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Fallingwater, under repair, set to reopen on Tuesday

Saturday, March 13, 1999

By Donald Miller, Post-Gazette Art and Architecture Critic

Fallingwater will reopen Tuesday for another season of public tours, giving visitors a glimpse not just of architect Frank Lloyd Wright's genius, but of exterior scaffolding under the cantilevered decks and a gaping hole in the living room floor.

  Michele Risdal-Barnes, assistant curator at Fallingwater, looks at a probe hole in the living room, revealing structural damage to a concrete beam. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

The cavity reveals the house's concrete beams and redwood subflooring as well as a series of cracks experts believe are related to a 7-inch droop in the southwest corner of the main deck.

How serious is the problem?

"Serious enough to have temporary scaffolding on the house," said Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which has owned and operated the house/museum in Fayette County since 1964.

And serious enough to require hundreds of thousands of dollars in restoration costs.

"We've put $440,000 into this project over the past two years," Schweiger said. "But now it's more complex and more expensive since we are trying to preserve the building. We are doing our part and will continue to do whatever is necessary."

Some reports have given the impression Fallingwater, designed by Wright for department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann in 1937, is ready to fall into Bear Run, the stream that runs beneath the home. But Schweiger said the predicament, while severe, does not pose an imminent threat.

"This is beyond simple settling," he said. "A sag will normally stop in 20 to 21 years, and that hasn't happened."

For years, experts have monitored the slippage with computer equipment, checking the data daily. And Schweiger said further deck drooping - or "deflection," as the phenomenon is known - is now prevented by the scaffold system, which braces the deck.

Still, Robert Silman of Robert Silman Associates, the New York engineer who installed the system, believes continued deflection could turn catastrophic.

Architect Pamela Jerome of Wank Adams Slavin Associates, New York, has overseen developments at Fallingwater for 10 years. Her firm is preparing a master plan to permanently address the structural flaws.

Schweiger doesn't believe the problems will alter the impression of visitors to the home, considered Wright's masterpiece.

"There may be some public reaction, but I think people realize monuments like the Washington Memorial, now being restored, or Fallingwater need periodic help," he said. "That's been the reaction to date. But we need to raise money for funding this restoration."

A panel of experts will convene at Carnegie Museum of Art on April 10 to review the issues at Fallingwater. The forum is in conjunction with the opening of an exhibition, "Merchant Prince and Master Builder: Edgar J. Kaufmann and Frank Lloyd Wright," at the museum's Heinz Architectural Center.

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