Frank Lloyd Wright's Waterworld

Pittsburgh department-store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann had a chunk of

Pennsylvania highlands with a waterfall. He hired an architect and said he was willing to spend $30,000--a nice piece of change in 1934--for a house with a view of the falls. In the end, he spent five times that much and didn't even get the view.

Instead, architect Frank Lloyd Wright built the house, Fallingwater, right on top of the falls. "I want you to live with this waterfall, not just look at it," explained the legendary architect, who treated even his most powerful patrons like pupils.

HIGHLAND DRIVE. Indeed, Fallingwater, with its cantilevered decks and rough sandstone walls, seems an outgrowth of the stream, Bear Run. The cascading water can be heard throughout the house, now a museum operated by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy for the last 32 years, even over the voices of tour guides and the footsteps of legions of awed tourists. So, despite the human hubbub, Fallingwater remains a refreshing getaway two hours east of Pittsburgh.

After making a reservation by telephone (412 329-8501), I took a pleasant drive through Pennsylvania's gently rolling Laurel Highlands. I went on a weekday, expecting a guide to leisurely lead three or four of us through the house. No such luck: Cars were lined up at the gate, and would-be parkers were already being diverted to the overflow lot. The crowded entrance pavilion, cafe, and gift shop seemed more like Seaworld than a rustic getaway. And the din of a chain saw-wielding work crew, lustily intent on building some sort of wooden pagoda before lunchtime, was jarring.

But the racket faded as the 15 of us in the 11:47 a.m. group trekked down the forest path, through the mountain laurels and rhododendrons, toward Fallingwater. Along the way we saw plenty of the horizontal formations of buff-colored sandstone that are repeated in the walls of the house.

I believe that if Wright had lived into the 1990s, he might have altered the outside of the building. To the jaded modern observer,

the concrete decks recall...well...downtown parking garages. Of course, this might not have been the result if Kaufmann had followed the architect's instructions to the letter and covered the concrete with gold leaf. Instead, the retailing tycoon decided to save himself a few bucks and painted the concrete ocher.

But what made Fallingwater particularly moving for me was the interior. Expecting to appreciate the home simply as a work of art rather than as a comfortable abode, I stepped inside only to discover that it's nothing less than a dream house. The ceilings are low, like the rock ledges outside, and the dark and narrow hallways are almost like caves. But each room, with its marriage of indoors and outdoors, begs to be enjoyed, to be lived in. If only they'd let you sit on the furniture, kick up your feet as the Kaufmanns did, take in the view of Bear Run, and maybe drink a cup of steaming coffee over by that Picasso...

Sorry. The 45-minute walking tour keeps you walking. And handling the furniture--let alone sitting on it--is strictly verboten. Luckily, the tour is filled with fascinating tales of testy relations between the strong-willed architect and his equally headstrong patron. Surprisingly, Kaufmann actually won a few of the jousts. In the living room, for example, a boulder rises through the floor in front of the fireplace. Wright wanted to cut it down to floor level but deferred to Kaufmann, who suggested leaving it intact. And when Wright designed a desk Kaufmann considered too small, the customer complained: "This isn't big enough for writing checks to architects." Wright enlarged it.

HISTORICAL HIKES. If you have business in Pittsburgh, Fallingwater is an ideal day trip on its own. But if you have extra time, Ohiopyle State Park, with its whitewater rapids and abundant hiking trails, is five miles to the south. And 10 miles west is Fort Necessity, the pre-Revolutionary British outpost where a young George Washington got his first taste of battle in the French-Indian war. (Unfortunately, he lost.) Park hosts describe in vivid detail the life of an 18th-century soldier, who lived on hardtack and slept on dirt, rarely getting to change his clothing. It was certainly a miserable existence, especially when compared to the Kaufmanns' meticulously planned paradise nearby.

Fallingwater is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., every day except Monday, until Nov. 15, and then only on weekends through March. Admission is $8. But remember to call in advance--it's sure to be busy.

Getting There

BY CAR From downtown Pittsburgh, take Route 376 east 10 miles to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Route 76. Take the Turnpike east to Exit 9 (Donegal). Go left on Route 31 for two miles, then turn right onto Route 381 South for 19 miles.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.