Fallingwater for the Edgar Kaufmann family in 1936. The Kaufmanns owned a department store in Pittsburgh. The challenge they gave Wright: build them a house next to a waterfall on their remote property in the mountains far outside Pittsburgh. Wright upped the ante, saying the house should be meshed with the waterfall instead of just looking upon it. He produced an architectural marvel that doesn’t appear to be grounded in the earth at all; it hovers over the cascade, and the water’s sound is part of the home. The 5,300 square-foot structure was completed in 1939 for just over $150,000. It made the cover of Time magazine.

It remained the family’s vacation home until 1963, when Kaufmann’s son, recognizing the home’s artistic and architectural significance, donated it to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. The nonprofit opened it as a museum in 1964; the only Wright-designed building to be open to the public with its original furnishings and artwork. In 1988, 1995, and 2002, major repairs were conducted due to structural problems. The museum remains open to the public and sees about 150,000 visitors per year (4.5 million since opening).

Several other Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces have also been saved over the last generation by the intervention of generous donors and public-spirited volunteers. Wright’s own favorite design, the Darwin Martin House near Buffalo, New York, was rescued by the Martin House Restoration Corporation, a nonprofit founded in 1992 to bring the deteriorated site back to its former glory. Many individual and corporate donors collaborated to purchase the several buildings on the site, undertake exterior renovations and re-creation of removed structures, and launch interior renovations—eventually to include restoration or re-make of all of Wright’s original custom furniture for the home.