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Fixing a masterpiece

Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Fallingwater has stress problems. Without a permanent fix, which is now under way, the residence was in danger of collapsing.

©Associated Press
December 2, 2001

[Photo: AP]
The problem with Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of Fallingwater is that it didn’t include enough steel in the reinforced concrete, particularly in the second-floor terrace.
MILL RUN, Pa. -- Now visitors to Fallingwater will be able to see where Wright went wrong.

Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural classic, voted "Building of the 20th Century" by the American Institute of Architects, has stress problems that put the residence at risk of collapsing into the creek below.

Work is under way on a permanent fix, and now the group that owns the house is giving people a chance to witness some of the details -- with $50 tours.

This is no simple repair job; there is Wright's genius to consider. Constructed about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, the building's distinctive terraces are supposed to seem to float across bucolic Bear Run. Its pale ocher parapets are expected to blend in with the surrounding rhododendron and hemlock.

Steel scaffolding to hold up the place simply won't do.

"Fallingwater is too important an experience to leave it handicapped like that," said Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which owns the building.

New York engineer Robert Silman's firm is attempting to stop the structure's slow, southern tilt, employing a seldom-used means of repair that is supposed to be invisible after the work is finished.

The problem with Wright's design is that it didn't include enough steel in the reinforced concrete, particularly in the second-floor terrace. The terrace's weight is transferred down to the huge cantilever beams that carry the first floor over the waterfall after which the house is named. Those beams were made to support the living room and the first-floor terraces, but not the second-floor terrace as well.

mapWork began recently to pull up the sandstone floors in the living room to provide access to the concrete beams and base that make up the structure's main cantilever.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the house like this," said Lynda Waggoner, Fallingwater's director. "I certainly hope I don't see it like this again in my lifetime."

Steel cables will be attached along one side of the beams and pulled taut with hundreds of tons of pressure to counteract the forces trying to make them bend. It's like holding several books between your hands by pressing on the volumes at each end.

The pressure won't bring Fallingwater back to horizontal. Doing that could crack all the wood and glass that has settled with the slope of the building. But it should arrest the growing tilt, Silman said.

The work, part of a lengthy $11-million restoration that started earlier this year, is expected to be done by March.

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