Fallingwater and the Case of the House Museum




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Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Fallingwater – the iconic, death-and-decay-defying leap of Frank Lloyd Wright from one end of the 20th century to the other. A building that cannot be left out of architectural history. A building that almost too nakedly tries to say everything about the role of nature and artifice that everyone from Vitruvius and Alberti to Perrault and LeCorbusier tried to say.
Maybe I want to focus on Fallingwater because it has a built-in fire suppression system and Chicago is beset by idiots with blowtorches.
Beyond its iconic status, Fallingwater is also a house museum, which is a challenging thing to be.
Preservationists are impelled to save things for many reasons, including a desire to educate the public about histories and designs. The most elemental expression of this impulse is the house museum, an historic landmark open for tours. These have existed for at least a century, and many think that preservation is ONLY about house museums. The National Trust for Historic Preservation was chartered by Congress in 1949 largely to accept house museum donations.
If the house museum is a perfect expression of the preservationist impulse, it is at the same time a really lousy economic model. I am involved in lots of house museums – I gave a talk at the Hegeler-Carus mansion in LaSalle on Sunday, which is one of the most exciting buildings I know in the state. I serve on a Restoration Committee at Pleasant Home in Oak Park, I Chair the Site Council for the Gaylord Building, a National Trust site and I sit on the Steering Committee of the Farnsworth House in Plano, Mies van der Rohe’s temple in and of the wilderness.
With all this experience I can tell you that house museums are a bad idea economically. The average house museum in this country takes in about $8 per visitor and spends $38 for that same visitor. A survey of the early house museums in Charleston and New England in the 1920s produces roughly the same economic formula. House museums have never made economic sense.
Which is why the National Trust only accepts house museums with endowments (now), and which is why our priority at the Farnsworth House is to raise an endowment to maintain and operate the house in perpetuity. Rolf Achilles proposed a worldwide call to architects to donate $100 each and I think it is a great idea.

Which brings us back to Fallingwater, which like the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, is one of the more successful house museums in the country. To be successful, you need the iconic status, you need to be a destination and you really need a good bookstore/gift shop. Movie theaters make money on popcorn, not ticket sales, and the same is true of house museums, except substitute coffee mugs, books, earrings and scarves for popcorn.
Fallingwater is quite an operation – they move so many people across those recently reinforced cantilevers that I imagine they will need another big restoration again in the near future. They have a restaurant and a big shop and at the end of the tour they herd you into a room for a membership sales pitch.
I wanna do the same thing at Farnsworth House, and it is very similar – iconic, located about an hour from a major city. As architecture, it is simpler and subtler, perhaps more resonant if not as loud as the house on the waterfall. It has the potential to be one of the very, very few house museums that pays its own way.

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