The Wright Stuff 

Mr. Kaufmann builds his dream house.

Fallingwater Rising

By Franklin Toker

Knopf, 462 pp., $35

eeks into construction, and already, in 1936, Fallingwater was falling fast. Blame it on Frank Lloyd Wright's undercalculated cantilevers that lifted the house up and over Bear Run, the stream an hour out of Pittsburgh chosen by millionaire merchant Edgar Jonas Kaufmann Sr. as the site for his weekend home. Some emergency engineering saved the day in 1936, but by the early '90s, conditions had reached a crisis point. Blame it on Edgar Kaufmann Jr., who assumed ownership of the house when his father died in 1955. Junior for years failed to have those terraces checked annually for deflection. Time, then, for really drastic measures: In 2001-02, Fallingwater's flooring was ripped open, and its concrete beams were reinforced, stabilized. It sits today secure, spectacular, and number 20 on the list of the most visited houses in America (Graceland's number four) -- the only house-museum in the top 25 noted not for its owner and/or historical importance but for its architectural excellence alone. Franklin Toker, professor of art and architecture history at the University of Pittsburgh, in Fallingwater Rising says so. Believe him.

Fallingwater is without argument a prime piece of 20th-century design. Toker's book is equally without argument a masterwork of reporting, biography, art history, social history, and aesthetic judgment. It starts with then debunks four popular myths, the stuff for decades of self-interest and heresay.

Myth number one: "The man responsible for Fallingwater was Edgar J. Kaufmann Jr." Not true. See Toker and his findings based on an unprecedented access to documents. Junior was into his own mythmaking as the man who brought a practically unemployed Wright to the attention of the senior Kaufmann. Junior, an artist and architect with no future but later a curator at the Museum of Modern Art and architectural historian at Columbia University, was many things, but he was not midwife to Fallingwater. (Critic Brendan Gill once called him a "mischief-making lemur." Toker's more charitable.)

Myth number two: "Once Wright got the commission, he did nothing with it for nine months, until he took blank tracing paper on September 22, 1935, and in two hours drew up complete plans for the house." Not true. See Toker on Wright's working methods and the evidence of drawings that show him hard at work and thought for months on this career-saving project.

Myth number three: "In the construction of Fallingwater over the next two years, Wright demonstrated a grasp of engineering that was as strong as his artistic sense." Not true. See Toker on the builders onsite and the outside engineers who worked to repair the instant cracking and dangerous drooping of those famous cantilevers. Wright was many things, but he was not a structural engineer for the ages.

Myth number four: "After Fallingwater's completion in January 1938, public opinion in the United States and around the world spontaneously acclaimed it the crowning achievement of modern architecture." Not true. See Toker on the massive PR campaign launched by Kaufmann Sr., Wright, Henry Luce, William Randolph Hearst, MoMA, and novelist Ayn Rand in her bestseller, The Fountainhead.

None of which robs Wright of his rightful place as an architect for the ages. Toker does, however, provide the full context for Wright's American-style modernism: due credit to the guys in Europe (Mies, Gropius, Le Corbusier) who took from Wright just as Wright took from them (though he was loath to admit it); due credit to Wright "traitors" Richard Neutra and R.M. Schindler and their ground-breaking houses in California in the 1920s.

The real breaking story here is Toker's life of Kaufmann. (Senior, not Junior.) Largely unknown nationwide during his lifetime and all but forgotten today, in Pittsburgh he was the major and very public department-store head who competed socially and philanthropically with the likes of Frick, Mellon, and Carnegie, but as a Jew (nonpracticing, secularized), he dealt with anti-Semitism as embedded as the coal that built Pittsburgh. A marketing genius, a notorious womanizer, and a modernist when modernism itself was un-American, Kaufmann comes off here as a man of extraordinary drive and talent, not the least of which was an ability to go head-to-head with Wright, no slouch himself in the ego department. What E.J. Kaufmann wanted, E.J. Kaufmann got. And what he got from Frank Lloyd Wright was a masterpiece that still stands.

E-mail: gill@memphisflyer.com

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