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Jewish World Review
Oct. 1, 2006
/ 19 Tishrei, 5767
Travel Journal: From savagery to serenity
MILL RUN, Pa. To reach Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece above a waterfall, you drive southeast out of Pittsburgh through American history. After passing by the colonial battlefields of western Pennsylvania, you take State Highway 381 to what contemporary American architects have called "the best American building of the last 125 years." Surely it is one of the most uplifting.
So do we proceed from destruction to creation, savagery to serenity. ("I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy … in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture…." John Adams)
In 1935, a Pittsburgh department store owner named Edgar J. Kaufmann, whose son had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin, hired Wright to build the family a vacation place on their hilly property at Bear Run, a picturesque spot in the woods covered with rhododendron, laurel, wildflowers and outcroppings of sandstone.
According to our guide, who has drunk deep of the myths surrounding the history of Fallingwater, the Kaufmanns had only three requirements: that the cost of the house come in under $35,000, that it be done by their wedding anniversary, and that it offer visitors a view of the waterfall on the property. None would be met.
Instead, Wright gave them and American architecture a masterpiece. After he had accepted the commission, Wright asked for a topographical map of the site, and the Kaufmanns waited to see his plans. And waited and waited.
Getting nothing from him but canceled checks, they drove to Taliesin, the master's home, retreat, and academy at Spring Green, Wisconsin.
A couple of hours away, they phoned to tell him they'd soon be there.
Wright, who didn't believe in preliminary drafts, proceeded to put pencil to paper and drew up the plan he'd worked out in his head:
Instead of facing up toward the falls, Fallingwater would be cantilevered over them like a natural outcropping of the boulders atop the ridge. That way, it would be surrounded by the sussurating sounds of rushing water. And the view down the falls from the main terrace almost every room would have a terrace would be one of the most captivating on the North American continent.
Instead of $35,000, the cost would be closer to $155,000 still probably the greatest bargain in the history of American architecture.
Instead of being completed within a year, the final touches wouldn't be added till 1939, and by then Albert Einstein had been a house guest, and a 72-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright had resurrected his career after a long series of scandalous reverses financial, ethical and moral. The story is enough to give some of us old reprobates hope.
The factual history of Fallingwater's origins is even more revealing than the stories the house has given rise to. (Recommended and fascinating reading: Fallingwater Rising by Franklin Toker.)
None of the pictures on the Web site or in the architecture textbooks can duplicate experiencing the house itself, which is a piece of engineering and design as well as art. For example, at first the Kaufmanns didn't understand why Wright insisted on the big sliding hatch in the floor of the main room.
Why? Now our guide opens it, and the room is filled with the rushing sound of the falls. And we understand at once.
The whole house is an assemblage of such touches, great and small.
There are the cave-like entrances to some rooms, and a great outdoor canopy that seems to float like the surrounding waves.
For the very low walls around the outdoor terraces, Wright chose the color of faded rhododendron leaves in the fall, if only rhododendron leaves faded in the fall. All of Fallingwater is like that as close as architecture gets to poetry. Or maybe Zen. That a place of such peace should have arisen out of a milieu so full of complicated social, artistic, financial and personal conflicts … gives one hope.
SHANKSVILLE, Pa. It is just an empty field now, marked by an American flag off in the distance where the 757 came hurtling down at 580 mph with 37 passengers (including the four killers) and seven crew members aboard. With 7,000 gallons of aviation fuel still remaining. Nothing was left after the fireball but a deep crater and widespread debris.
And American honor.
For this is the site not just of a September 11th attack, but of the first counterattack in the war on terror. The end of United Flight 93 is marked in the distance by an American flag. A deep grave, the whole area is roped off. For now, there are only some benches and a fence on which makeshift memorials have sprung up. And always, always, in summer heat and winter snows, the volunteers from Shanksville who greet visitors and comfort the mourners. The town has made this place its own.
The official memorial is still a work in progress, but the unofficial one all around is moving the Pennsylvania countryside, the Norman Rockwell setting, the peace after a great loss, the small-town devotion to national memory.
The contrast between the horror of the attack and the dignity of the response speaks without words. A strange holiness has set in here.
In a little shack on the property, one after the other we write down our names and places and comments. A man just ahead of me us has written: "I hope to G-d I would act like these people did."
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