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By Susan Deefholts

Fallingwater isn't the kind of place you stumble upon while trying to get somewhere else. Nestled in a wooded valley in the Allegheny Mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania, it's not really on the way to anything-hardly surprising, since it was built as a getaway retreat from the bustle of city life.

We arrive at the Fallingwater Visitors' Center just as the in-depth tour of the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house is about to begin.

Our guide Denise, a dark-haired woman with ruddy cheeks and a cheerful expression, leads us along a forest walkway, shaded by a rustling canopy of leaves.

We come to a stop beneath a precarious-looking outcropping of rock that juts over the path. "Fallingwater was built on the cantilever principle. It's the same thing that allows this piece of rock to hang above the path without collapsing. It's solidly anchored here…" Denise indicates the cliffside that rises up alongside the path, "…to the rest of the hill. Because most of its weight is supported there, the rock projects the illusion of being suspended."

Frank Lloyd Wright believed in creating buildings that were in harmony with their natural settings. And so, when the wealthy department store owners, the Kaufmanns, commissioned him to build their vacation house, he looked to the surroundings for inspiration.

"To start with," says Denise, "Mr. Wright asked the Kaufmanns what they liked best about their getaway spot. They replied that they enjoyed picnics by the waterfall. So he built their house on the waterfall itself." As Denise speaks, we round another corner, and there it is: the house that represents an architectural achievement so unique that it's a work of art. From a certain angle, it appears as if the waterfall actually originates from somewhere inside the structure.

The truth is far trickier and more interesting: the river runs under the cantilevered outcroppings of the house. It is likely one of the only residences in the world that is suspended over a flowing, living natural river.

"When the water rises with the thaws, we do have to start keeping an eye on things," Denise explains as we pause on the bridge leading to the house. "You can see the water line is below us-although one year, it rose so high that we began to worry that it would get into the living room."

As we approach, we discover another quirk that is a trademark of many Wright structures: a hidden entrance. Instead of a large, exposed doorway, our guide leads us towards a quiet nook off to one side of the main path, and half obscured by wide columns of mortared stone.

As we enter the house, I have the sense of walking into a secret enclave, and I begin to understand why Wright had such a fondness for sequestered entryways: by stepping across this concealed threshold, it is as if I am entering a sanctuary-safe and cocooned from the rest of the world.

Denise leads us through the house, pointing out other innovations that Wright built into the design. "The residence is designed on an open floor plan-a pioneering concept in the 1930s, when most houses were boxy and divided off into smaller rooms."

And indeed, the main common room is wonderfully intuitive, with several different sitting areas, an inviting nook by the fireplace and a dining table in one corner. Leading off the room are stairs that lead right to the waterfall itself, so that the Kaufmanns and their guests could walk down and dangle their legs in the water.

The bedrooms, by contrast, are small even by contemporary standards, but the low ceilings and elongated windows are designed to direct the gaze outwards, towards stunning natural scenery.

As I stand outside, on one of the magnificent main floor balconies, the rushing sound of falling water is the soundtrack to this man-made structure, which sits comfortably within the landscape that inspired its creation.

Fallingwater could not have been built today-partly because it is over a natural river and also because its structural components wouldn't conform to current building codes. Nonetheless, it endures today as a salute to the imaginative genius of Frank Lloyd Wright.


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Photos by Susan Deefholts:

1: Steps lead from the middle of the living room to the river below. 2: Denise points out the natural materials used: river rock for the hearth and a tree stump for the drinks tray. 3: The waterfall seems to originate from the house itself.

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