Except for the lack of choices of nearby restaurants, the Hartzell House was a model bed and breakfast. Our spectacular room and bath had been designed with a wheelchair in mind, so the spouse in particular loved the easy walk-in shower. The rest of the house had a comfortable dining room, great food, welcoming public rooms for reading or chatting with other guests. The guests we met were pleasant. One couple from Rochester were going on to Louisville to see friends and then return to Pittsburgh for a few days. Their trip was a short one for them—ten days. They told us they took frequent six-week trips to Europe.
Another couple, Dick and Barbara, were from Vermont. Both were retired—he as an engineer in a small aeronautics firm and she as a middle school math teacher. They were now snowbirds wending their way south to their home on Florida’s west coast. They had been to a wedding in Philadelphia, and after our B and B, they were off to see relatives (and racetracks) in Lexington, Kentucky. Dick, however, was most looking forward to three days in Memphis where they planned to visit Graceland. The seventy-seven-year-old said that he listened regularly to Elvis while driving. We all exchanged stories about when we had first seen or heard Presley, and I pulled up on my iPad Elvis’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, which Dick, the spouse, and I watched together.
All of us were at the inn to see Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed house, famous for its horizontal, cantilevered construction situated over a small waterfall. The house, built in the late 1930s, was commissioned by Liliane and Edgar Kaufmann, the owner of Pittsburgh’s Kaufmann’s Department Store. They used it for weekends until their deaths. Ownership then passed to their son who, in 1963, donated it to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which opened it and its grounds to the public the next year.
A reservation for a tour is required to see the house, and this is one time when Covid worked to our advantage. Before the pandemic, tours of fourteen were scheduled every six minutes. Now the departures are every twelve minutes with no more than eight in a group. The house did not feel crowded, and the viewing was leisurely, which must not have been true previously.
The house, of course, is a marvel, but while I liked aspects of it, overall it did not appeal. The main house has low ceilings, which, I guess, are meant to force attention to the outdoors, but it did the opposite for me, giving a cramped feeling. I felt separated from nature in the house, not a part of it. The house has built-in furniture with lines that mimic the exterior but rarely seem inviting. A good house for me has to have good places to read, and this house failed that basic need. However, I did like the beautifully crafted built-in desks, and I would have moved into the separate guest wing–complete with creek-fed plunge pool–in an instant.
I have toured other Wright-designed buildings. Fallingwater brought back memories of the Robie House in Chicago, which was built much earlier. The Robie House also has horizontal lines that tend to make me feel squinched (a technical word) and has built-in furniture that echo the lines of the house, furniture that is stylish but not welcoming. The spouse articulated part of what I was feeling when she said, “Wright houses are creepy.” But I am glad that I saw it. It was worth the effort.
Fallingwater also made me think of Ayn Rand and The Fountainhead. In it she created Howard Roark, an architect, who embodies a version of Rand’s ideal–a man of independence and integrity. The novel’s plot is bad soap opera; the writing is often embarrassing; but I found it to be a page-turner. The book was published only a few years after Fallingwater was built, and Frank Lloyd Wright has been seen as an inspiration for Howard Roark. However, Wright indicates why Rand’s “philosophy” is on the same level of philosophic insights found in a D.C. Comic. (In a New Yorker cartoon, a farmer and son stand in a cornfield with the stalks holding The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The father says, “If they are reading Ayn Rand, they aren’t mature.”) Wright might have been a creative genius and strong-willed, but as Fallingwater indicates, he was not a truly independent man, and his artistic integrity had to be adaptable.
An architect needs money to build the envisioned masterpiece, and that requires a patron. Wright needed Edgar Kaufmann, and as our guide made clear, Kaufmann vetoed some of Wright’s ideas and insisted that other details be included. Wright fought for what he wanted, but some of the time he had to yield unless he simply wanted to walk away from the project, which, obviously, he did not do. Apparently, the real-life architect was not an island unto himself.
An exhibition in the Speyer Gallery, part of Fallingwater’s Visitors’ Center, also brought the “independent” man to mind. It displayed marvelous drawings by Joseph Urban, the Viennese-born architect, illustrator, and scenic designer. In 1928, Edgar Kaufmann asked Urban for Urban’s vision of how to redesign the main floor of Kaufmann’s Department store. The drawings, beautiful and meticulous, showed a dramatic Art Deco space, and I thought of going to Pittsburgh to see what Urban created. But at the end of the exhibit, I learned that Urban did not get the commission; Kaufmann picked someone else for the redesign. A patron may give the “independent” man leeway, but if you need a patron, you are not truly independent.
Even so, some people read Ayn Rand as if she held a key to the universe. And there are other reasons to feel a sense of despair.
(To be continued.)