“Fallingwater: The Rock Opera”: The Collaboration of Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Hall
“Architecture is a study in theft,” says Gary DeVore.
We’re standing in an echoing room in Port Allegheny, PA’s Lynn Hall, a building constructed in 1935 by Walter Hall, who later became the chief builder for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. For the last couple of years, Devore and his wife Sue have undertaken the restoration of Hall’s once-abandoned building.
Hall, who had been strongly influenced by the Prairie School, was in turn responsible for many of the innovations of Wright’s masterpiece. “Frank Lloyd Wright just had better biographers,” Devore says. “Fallingwater has a great Frank Lloyd Wright design—but it’s a Walter Hall building.”
While Fallingwater’s original owner Edgar Kauffman nicknamed it “rising mildew,” Wright’s design is awe-inspiring if impractical. It’s like a poem in its careful attention to detail, its repeating motifs and recurring colors: cherokee red, gray stone, light ochre; steps leading from the living room down into the water reminiscent of gills; gray stone floors that, when waxed, look like water. Cantilevered terraces hang in the air like long flat drawers pulled out from the jutting rocks. Built-in furniture, also seeming to hang in the air without legs or bases, echoes the terraces. The house’s stone column and downstairs great room, damp and dark with a stone floor, remind me of a castle or a cave. Lines between the outdoors and indoors are perpetually blurred: it feels as if you could walk through the screenless windows right out into the air, moss grows on the back stone walls, and boulders come up through the floor.
There, and a couple weeks later at the Martin houses in Buffalo, tour guides were affectionate at the quirky impracticality of Wright’s genius even as they promoted the idea of individual creation. The Darwin Martin house has more long horizontal lines, built-in furniture, and patterned glass, but is especially dark, with wide roof awnings. The bricks are long, scraped deep on the horizontal but flush on the vertical to emphasize their length, and even the clotheslines were designed with the same lines as the house.
And along the way, at Fallingwater and then Darwin Martin and then Graycliff, the Martin summer home, guides tell stories about Wright’s unwillingness to install screens—why shouldn’t birds fly through houses? Guides talk about his disdain for a table made of an upside-down tree, his insistence on putting a pool in front of Graycliff, his refrain that “the house needs that” whenever anyone objected to one of his innovations. It’s a charming story of artistic purity, full of amused tolerance toward the idea of artistic arrogance that can lead to such spectacular effects.
After I returned home, some friends told me about Walter Hall’s undersung contribution to Fallingwater and arranged an excursion to Lynn Hall. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places because of techniques that Hall pioneered: heat-circulating fireplaces, heated stone floors, skylights, natural stone outcrops left in the interior design, and steel reinforced concrete cantilevers.
Putting in about 7300 hours of work on Lynn Hall so far, the Devores have stabilized the building made of long blocks of coral sandstone alternated with black strips of slate, the rock quarried from the hill behind. The building’s cantilevers remain steady, strong, and perfectly level, and even after the building had been shut up for many years and left to rot, the plumbing and wiring were still good. The building incorporated steel from local railroads, and, built during the depression, also used lumber salvaged from a barn and tannery. Once a popular restaurant, an elegant and sophisticated destination, Lynn Hall could be seen from all over town when it was lit up at night.
Writer Franklin Toker acknowledges that Hall was the “prime executor and maestro of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masonry style” and rough-grained slab floors at Fallingwater. And Lynn Hall’s floors do remind me of those in Wright’s masterpiece. “A mason’s stonework is as identifiable as his fingerprint,” Devore says. Lynn Hall has a similar dampish, cave-like feeling, built-in furniture, stonework, hand-chiseled steps, open spaces, natural stone outcroppings, and low ceilings. Lynn Hall demonstrated that Hall was a “crackerjack builder,” which led to his role in constructing Fallingwater.
My boyfriend Steve, who accompanied me on tours of Fallingwater near Pittsburgh and the Martin houses in Buffalo, once inadvertently referred to Wright as “Andrew Lloyd Wright,” leading me to envision “Fallingwater: The Rock Opera,” portraying an Amadeus-like Mozart/Salieri rivalry between Wright and Hall.
While these buildings reflect the brilliance of two eccentric men with an uneasy relationship, they also provide a study in the collaborative nature of artistic processes as one artist’s vision sparks another. Debates over intellectual property rights sometimes obfuscate the reality of how art is created, but the similarities between Hall’s Lynn Hall and Wright’s Fallingwater offer an intriguing example of how artists borrow from and build on each other’s ideas.