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The secrets of Fallingwater

Book delves into mysteries of Kaufmann family and Wright

Thursday, September 25, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

It's probably fair to say Edgar Kaufmann Jr. didn't know quite what he was in for when he invited Franklin Toker to give a talk at Columbia University in 1986, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Fallingwater.

A lecture given in 1986 by Franklin Toker, a University of Pittsburgh professor, set in motion events that led to his book, "Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kaufmann and America's Most Extraordinary House."(Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

To prepare, Toker, who teaches the history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, visited Columbia's Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library to look through the Fallingwater drawings and documents, which at the time could not be done without Kaufmann's approval.

"The very first item that I found, literally, was a letter from Kaufmann Sr. to Kaufmann Jr. in 1946, in which he's describing building operations for the Palm Springs house," designed by Richard Neutra. "He's talking foundation methods, soil retention and special techniques for pouring the swimming pool," said Toker. "I was seeing a tenfold more capable and learned person than I had been led to expect."

What Toker learned over the next 18 years convinced him that, contrary to Fallingwater mythology, it was Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr., not Jr., who initiated the contact with Frank Lloyd Wright that ultimately led to the construction of what would quickly become one of the most famous houses in the world -- and not by chance. Kaufmann Sr., it seems, left nothing to chance.

So began the long road to "Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kaufmann and America's Most Extraordinary House," published this month by Alfred A. Knopf and edited by Robert Gottlieb. The 475-page book is a sort of dual biography of the house and Kaufmann, with Wright as linchpin. To launch it, Toker is presenting a free public lecture at 2 p.m. Oct. 4 in Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland.

As accessible as it is cultured and scholarly, "Fallingwater Rising" presents Kaufmann to the world as the civic leader Pittsburgh knew him to be, the man behind the men behind the city's first Renaissance. But it also reconstructs him as a highly educated man deeply involved with design, both as head of Kaufmann's department store and as an astute and important patron of architecture, including two iconic modern houses. And it fleshes out the often difficult familial relationships and personalities of the Kaufmann triumvirate -- E.J., his wife and first cousin Liliane, and their son Edgar -- and weighs how each impacted Fallingwater's design.

Toker, following his first, tantalizing visit to the Avery, interviewed almost 100 people who knew either Wright or one of the Kaufmanns.

One was industrial designer Paul Mayen, who had lived with Edgar Jr. for 36 years. In 1999, 10 years after Jr.'s death, Toker spoke with Mayen for four hours in the Manhattan apartment he had shared with Kaufmann.

"It was a highly delicate interview; I was asking a lot of extremely personal questions," Toker said. "The apartment was totally denuded because everything had been sold at auction. I didn't take notes but stood on a street corner on Park Avenue for a half-hour recording things into a tape recorder."

Kaufmann Jr., who taught architectural and art history at Columbia University from 1963 to 1986, "was such an accomplished person. I would unhesitatingly call him brilliant. He had an encyclopedic sense of architecture and design. But, as Brendan Gill did say, he was exceedingly unforthcoming about things he did not want you to know about."

From the book jacket of "Fallingwater Rising': Edgar Kaufmann Sr., left, and Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in the 1940s.

There has long been a widely held belief, promulgated by Kaufmann Jr., that it was he who brought Wright and his parents together during his six-month Taliesin apprenticeship, which began in October 1934.

Toker thinks it was the elder Kaufmann who initially contacted Wright after learning of his 1926 design for a planetarium and parking garage in Maryland.

"That's exactly what Kaufmann wanted to put alongside his store where the ordinary parking garage is now," said Toker, who discovered a letter, previously unknown to Wright scholars, which seems to bear out his theory. The letter, undated but likely written in early September 1934, was written to Wright by his former secretary, Karl Jensen. Wright had sent Jensen to check out Kaufmann, who also held out the possibility of federally funded projects for Pittsburgh. Toker also discovered that the elder Kaufmann, through his secretary, had been corresponding with Wright as early as January 1934, and probably before.

Not only that, but "it appears that Kaufmann Sr. and Wright cooked up the idea of Junior's apprenticeship by themselves," Toker writes.

As for Kaufmann Jr.'s belief that he was the matchmaker, "Senior may have tricked Junior into thinking his role was much bigger than it was," Toker said. "It's the ultimate contrivance to inflate your son's importance."

Toker's research also took him to the West Coast, "because I felt California modernism was a huge part of the Fallingwater story. I doggedly attempted to be in the footsteps of E.J. and Liliane pre-Fallingwater. You see in his home movies that he's filming the Barnsdall house in Los Angeles."

Named for its abstract decoration and completed in 1921, Hollyhock is one of Wright's best-known buildings. It was commissioned by Aline Barnsdall, who was born and raised here. She was one of several transplanted Pittsburghers, all patrons of modern art and architecture in California, whom Toker speculates Kaufmann may have known.

And some of Toker's conclusions are just that -- educated speculation. One of the reasons Kaufmann's role has been overlooked is that he left no personal papers or library by which to follow his actions and judge his level of awareness.

But other research materials became available in the late 1980s and 1990s, including Wright's letters and Kaufmann family history that traced the clan back almost 500 years to Germany.

Toker also tries to ferret out how Kaufmann, the master merchandiser from a long line of merchants, helped orchestrate the publicity around his first house, Benno Janssen's picturesque La Tourelle of 1922 in Fox Chapel; his second, Fallingwater; and Desert House, his ultramodern third house in Palm Springs.

La Tourelle had appeared in six magazines by the end of the 1920s, a precursor of the hype that surrounded Fallingwater, which revived Wright's career.

There's much more, including why hometown publicity about Fallingwater was discouraged; how and why Fallingwater got its name; why the Kaufmanns' marriage allowed him to take over the store; the story behind Liliane's nude portrait; and why Kaufmann, despite his wealth and civic works, couldn't join the Duquesne Club.

But all of that is better left for a review of the book, which has an initial print run of 20,000 and will sell for $35 after its release on Tuesday. Safe to say Toker's illustrated talk promises to be one of the big events of the fall season, and not to be missed.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.

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