Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

May 8, 2004. By a Waterfall.

Sometimes it seems I just have to write like a tourist. I feel like a 19th century lady on a grand tour, describing her visit to the grand sites of Florence. Well, perhaps not the grand tour, I’m not in Europe after all. Perhaps I could fancy myself a middle-aged lady in 19th century New York, accompanying her brother on a western excursion to see the great natural sights of the Allegheny Mountains.

But my major sight today is distinctly 20th century, Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater, in the mountains south east of Pittsburgh. He built it in 1936, and it was on the cover of Time Magazine in 1938, according to our tour guide. My mother might have actually seen that cover when she was sixteen; for as long as I can remember she spoke in awe of “the house built over a waterfall.”

Maybe you know Frank Lloyd Wright’s style – horizontal low-ceilinged homes of stone and wood, the eye drawn always to the windows and the world outside. Low horizontal couches, wide wood tables and desks, unbroken rows of bookshelves along twenty or thirty foot walls. The low ceilings make the inside spaces a bit claustrophobic to a modern sensibility, only partially alleviated by the way they open to the waterfall directly below.

I’d always imagined that the waterfall was actually inside the house, but that would have exceeded even Wright’s design genius. He cantilevered the house over the falls, the many terraces looking straight down into the water as it slides over the rocks into an explosion of foam and froth. One wonderful staircase descends straight down from the living room into the swirling glassy pool above the falls, where hot guests could wade in the water in the shade of the house.

I’d love to think of children at Fallingwater, playing hide and seek in the rooms and terraces, exploring its many nooks and crannies, rushing up one stairway and down another, throwing pebbles and twigs from the terraces into the water and watching them race over the falls. But children never lived there. The Kaufmann family who commissioned the house had one son, already a young man when it was built. He never married, so there were no grandchildren. So it has been a quiet place, full of books and fine art and the peaceful sound of tumbling water, never mingled with children’s screams and laughter.

Fallingwater sits on Bull Run, which flows into the Youghiogheny River, where I planned to go for a hike after seeing the house. I was waylaid before I even began my hike, though, by a rock ledge at the top of another set of falls, much more powerful than the ones on Bull Run. The day had turned hot in the afternoon sun, but right by the water the temperature dropped sharply. Seated on my ledge I could just trail my toes in the icy rushing water, which would have instantly tossed me over the twenty-foot falls had I been so unlucky as to slip.

It’s impossible to do justice to a waterfall in words and photos. You can’t capture the constant motion, the roar, the occasional splashes on my notebook smudging my ink, the smell of water and spring flowers and forest and moist earth. When the sun goes behind the clouds it is calm and relaxing, and I can gaze out at the river. When it comes out again the glare off the water is overwhelming, and I have to shield my eyes. It’s hard to imagine that this water will never stop rushing past my rock. Long after I’m gone and perhaps even long after Fallingwater is gone and the town that has grown by this waterfall is gone, this rock will be here and the water will be rushing past just as it is now.

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