WRIGHT DECIDED FIRE "WASN'T THE WAY TO GO" WHEN HE SAW HIS CREATION "BURN TO A CRISP" IN LESS THAN AN HOUR.
PITTSBURGH - It is the stuff of legend how acclaimed architect Frank Lloyd Wright jump-started his moribund career in 1937 at the age of 69 by designing a house for Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann perched over a Western Pennsylvania waterfall. Fallingwater remains one of the most celebrated private residences in the world. Not so well known is Wright's precursor to Fallingwater designed for Kaufmann the previous year less than a mile away, which Wright built directly atop an underground coal mine fire.
"Mr. Wright thought this would create a perpetual smoldering effect in the residence," explained Wright scholar Professor Franklin Toker.
In keeping with the tradition of lending pithy monikers to Wright homes, the architect dubbed that creation Burninghouse.
But just fifty-eight minutes after it was constructed, Burninghouse caught fire and burned to a crisp. Wright was dumbfounded. "Nevertheless, before the flames consumed it," noted Professor Toker, "that house was breathtaking. It's a shame that nobody thought to bring a camera before it went up."
Wright learned from his mistake and the following year transferred the design to the nearby waterfall. The rest is history, but from that time until his death 23 years later, Wright bristled at the slightest mention of Burninghouse.
At the twentieth anniversary celebration of Fallingwater, Kaufmann's son, Edgar Kaufmann Jr., made the mistake of joking about it. "Suddenly, WHAM! Mr. Wright used his cane to deck Kaufmann Jr. into the icy waters of Bear Run Stream," Toker said. "Mr. Wright used the cane to hold Kaufmann Jr.'s head under water, and he watched as the young man gurgled for air. And that, you see, is how it happened that Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. was drowned to death by the great Frank Lloyd Wright in the shadow of Mr. Wright's masterpiece, Fallingwater," Toker explained.