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The truth about Fallingwater: Toker's architectural biography corrects myths about Wright, Kaufmanns

Sunday, November 30, 2003

By Donald Miller, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Franklin Toker has written a 400-page portrait of a weekend hideaway that became world-famous -- as much for its setting on a waterfall as for its radical design.


"Fallingwater Rising:
Frank Lloyd Wright,
E.J. Kaufmann and America's Most Extraordinary House"

By Franklin Toker
Knopf ($35)


This architectural biography of a house is the best and most comprehensive yet on the structure and its creators. Toker's book is many things: an expose revealing secrets of the house's owners; an elaborate enumeration of social, religious and architectural concepts; and a timeline of media coverage that pushed Fallingwater into widespread acceptance as America's premier modern dwelling.

Toker, professor of the history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, presents his stars, Edgar J. Kaufmann, wife Liliane and son Edgar Kaufmann Jr., against a vast assembly of fascinating supporting players.

They include architects Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Richard Neutra and Philip Johnson, physicist Albert Einstein, art critic Aline Saarinen (a Kaufmann cousin briefly engaged to Kaufmann Jr.) and novelist Ayn Rand, whose overblown 1946 novel "The Fountainhead" was inspired by Wright, Kaufmann and their house.

Most important, Toker re-establishes Edgar J. Kaufmann as not just "Mr. Moneybags," to quote a peevish Wright, but also the client who first thought of commissioning the then-washed-up architect for a retreat that, as a bonus, would restart his career.

Kaufmann, with the help of Henry Luce, publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines, and others, also worked hard, in Toker's word, to hype the story into a public relations triumph in publications.

Armed with archival research, Toker destroys a long-held notion that Kaufmann Jr. was really responsible for the house's origin since the son urged his father to meet Wright.

Toker cites letters to prove that E.J. conferred with Wright before Junior arrived at the Taliesin Fellowship in Spring Green, Wis., even though Junior would say and write otherwise.

The author also concludes that Wright dismissed Junior from Taliesin for what Wright called a lack of "circumspection," which Toker infers was probably homosexual activity.

Toker shows that the son, through obfuscation and concealment of his Taliesin experience, meant to give the impression that he was the most important element in the Kaufmann equation.

Junior started his campaign following his father's death in 1955, when he became owner of Fallingwater, part of his $10 million inheritance.

At Junior's death in 1989, the New York Times wrote: "More than anyone else except, of course, Frank Lloyd Wright, Edgar Kaufmann Jr. was responsible for Fallingwater."

Toker relentlessly and decisively shows that that statement was never true. Kaufmann did not join his parents in their tomb at Fallingwater. Instead, his ashes were scattered on the grounds.

In my case, I wrote articles crediting Junior with introducing his father to Wright based on the books and essays the son oversaw or wrote about his time at Taliesin.

It now is clear that Kaufmann Jr.'s hatred of his philandering father, love for his emotionally tortured mother -- who took a fatal dose of barbiturates and alcohol in 1952 at the house -- and Junior's own insecurities led him to rewrite history and flatter himself.

Toker destroys the myth that the house's design was done in a mere two hours, as so often is mentioned. He also reveals E.J. Kaufmann's constant fear that the house's cantilevered decks would collapse into Bear Run.

In view of their recent corrective shoring, his was not idle speculation. Wright's engineering was faulty from the start. Toker provides many pages on the decks' history of cracking as well as a long geographic survey of the forested estate.

Toker is also the author of the architectural guidebook "Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait," which led Junior to invite him to arrange and update the books at Fallingwater.

Kaufmann also gave Toker the opportunity in 1986 to lecture on the house at Columbia University, where he taught architectural history as a unpaid adjunct professor. Kaufmann attended the talk.

Has Toker bitten the hand that fed him? Not when the object of his account is truth.

Toker is fair in giving the younger Kaufmann credit for many fine acts, including donating Fallingwater to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and giving the Irene Kaufmann Settlement in the Hill District to the community, two of his largest gifts.

Among his talents, Junior collected modern paintings with his inherited money. At auction after his death, they sold for $98.3 million, outstripping his father's fortune.

Junior's longtime companion, Paul Mayen, who designed the Fallingwater pavilion, reaped the harvest of that auction. He died in 1990.

Toker suggests that Junior's donation to the conservancy, in effect making the house a perpetual Kaufmann memorial, was spurred when railroad cutbacks in the 1960s made Kaufmann's commute by rail from New York difficult.

After the donation, Junior still visited the house occasionally, insisting on continuing such niceties as fresh flowers daily. But Junior slept at the Rolling Rock or Duquesne clubs, both of which had blackballed his father.

Toker, trenchantly describing the pluses and flaws of Wright, E.J., Liliane and Edgar Jr., attempts to rocket the house itself forever into the pantheon of the world's most impressive structures. Forever is a long time, but I hope he is right.

He also tells much about E.J.'s minimalist Desert House in Palm Springs, Calif., designed by Neutra, a brief employee and then enemy of Wright. (The house's walls roll back from its corners.)

The author gives a fascinating and previously unreported account of the plans Liliane solicited from Wright in the early 1950s to build her own house -- called the Boulder House -- next door to the Desert House. She then dropped the idea.

Toker also relates Liliane's next abortive idea for a house for herself (to avoid E.J. and his mistress -- soon his next wife -- at Fallingwater) on Beaver Creek in what is now Nemacolin Woodlands.

The author sneers at the Kaufmanns' former Fox Chapel house, La Tourelle, designed by Kaufmann Sr.'s Pittsburgh architect and friend Benno Janssen. Toker never calls it Norman-style, the accepted general description, but "fake Norman." He also found that no one involved with promoting Fallingwater originally wanted to limit its public relations range to then "stodgy, conservative Pittsburgh."

Toker's easy style and Wrightian sarcasm keep his narrative from being stuffy even as it echoes Wright's contempt for almost everything non-Wrightian. He describes the architect as a fabulous designer but a poor engineer, a now widespread judgment but once heresy to keepers of his flame.

Although Toker has labored to place Fallingwater among history's greatest buildings, he never forsakes his objectivity and is not beholden to anyone while confessing his love of the house.

Toker presents too many facts to be overwhelmed with awe himself, the role of the scholar and the truly inquisitive mind.

I am in awe of Toker for his persistent research, regardless of how much help he had gathering it. His endnotes, printed in small type, run to 52 pages. Still, the book has repetitive patches that are the probable result of being pulled away and then returning to the manuscript. I know that experience. But Toker's editors could have pared more.

The book takes some slogging to finish, but I wouldn't have missed it and am pleased we have it.

Donald Miller, a Post-Gazette senior editor, is author of "The Architecture of Benno Janssen" and co-author with Aaron Sheon of "Organic Vision: The Architecture of Peter Berndtson," a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. He can be reached or 1-239-455-3144

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