A Trip To Fallingwater

I’ve done a fair amount of traveling during the 69 years I’ve taken up space on Planet Earth. Been to Asia (Nepal). And to the Middle East (Israel). And to North Africa (Egypt). And to various countries in Europe any number of times. And I’ve been here and there in the States and Canada. How about Pennsylvania, then, the state I’ve lived in since my late 20s? Well, I’m nicely familiar with its greater Philadelphia region, which is my home territory, but outside of that orb I haven’t ventured all too much. And in the last couple of years I’ve been thinking about what I may have been missing. A trip to Ohio via the Pennsylvania Turnpike that my wife Sandy and I made a few weeks ago drove the point home pretty decisively. “Wow, look at all these mountains and farms. Who knew?” I said to Sandy more than once during that westward journey. “It’s time to explore Pennsylvania. Let’s do plenty of that before the sands of time run out on us.” Those weren’t my exact words, but they are close enough.

Smartly, we had already planned a day and a half of discovery in the Keystone State. On the way back from Ohio (you can read about the Ohio visit by clicking here) we drove to Uniontown, a less-than-flourishing community nestled in southwestern Pennsylvania, where we had booked a hotel room. The following day, Monday, would be our visit to Fallingwater, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home that has become a tourist destination. Neither Sandy nor I had ever been in southwestern Pennsylvania before.

To be honest, I feel a little guilty writing about Fallingwater. It’s not as if the world needs any more mentions of the place, as the 2,400,000+ Google results for Fallingwater obviously prove. But what’s a blogger to do? I considered typing an opus about what I ate for breakfast this morning (strong coffee, and Wheaties with blueberries), but opted instead for Wright’s creation. Nobody wants to read about my breakfast, not even me, no matter how delicious it was. Fallingwater it is.

To summarize Fallingwater’s history: Edgar Kaufmann, a department store magnate who lived in Pittsburgh with his wife Lillian and son Edgar Jr., commissioned the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright to build a weekend/vacation home for the family. The house was to be set within the enormous, heavily-forested swath of land that the Kaufmanns owned in the Allegheny Mountains. That plot was (and is) about 50 miles from Pittsburgh. Wright completed his design in 1935. Two years later the house was in place, and two years after that a guest house, uphill from the main residence and connected to it by a short cement span, went up. In 1963, some years after the death of his parents, Junior donated Fallingwater and the family’s mountain acreage to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, a land and water protection organization. The Conservancy opened the buildings and grounds to the public in 1964, and before long Fallingwater caught on. Really caught on. To date, upwards of 5,000,000 visitors have toured the facilities. For a place that some might describe as being in the middle of nowhere, that’s genuinely impressive.

Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin

And here’s why they keep on coming: Fallingwater’s exterior looks better than just about any house that you’ll ever see. It is sleek, lovingly tiered, rustically handsome and highly imaginatively laid out. And the house’s placement is, as they say, unparalleled. It is built atop and alongside boulders, a few of which poke out into the living spaces. And, rather incredibly, it is perched above a descending stream at the point where the waters – you guessed it – fall over rocks. A waterfall! A modest waterall, to be sure, but beautiful nonetheless. Fallingwater, a looker in an admirable, peaceful way, communes righteously with the natural environment that surrounds it. Harmony definitely prevails.

After breakfast on Monday, Sandy and I jumped into our car and drove the 25 miles, half of them along winding country roads, that separate Uniontown from Fallingwater. Our tour, scheduled for 11:00 AM, began on time. Twenty or so folks were in our tour group. The guide, alas, informed us that photography wouldn’t be allowed within the house. Nor would touching of the objects. Bummer. The interior shots I’ve included in this humble essay, therefore, are photos that I’ve snatched off the Internet. By the way, Fallingwater’s room arrangements and furnishings have been left pretty much as they were when Junior turned over the keys to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Photo by Jeffrey Neal

Most of the tour took place inside, as opposed to outside, Fallingwater. My memory being duller than a butter knife, let me pass on a few recollections before they fade into oblivion. First, I dug Wright’s color scheme. Earth tones predominate. They make for a calming, comforting experience, which without doubt was his intention. And I was surprised to learn that Wright designed not only Fallingwater’s structure, but many of its objects – desks, cabinets, chairs and tables. And they are beautiful. The guy was something else. Was there anything he couldn’t do? Well, he couldn’t walk on the waters of the stream flowing beneath the house, right? Or maybe he could.

Photo by Brad Ford

I noticed a couple of broad wooden desks, wedged into corners, that have portions of their tops neatly cut away so as to allow windows to swing open. Brilliant idea! And I spent some time in Junior’s bedroom looking over the smallish but swell collection of books on his shelves. They reflect an open and bright mind. Among them are the 10-volume set of The World’s Best Essays, a long-forgotten collection published in 1900. I’d have loved to pull out one or two of the volumes to take a look at the wisdom contained therein. But that wouldn’t have been a wise move, as the tour guide might have dragged me off the premises by the few strands of hair remaining on my head had I attempted to satisfy my innocent desire.

The one-hour tour over, Sandy and I headed down a trail that paralleled the stream and led into deep forest country. Rhododendron bushes grew in numbers you’re unlikely to see elsewhere. Oak and maple trees flourished, as did a variety of evergreens. It felt good to get lost, metaphorically, in the woods for a while. Take more forest walks is something I’ve added to my to-do-soon list. Forests don’t exist in my paved-over home area, but a few are within reasonable driving distance.

The next morning we drove home, southwestern Pennsylvania before long disappearing from our rear view mirror. Now, I’m not going to say that this rural region of Pennsylvania is a must-see destination. For those who groove on mountain hiking or fishing or rafting, it’s absolutely A-OK. For those not of that persuasion but who are passing through the area or taking in the sights in Pittsburgh, here’s the thing: You could do a lot worse than make the drive to Fallingwater. Sandy and I agree that Fallingwater made our trip worthwhile. The place is a beaut.

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Out And About In Fishtown

On a recent Friday night my wife Sandy and I went to dinner with our great pals, Liz and Rich. We dined in Al Dar, an atmospheric Mediterranean-cuisine bistro in Philadelphia’s western suburbs. As the four of us wolfed down lots of good stuff, Liz asked Sandy and me what we had on the agenda for the following day. Because the Philadelphia area was in the middle of an amazing December warm weather streak, any upcoming rain-free day would be a great one for outdoor exploration. “Maybe we’ll go to Fishtown,” Sandy said. And that’s what we did.

Fishtown is a Philadelphia neighborhood fairly near the city’s downtown sections. It is a maze of narrow streets, with a few big avenues running through, and for most of its existence has held a blue-collar reputation. Until a handful of years ago, Fishtown wasn’t somewhere you’d have had any particular reason to go to, unless you lived there. But times change, and sometimes for the better. Fishtown’s rowhouses and small single homes have found favor with millenials, hipsters, musicians. And with those fine folk have come cool bars and eateries and music venues. Fishtown now is on the map, though its goodly number of empty storefronts and how-do-they-stay-in-business businesses show that there’s plenty of climbing yet to do.

The 1300 block of East Eyre Street.
The 1300 block of East Eyre Street.
The 500 block of East Thompson Street.
The 500 block of East Thompson Street.

I like wandering on cute blocks, especially when they have nifty or unusual names. And Fishtown is full of those: Crease Street, Eyre Street, Shackamaxon Street. Yeah, Shackamaxon. I’d never heard of half the streets that Sandy and I stepped upon, which was just the way I like it. Gave me a sense of exploring the unknown. I saw that Fishtown’s byways are crammed with housing and commercial properties that, to my marginally-trained eye, looked to have been erected mostly between the mid 1800s and early 1900s. As with much of Philadelphia, the buildings usually rise no farther than three stories above ground level. And how about those bricks, a construction material that numbers in the gawd-knows-how-many trillions of units in Philadelphia. Fishtown’s share of that bounty must be at least twenty billion.

Fishtown's public library.
Fishtown’s public library.
Girard Avenue as seen from Eyre Street.
Girard Avenue as seen from Eyre Street.

It would take hours to see all of Fishtown, hours that Sandy and I didn’t have at hand. But we strolled around and I think got a halfway decent sense of what the neighborhood is all about. I was glad to see that Fishtown is kind of a small town unto itself. That’s been the case for at least 150 years, from what I’ve subsequently read. Look! A library. A police station. A rec center with a hockey rink. A wonderfully-domed Presbyterian church that has been in place since 1859. A bunch of pocket parks. Sharp, indeed! But the small town feel disappears when you venture off the residential blocks. On Girard Avenue, a major artery that bisects the area, the almost endless lengths of overhead wires are a gritty spider’s web and a quaint-yet-quintessential urban sight. And the traffic on Girard Avenue and Frankford Avenue at times is relentless.

Let’s move on to food and drink. Fishtown has become a player in Philadelphia’s emergence as a destination for foodies and/or craft beer aficionados. Kraftwork, East Girard Gastropub, Frankford Hall, Fette Sau, Interstate Draft House, Pizzeria Beddia (a take-out-only joint with no phone and a policy of baking only 40 pies per day. It gained instant fame when bon appétit magazine, incredibly, crowned its offerings earlier this year as the best pizza in the USA). Hey, if filling the gut and loosening the inhibitions are on your agenda, Fishtown’s as good a choice as any to do that in.

I peeked inside some of the above-named places, and others, on Girard Avenue. They looked great, but it wasn’t even 5:00 PM yet and I wasn’t ready for alcohol or food. Sandy and I earlier had decided that we needed to patronize, or at least ogle, what probably are Fishtown’s two most well-known spots, just to say that we’d been there. And thus we headed north on Frankford Avenue till we reached La Colombe Fishtown (1335 Frankford Avenue), the crown jewel of the La Colombe coffee empire.

Exterior of La Colombe Fishtown.
Exterior of La Colombe Fishtown.
Interior of La Colombe Fishtown.
Interior of La Colombe Fishtown.

LCF opened last year and it’s a thing of beauty, a Starbucks-on-steroids enterprise that was created out of a former warehouse. It’s comfortable and fashioned in the rustic chic mode. Dark wood floors go on forever. Exposed air system ductwork looms overhead. At the tables, customers nurse coffees, wines, beers, pastries and sandwiches for a long long time as they stare into their electronic devices or into each others’ eyes. And in the rear of the cavernous space is something I’d have been unable to anticipate in a million years. A rum distillery. Don’t ask me why, but the brains behind La Colombe had a jones for rum that had to be satisfied. The rum is for sale.

Sandy and I, though, kept things simple. We ordered ice coffees. Yes, we’re big spenders. They were strong and delicious. We stared into our devices and into each others’ eyes for awhile, and then hit the streets once again. It now was time for food and alcohol. Next stop was Fishtown’s biggest claim to fame.

Johnny Brenda’s (1201 Frankford Avenue) used to be an insular neighborhood bar. New owners took over in 2003. They installed good beers and good food, made nice with their Fishtown neighbors, and set in motion their visions of expanding JB’s audience. Johnny Brenda’s is widely credited as the catalyst for Fishtown’s renaissance. Things really began cooking in 2006, the year that JB’s brought live rock and roll to its upstairs quarters. Brenda’s has become a favorite place for local and touring rock bands. Sandy and I have yet to catch music at JB’s, but we’ve frequently talked with friends about doing that. One day soon we will.

Exterior of Johnny Brenda's.
Exterior of Johnny Brenda’s.
Interior of Johnny Brenda's
Interior of Johnny Brenda’s

JB’s is a friendly place. It has a pool table, local beers on tap, a nice selection of pub grub. And plenty of customers. Sandy and I grabbed a booth in the dining room. We ordered. Sandy’s Italian white wine was delicious. So was my Sly Fox porter. So were our burgers, hers made from beef, mine from vegetables. But before too long it was time to leave, as a movie, in another Philadelphia neighborhood, was on our evening’s schedule. We settled up and stepped outside. Daylight had disappeared 90 minutes earlier.  The air was cooling down. Groups of 20-somethings and 30-somethings were everywhere. We crossed the street, heading westward on Girard Avenue. But Sandy then suggested that we walk back to where we had just been so that we could get another good look at a resplendent neon palace: Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop. Sandy took its picture. And we left Fishtown on a high note.

JoesSteaks IMG_0076
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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)