After visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Chicago years ago, my husband and I had always planned to visit Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. We decided to take our daughters over Labor Day weekend before schoolwork and activities would make all-day trips more difficult. Fallingwater is exactly a three-hour drive from our home in suburban Maryland. My husband loves nature and hiking and I love art. Fallingwater would be the perfect marriage of our two passions.
Fallingwater was the weekend home of Edgar Kaufmann, his wife Liliane, and their son Edgar Jr. Edgar Sr. owned Kaufmann’s, a Pittsburgh department store. Edgar Jr. was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright’s and his parents soon became friends with their son’s teacher. They commissioned the architect to set their home near a waterfall. Imagine their surprise when the house was planned above the waterfall rather than facing it. Fallingwater would become Wright’s masterpiece and is the only major Wright residence on view with its original furnishings and artwork. It was designed in 1936 and completed in 1939. In 1963, Edgar Jr. entrusted the house to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
You can only view the house by taking a guided tour. Fallingwater gets busy, especially on weekends, so it is better and a couple of dollars cheaper to buy your tickets online in advance. We chose the regular one hour guided tour since our daughters are 11 and 15. There is also a more in-depth two hour tour and a few other special tours. You can explore just the grounds for $8 a person. Note: Children 6 and over are welcome on the regular tour and children 9 and over are allowed on special tours. No large bags or purses are allowed inside the house and interior photography is prohibited on regular tours.
A children’s tour (formerly called the family tour), for ages 5 to 8 with their parents is only available in June, July, and August. In the summer, it is offered daily (except for Wednesdays) at 9:30 a.m. This tour features hands-on activities and a guided tour of select rooms in the house. The rest of the family can take a regular tour at the same time. To prepare younger kids in advance for their visit, you might want to check out https://www.fallingwater.org/47/family-fun which has some fun activities. A family room full of toys in the Gardener’s Cottage, behind the cutting gardens, keeps younger kids busy while other family members tour the property. Kids must be supervised by another adult.
As you enter the complex, you must buy tickets or show your ticket information at the gatehouse . Park your car and walk over to the Visitor Center. Arrive for your tour at least 15 minutes early. Your group number will be called. A tour guide will direct your group to walk a quarter of a mile past two cutting gardens to the bridge right before Fallingwater where you will be met by another tour guide.
It was love at first sight for my younger daughter. Upon entering the house she exclaimed “I can’t even imagine living in a house like this” and “I’d love to live here.” The first room is the living room, which has panoramic windows, a built-in couch, and even a hatch with steps so that the Kaufmanns could dip their feet in the stream below. The ingenious dining room table could expand to serve 20 and a fireplace with a built-in red kettle was there for warming cider and wine. Fans are thoughtfully provided for visitors to cool off with as the house gets hotter with every level.
We proceeded upstairs to the second floor to see the guest bedroom and the two master bedrooms. Every bedroom in the house has its own expansive terrace. Edgar Jr. lived on the third floor of the house and had his own bedroom, den, and bathroom. The third floor terrace features an herb garden.
Next, we walked up to the guest house through a canopy. Apparently, when it rains, the canopy creates curtains of rain. The swimming pool at the guest terrace was Mrs. Kaufman’s favorite spot. The final stop on the tour is the carport, where you watch a short video about the house and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. The tour includes 110 steps but did not feel vigorous at all. Only at the carport is sitting allowed as all the other furniture is original.
Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and kid-friendly. She gave information about Wright’s design principles and the materials used in building the house. When she noticed that my older daughter was wearing an Audubon T-shirt, she made sure to point out each of the five original Audubons. Other artwork of note are two Picassos, a Diego Rivera painting in the guest house, a sculpture of mother and child by Jacque Lipchitz and a sculpture of Rose McClendon, the first African American to appear on Broadway, by Serena Richmond Berthé.
Robert P. Ruschak, courtesy of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
After the tour, we walked a quarter mile to “the view,” a fabulous vantage point where you can see how the house sits atop of the waterfall. I would love to visit again and see this view in another season. This spot is the perfect photo opportunity but you have to go down steps to reach it. A handicapped accessible view is unfortunately not nearly as good. We would like to return when the rhododendrons are in bloom around July Fourth or when the wisteria are in bloom around Mother’s Day.
Fallingwater is located on Bear Run Nature Preserve. Nature trails connect to Fallingwater’s upper parking lot. We did not have time to explore the preserve but information about its twenty miles of hiking trails is available online.
We returned to the Visitor Center just in time to meet Elsie Henderson, the 102 year-old cook of the Kaufmann’s, who was signing her cookbook. Then we had lunch at the Café. The food was a little pricey but surprisingly good and nutritious. Fresh herbs from the terrace are used to season the food. Our meals were $10 to $12 but you can eat more cheaply if you order a cup of soup, hot dog, or pepperoni roll. If your children like mine are slow eaters, you can read the substantial signage about the Kaufmann family, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Fallingwater.
A small exhibition called A House for a Curator: Edgar Kaufman Jr. and the Fallingwater Collection features textiles, deck furniture, and glassware from the house. The gift shop has an extensive selection of children’s books, games, and crafts, as well as wide range of books and gifts for adults. The helpful Visitor Center has a number of brochures on local attractions, a binder with menus from area restaurants, and giveaway directions to other attractions including Kentuck Knob.
If you are short on time, just visit Fallingwater. However, Kentuck Knob, another Frank Lloyd Wright house, is a mere seven miles away and well worth a visit. It’s located at 723 Kentuck Road, Chalk Hill, PA 15421.
This smaller one-story Usonian (affordable) home, built from 1954-56 is actually a more typical Wright-designed residence. I.N. and Bernardine Hagan owned a dairy and were friends with the Kaufmanns. The Hagans fell in love with Fallingwater and commissioned their own house by Wright. Kentuck Knob looks like a ship’s prow emerging from a hill.
Regular tours (30-40 minutes) for ages 6 and up can be booked in advance at the Fallingwater website. For more specialized tours go online. Plan to arrive 15 minutes in advance. First go to the visitor center. When your tour is called, you take the shuttle bus up the hill. Your driver will tell you a little background information about the house. After the drive, you will be met by a guide in the house’s courtyard. She explained that the house plan is based on a hexagon and that shape is repeated throughout the house. The living room of the house has a large panoramic window and another invisible window that links the outdoors to the indoors. The living room contains built-in furniture by Wright and a collection of chairs designed by him for other properties.
The dining room is an extension of the long beautiful terrace. The 1950’s style kitchen has fun flip down burners and a large Westinghouse oven. The house has three bedrooms. Viewing both houses reinforces your knowledge of Wright’s design principles such as his love of organic architecture, narrow hallways, expansive living areas, and plenty of windows. Please note, no large bags or purses are permitted inside Kentuck Knob and interior photography is prohibited.
Kentuck Knob is privately owned by Peter Palumbo of London, England. The Palumbo family visit Kentuck Knob annually, but do not stay within the house. Children will be intrigued by the family’s collections on display in the rooms.
A short walk outside gives you a spectacular view of the Youghioghney River Gorge. We could have taken a 20 minute walk back to the visitor center but we chose to take the shuttle bus back.
The greenhouse, site of the Visitor Center, gift shop, and café, once belonged to Fallingwater. The gift shop has a large selection of books, some kids stuff, and some fun, quirky housewares and kitchen gadgets. At the adjoining café you can get a sandwich, drink, and scoop of ice cream for $10. The café cleverly features Hagan brand ice cream. Visitors can put together the 500-piece Kentuck Knob jigsaw puzzle in the café. Like the Visitor Center at Fallingwater, the café boasts a number of brochures and handy direction cards to nearby attractions.
An outdoor sculpture garden has an eclectic collection with two 1902 British postal boxes, architectural birdhouses, and a giant apple core by Claus Oldenburg., and other sculptures by contemporary artists. Allow at least two hours for Kentuck Knob. Our older daughter described the day as “very fun and very busy.” Little did she know that there was much more to come.
Other Area Attractions
We returned to Ohiopyle, a town right between Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob just in time for the last half hour of the Music in the Mountains Festival. We enjoyed live music and saw exhibits on Native Americans, animal pelts, and dying and spinning. My younger daughter got to try out walking on stilts. The natural slides in the river looked very enticing, but it was almost time for dinner. Instead of dining at the convenient restaurants in Ohiopyle, my younger daughter wanted to eat at the Tavern at the Nemacolin Resort, 20 minutes away because we had told her about the 8,500 gallon fish tank there.
Once at Nemacolin, we followed the signs to the animal habitats. We saw a tiger, white lion, some goats, and black bears. We missed the zebras and buffalo and the petting zoo. Across from the animal enclosures is a playground for young children. We then parked near the entrance of the property and then made our long and winding trip through the main building to the Tavern. Along the way, we saw the library with its incredible collection of Tiffany lamps, the 1950’s style pizza and ice cream parlor with outfits worn by Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, a fortune telling machine (doesn’t give you cards), and a fossil and shell museum.
The food at the Tavern was just mediocre but where else can you eat at a table attached the world’s largest free standing cylindrical aquarium full of salt water fish? Afterwards, the girls shared a yummy $8 hot fudge sundae. Our perfect but busy day was capped by an extraordinary fireworks display as we exited the hotel. Thanks to the attractions of Nemacolin, we did not get home until 12:30 in the morning.
While my daughters had originally been reluctant to get up early for a long drive after their tiring first week of school, they bought into the experience upon entering Fallingwater and all of us had a wonderful and educational day.
- Fallingwater hours vary by month, check the website before you plan your visit.
- Admission is as follows. Regular Tour: Adults $25 in advance; Children (6-12) $18 in advance. Children’s Tour: Adults $25; Children (5-8) $17. This tour has to be booked online in advance.
- Both restrooms at the Visitor Center have changing tables. A water fountain is outside. There are no restrooms available on the grounds or in the house so visit the bathroom before any tour.
- Kentuck Knob hours are 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., except Wednesdays when gates open at noon. The house is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day and January and February.
- Admission is as follows. Regular Tour: $22 for adults; $16 for students with an id and children from 6 to 18.
- A free standing building next to the parking lot has restrooms with no changing tables. There are no restrooms available on the grounds or in the house so visit the bathroom before any tour.
Fallingwater photo one Courtesy of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and Kentuk Knob photo courtesy Kentuk Knob photo archive.