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A home built directly into the mountains, just over the state line in Pennsylvania, has become one of the most famous houses in the world. It’s known as Fallingwater and was designed by the master architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
West Virginia authors Anna Egan Smucker and Marc Harshman, the state’s poet laureate, wrote a children’s book about the house called Fallingwater: The Building of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Masterpiece. It tells the story of how Wright’s career was nearly done. There was even a rumor going around that he was dead. But then Edgar Kaufmann, of Kaufmann Department store fame, asked him to build him a home.
This story is, of course, about more than the building of a house. It’s about creativity and imagination. Those are the story lines that make it perfect for a children’s book.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting is featuring the story in the Mountain Readers Become Leaders program to celebrate and foster a love of reading in children across West Virginia. The program launched this week.
Harshman and Smucker knew they wanted to tell the story, but it took them several attempts to decide just how to tell it.
“As I recall, and we were just chatting,” Harshman said. “We discovered that we both had this passion for the house known as Fallingwater. We came at it from different angles, but we shared this love of the house.”
Smucker remembers it the same way.
“We just happened to be talking on the phone one day, and I don’t know who brought up that they had just visited Fallingwater,” she said. “But then the other one said, ‘Well, I had too.’ And so I thought, ‘Is that a possibility for a book? And if so, should we try to work on one together?’”
Smucker and Harshman had traveled in the same literary circles for a while but this was the first time they worked together. They described three tries on the manuscript before they found the perfect way to tell this story.
“I don’t know who wrote the very, very first draft, but whoever it was, would have written it, and sent it by electronic email to the other one,” Harshman said. “Let’s say Anna wrote the first draft, she sent it to me and I would tweak whatever she had written, add some things, maybe subtract some things, send it back to her. And we must have exchanged easily 50 or 60 versions. And there were dramatic differences.”
Smucker explained that the original versions of the book started out with a fictional child character.
“The first story, we had created a fictional character Daniel, whose father is employed as one of the workers to build Fallingwater,” Smucker said. “It got so confusing that we just had to throw that story away, even though we’d worked on it for a while. So then we created another fictional character, Amelia, whose father also worked at Fallingwater. But Amelia dreamed of flying. That story is in this third story, that is the book Fallingwater. So finally, we’ve realized that the main character was the house. So we threw out our fictional characters and focused on the house.”
There were some parallels between what Smucker and Harshman did and the work between Wright and Kaufmann. In the case of the architect and the client, Wright spent nearly a year visiting the proposed construction site for the house before he even started to draw up plans.
“I think Frank Lloyd Wright’s whole thing was, a building of any sort should look as if it had grown right out of the ground that it was situated on,” Smucker said. “And it does seem like his very first visit to Bear Run he looked at that outcropping. And it almost seems like right away he knew that was the heart of the house. And it turned out that that rock is the hearth of the house.”
For Harshman, the relationship between the two men speaks to the creative process in general.
“Speaking for myself, it is important to work hard, as I’m quite sure Wright did throughout his career, but also important to leave space for the dreaming time,” Harshman said. “Imagine that vision. Just to look out the window, and let things ferment for a while. The dreaming portion of the creation was essential, but Wright was also a genius. And so where it might have taken someone years of sketching, he did a lot of dreaming, and then could condense that in just a matter of hours into the rough draft on his blueprints and, and thus, the house emerged on paper.”
More than 400 copies of the book Fallingwater: The Building of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Masterpiece have been sent around the state and volunteers are reading it in classrooms in every county in West Virginia this week. An estimated 18,000 children will hear the story in person.
ZMM Architect and Engineers donated the books for the project. Adam Krason is one of the principals of the firm and he said just about anyone with an interest can become an architect. It’s a mixture of hard work and creativity.
“When I graduated from high school, I had an interest in art and I had an interest in math,” Krason said. “And for some reason, that combination leads people to say you should be an architect or an engineer.”
Krason said he admires Wright for his ability to adapt his work and to deliver what his clients wanted.
“His career was very interesting in that he was able to design buildings, not only throughout the country, but throughout the world,” he said. “And one thing I appreciate about Frank Lloyd Wright is, although he’s associated very often with a prairie style of house, from his early career, there was no defined style when we talk about an architect really delivering the vision of his client. I mean, Fallingwater has nothing to do with the Guggenheim. And if you look at his prairie style houses, or the work he did in Japan, there might be some similarities, but in every case, he really made an effort to design what his client wanted. And that’s what I really appreciated about Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Classrooms and libraries can visit the Mountain Readers Become Leaders page at wvpublic.org to watch members of the West Virginia Public Broadcasting staff and the book’s authors read Fallingwater: The Building of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Masterpiece.