I knew nothing of Edgar J. Kaufmann, the rich and powerful Pittsburg merchant that commissioned Wright to build his weekend home before I visited Fallingwater; I knew only a bit more when it came to the famous Frank Lloyd Wright.
I knew Wright had been a notorious womanizer in the day, but I only learned Edgar Kaufmann Sr. could be called the same after completing my research for today's post.
But there’s much more than the predictable when it comes to this National Historic Landmark and the people behind this American icon.
Don’t click the Read More link if you’re planning to visit Fallingwater and prefer fairy tales. For those of you that don’t mind me stirring the pot at the end of the rainbow, go bravely into the night and the next page. It’s where history and mystery, even a few skeletons in those tiny closets at Fallingwater, conspired to really make the place truly memorable.
Seems even Kaufmann had his doubts early on when it came to Wright’s gravity-defying cantilevered design. Unbeknownst to Wright, Kaufmann took the advice of an outside engineering firm and doubled the number of one-inch square bars supporting the cantilevered decks rather than stick to what was in Wright’s original design. Those extra supports truly saved Fallingwater from falling until technology could catch up with Wright's genius.
The exchange of letters following Wright’s discovery of Kaufmann’s structural changes is indicative of the give and take that forged the dogged respect on which the 25-year relationship between these two powerful men equally matched and equally manipulative was based. See what you think.
Dear Mr. Kaufmann:
I don’t know what kind of architect you are familiar with but it apparently isn’t the kind I think I am. You seem not to know how to treat a decent one. I have put so much more into this house than you or any other client has a right to expect that if I haven’t your confidence—to hell with the whole thing.
— Frank Lloyd Wright
Dear Mr. Wright:
I don’t know what kind of clients you are familiar with but apparently they are not the kind I think I am. You seem not to know how to treat a decent man. I have put so much confidence and enthusiasm behind this whole project in my limited way, to help the fulfillment of your effort that if I do not have your confidence in the matter—to hell with the whole thing.
— Edgar J. Kauffman
P.S. Now don’t you think we should stop writing letters and that you owe it to the situation to come to Pittsburgh and clear it up by getting the facts?
Edgar J. Kaufmann (his friends called him E.J.) was a dashing brilliant man too. He married his first cousin Lillian in 1909 in a simple ceremony in New York City, where their union was legal.
The dynastic tradition of intermarriage was one that went back for centuries in the Kaufmann’s German-Jewish ancestry. Their marriage consolidated family ownership of the department store that bore the family name, the same Pittsburgh department store that ranked among the country’s retail giants in the 1920s.
They made a striking couple, he a connoisseur of modern architecture and design, she a queen of fashion. She brought Paris to the provinces, turning the store’s unprofitable 11th-floor woman’s shop into a moneymaking boutique, Vendôme. They rode steeplechase with the country club set and raised orchids in the greenhouse of their Norman-style mansion, La Tourelle, in the horsy suburb of Fox Chapel.
And while they lived rather independent lives throughout their marriage of convenience, they did share time and a great love for their only child, Edgar jr. (he preferred the use of the lower case j).
I had no idea Wright’s plans for Fallingwater were the result of roughly two frenzied hours of intense creativity preceding a do-or-die deadline. I often do some of my best work when facing a deadline.
As they say, the squeaky wheel always gets the grease. That surprise visit (Edgar Kaufmann called Wright to let the architect know he’d just landed at Milwaukee Airport and was driving out to Taliesin “to look at the plans for my house”) was apparently just what Wright needed to get the job/homework done. Yes, I’ve always found motivation to be a big part of my success.
“Come right along E.J., we’re ready for you,” Wright had apparently replied without a hint of concern.
According to then apprentice Edgar Tafel, “the design just poured out of him” in a frenzy of dancing pencils, flying vellum paper and frantic action in the 140 minutes afforded Wright before Kaufmann’s arrival.
Wright’s apprentices were able to polish the plans while the two men enjoyed a leisurely lunch before the unveiling.
While it took Wright roughly two hours to draft plans for Fallingwater, it took Liliane roughly three years to overcome her misgivings about living with the reality of those plans.
Rudimentary has always been my housekeeping arrangements!
Notwithstanding the more than 50 structural leaks the homeowners had to contend with initially or the high humidity due to the proximity of those inspiring falls (my hair would have been a curly mess in that masterpiece all summer long!) the home was an exercise in less-is-more.
No hoarders need apply!
Apparently Liliane did come to discover the lack of decorating ornaments “brought out the amazing strength and loveliness of architectural design and detail.” She admitted in the same letter to Wright that she “began to glory in the sense of space and peace with which my room filled me;” to appreciate that “leaf-laden tree or bare interlacing branches were a more-than-satisfactory substitute for curtains and draperies.”
Good thing she’d truly grown to love Fallingwater. In time, it would become her permanent home.
On the evening of September 7, 1952, while the Kaufmanns were spending a weekend at Fallingwater, Liliane Sarah Kaufmann overdosed on sleeping pills. Instead of taking her to a local hospital, Edgar drove Liliane back to Pittsburgh, two and a half hours away.
She might have lived had the local doctors, whom Edgar didn’t trust, had the chance to pump Liliane’s stomach right away.
Edgar jr. took his mother’s suicide hard, particularly given his father’s infidelities. Two years later Edgar Sr. married his nurse, Grace Snoops, who at 34 was half his age. Kaufmann died seven months later. Edgar jr. moved his mother’s body from Pittsburgh’s Homewood Cemetery following his father’s death and placed his parents, side by side, in a crypt upriver from Fallingwater at an undisclosed location. I sincerely hope they both rest in peace.
The immense bronze doors to the crypt were designed by the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. The doors depict two solitary figures in bas-relief, a woman sitting against a tree on the right and a man standing far away on the left, facing each other across a barren valley, against a dark, stormy background. I wonder if Edgar had William Blake's ''Marriage of Heaven and Hell," in mind when he commissioned Giacometti.
Life is often stranger than fiction; and often just as tragic.
Following Edgar jr.’s death in 1989, his ashes were scattered in the woods surrounding the home he loved, Fallingwater. When his life-long partner of thirty years, Paul Mayén, died in 2000, his ashes were also scattered at Fallingwater.
I think few visitors (we were told Edgar jr. never married during our tour of Fallingwater; there was never any mention of Paul Mayén ) are aware that Mr. Mayén designed and oversaw the construction of the café, gift store, and visitor’s center at Fallingwater from 1979 to 1981. No more stranger than fiction, right?
For me, connecting all those parts with a little history (which usually reveals a little mystery, too) has certainly conspired to make my visit much more memorable and meaningful; not to mention reiterate the fact that despite our flaws, we all still have the potential to be great works of art.