My birthday came earlier this year by way of a gift-trip from my wife to see the long admired yet never visited Fallingwater. Our journey to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s master residential work would be overwhelming, interesting and surprising, and not totally because of the target house.
As a longtime fan of Fallingwater, and Mr. Wright, I had attempted to make the day-trip to Mill Run, Pennsylvania several times, but plans had always fallen through. And although I, until marrying, had been accustomed to making countless solo road trips, certain destinations must be shared to take in the whole spectrum of sight. For some reason, being able to turn to the person next to you and say, “Did you see that too?”, somehow validates that the whole experience as being real. Besides, having someone you truly care about with which to share things like that, well, makes them that much more rich.
For this trip we made a necessary amendment to our usual travel fare. After griping about the state of America’s food choices lining our highways during a previous excursion, this time we decided to pack some of our own consumables. Too much salt, sugar and whatever-the-hell-else is in fast food, we opted to spare our nerves and nostrils by packing a piece of fruit or two, some homemade sandwiches and select charcuterie. Blair, my trusty Toyota SUV, was packed and ready to roll. We headed out of the driveway and pointed the nose of our freshly bathed steed north.
The trip was mostly dull; just covering miles to get to our destination, nothing more. We parted the smells of Ashland (when doesn’t that place smell?), battled the construction in Charleston (when isn’t that place under construction?) and fought off hillbilly drivers in Morgantown (when aren’t Morgantown rednecks…never mind.) Unceremoniously, we arrived in Ligonier (pronounced “lig-a-near”), Pennsylvania. Following an extensive bed-bug inspection by the Devil Woman, we polished off a few late night snacks, toasted our arrival with an adult beverage, and went to sleep.
Morning came too soon. Knowing I had a strict schedule to which I must adhere, I gathered my belongings, sprayed off the outer level of hotel smudge and loaded Blair. We scooped up a few spoonfuls of questionable egg-colored material and sausage smelling cardboard at the complimentary hotel breakfast bar and shoved off. Next stop: Fallingwater.
Over the river and thru the woods, we swished back and forth inside the cabin of Blair, the egg-like substance fighting its way back to sunlight was hastened by the road induced sea-sickness. I remarked to the Misses something of the sort like: “I might need to find some ‘Fallingwater’ pretty soon myself.” She smiled, not exerting too much energy as she was well underway battling her own intestinal war.
Our arrival was lovely. Although we could not yet see the house, the parking area was shaded and welcoming. The whole property had a serene feel, as though something special was just over the hill. The first step was to quickly check in, then immediately find the facilities. Toilets were opposite the gift shop. Upon entering my private chalet with water feature, I had to giggle at the signage on the back of the Frank Tank that read, Please hold handle down with force. I imagined other hotel-stayers that partook of the questionable eggs then had to engage in mortal combat once they were “re-daylighted”.
“Take that you bastard, get back in that tank. Christ, someone bring me an oar!”
I exited the bathroom smiling. Devil Woman joined me on the walkway with an “oh-grow-up” gaze aimed my direction. She knew. She knew.
She had booked us for the Behind-the-Scene tour, which in addition to being too early, did have the added benefit of being allowed to take photos, visit rooms the regular tour didn’t, and instilled in us all a sense of being guests to the house rather than those second-class servants with their standard tour stickers.
Our tour guide was great. I got the feeling she had her own private love affair with the long-deceased architect. She would drone on about Mr. Wright, the length of the approach to the house, making swooping motions with her hand while speaking softly causing her to feel more of a secret teller than tour guide.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to present Fallingwater.”
Now, this is the point at which I am supposed to write some rambling prose that somehow captures the emotion of seeing such a marvelous work of art. I am supposed to jot down how I felt at the sight of one of the most amazing feats of architecture and engineering ever; one that I had admired from the pages of countless books over the years of my life. I should probably sprinkle in some historical facts or convey some of the sights and sounds that I experienced that day…but I can’t. All I can say is this: go see it. Get the behind the scenes tour. Take photos. Hang out. Live it like you own it, if only for a short while. There are some things, many things, which simply cannot be captured within the thin frame of language.
OK, how about this. As a compromise, since I AM writing about the Fallingwater trip, and I guess it would be a cop out not to write about FALLINGWATER, then I’ll tell you about my favorite part of the house. Conjuring up my best “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” tone, my favorite part of the Fallingwater house was the dipping pool. I took more photos of the simple little creek pool than any other part of the house. We live near a creek and I totally envisioned walking down to a little branch of cool water with my morning coffee, dipping my feet beneath the surface and refreshing my mind and spirit, beginning each day as the former residents did for many years. I love the way the creek remained undisturbed, even though the house loomed overhead. It seemed so organic that water and shelter could live in such close proximity without impeding each other. Though it is virtually impossible to pick one physical element to admire from such a marvelous work, the dipping pool was by far my favorite part.
We continued the tour for some time. We snapped photos, wandered in and out of rooms, listened to our faithful guide, and were reprimanded for lagging behind on more than one occasion. At the conclusion of the tour, we were led to a room that was long ago used as a garage for the time-share shake down. Our tour guide said her good-byes and handed us off to her under link that would show us a video and solicit for donations. Afterwards we made our way to a photo spot where we snapped the obligatory selfie complete with a Fallingwater photo-bomb.
We headed back toward Ligonier, still processing the old house when we arrived back in town. We decided to find a place to have a beverage and sit and ponder. Somehow, we found ourselves inside a bowling alley on Main Street named the Wicked Googly. Yep, I said on Main Street.
The narrow building ran deep; deep enough for a stage, bar and bowling alley. I ordered a beer and headed to the bathroom to make sure the eggs had departed for good. I was immediately inspired by stall graffiti and graphical obscenities: “Life is amazing, don’t let anyone refute that, ever.” Some clever poet had marked out “life” and replaced it with “pooping.”
Both true statements. I departed the restroom and immediately spotted a baby’s chair scattered among the couches and bar stools in the Wicked Googly. Inside I really didn’t want to know, so I didn’t ask.
Having just the right amount of beverages in our system, we decided to explore the town and have some lunch. We found a loud restaurant with an open kitchen that served standard hipster-friendly fare: farm to table something-or-other, craft beer, tempura this, over-explanatory descriptions of food, blah blah blah. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was good. But can’t a fella’ have a cheeseburger anymore without having to know where the cow was born, how it did in school, etc? They even had the signature headwear of the hipster, the fedora, hanging in bunches over the stove area. I was just praying the heat neutralized the stench of moustache wax and irony, otherwise I feared I was in danger of catching hipster simplex, for which there is no known cure. And since hipster simplex has a disavowing quality, it makes self-diagnosis that much more difficult.
We wanted to see the real Ligonier. I felt the Main Street located bowling alley would probably have to do, until by chance I began a conversation with a quaint antique shop owner. He was telling us the usual tourist stops: “go here to see this, go there to see that. There’s a row of antique shops down the road that are lovely. Tell them I sent you”, etc.
My eyes must have been glassing over as I blurted out, “Any proper watering holes around here? And I don’t mean a wine and cheese place.”
“Well, uh, yea. There is one.” The shop owner seemed reluctant to continue. “There’s Joe’s. Have you been there?”
I had seen the neon sign of Joe’s Bar while we were at the bowling alley. Small little brick building, nondescript, simple; I hadn’t paid it much attention. It reminded me a little of Moe’s Bar on the Simpsons.
“Yea, you should go there for the taxidermy.” Taxidermy? Was this guy mad? I’ve seen moose heads and foxes posed on branches and deer with baseball hats and Mardi Gras beads, but it was a bar, so we said farewell and headed a couple blocks to Joe’s.
We entered Joe’s and all that was missing was the screeching-to-a-stop of a record player. It was barely afternoon and the smoke haze was already hanging low over the horseshoe shaped bar. We sat down at the part the luck collects and ordered a round. It was a good sized place with lots of characters. The two of us waited for our eyes to adjust while chatting with the bartender.
“Yea man, Joe’s is known for its taxidermy.”
“Really, I don’t see that much.”
“Aw, you gotta go in the back. There’s a few more back thar.”
Now, this is the point at which I am supposed to write some rambling prose that somehow captures the emotion of seeing such an intriguingly insane collection of taxidermy. But I can’t. All I can say is this: go see it. Go live it for yourself, if just for a while. On second thought, I have to describe it.
First, one must wade past the cigarette smoke and the onlookers who seem oblivious to the fact that they are drinking a few feet from stuffed snakes and bears and giraffes and, well, everything!
Out of the gate, first object I see: a lion. Freakin’ lion! I mean, a full sized, king-of-the-jungle full sized lion…stuffed! Next was an elephant. Then my eyes adjusted to the insane multitudes of dead creatures housed behind pane glass displays. A proper taxidermy deer ass was next followed by some spider monkeys. A crocodile with a duck in his mouth materialized. Then a huge rattlesnake. Then a baby deer. Then what looked like a midget yeti or something. Not sure if that’s even an identified species. And that was just on the first floor where the smallest collection was housed. That’s right. There was a second floor full of taxidermy!
Upstairs were more of the same, and some of the not-the-same. Pheasants, bears, deer, cheetah, moose, otters, a bald eagle, a full sized ostrich, a puffer fish, an albino possum, skunks, yaks, a hippo, one squirrel dressed like Robin Hood and a kangaroo with the biggest nuts I have ever seen. I retreated back to the bar to the drunkard embassy conveniently located inside this virtual Pennsylvania safari. I quickly ordered another beer.
“Dude, what the hell?” I barked at the bartender.
He grinned. “Yea, we get that a lot.”
Turns out “Joe” had a wife that didn’t care for his sporting lifestyle, nor did she like all the dead critters lying around the house. So Joe bought the bar and outfitted it to store his oddball collection. Boasting hundreds of species and valued in the millions of dollars, Joe’s wealthy obsession now serves an anecdotal backdrop for an otherwise forgetful dive bar. If you make it to Fallingwater, the trip ain’t over until you go to Joe’s!
Devil Woman’s final surprise for the weekend was a stay at the Duncan House, one of only a handful of Wright properties you can rent overnight. Although not nearly as impressive as Fallingwater (what is?), it was classical FLW design. It included the typical defined line between private and public place and a blending of nature playing constant folly with natural light. From the time we pulled Blair into the carport, the home felt welcoming. It’s really easy to envision living in one of the Master’s homes.
Nearby on the same grounds was a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired restaurant called Treetops. It was nestled against the trees and featured many FLW designs inside. Outside boasted a huge patio that seemed to slip right into the woods themselves. The food was great. The wine was equally great. Right about the time our first course arrived, the sky opened and we suddenly had front row seats to a forest storm. At the time we were the only patrons inside the place. I felt safe we could survive the storm, especially after catching a glance at the wine cellar when the kitchen door opened. We could last for months on that supply. Ok, we could last at least a few weeks. Our hostess was over-the-top with proper presentation, selection recommendations and basically just making us happy. I wanted to tell her to take up a seat and join us, but I imagined the facade would crumble and her whole attempt would have been in vain.
As Patton Oswalt once said, “If you give an Obsessive Compulsive enough money, sometimes they do really amazing stuff.” He was referring to Walt Disney at the time, but I think the shoe fits here. Whether it be Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, the Treetops Restaurant or even Joe’s Bar and death display, the right application of passion produces amazing results, even though if they can’t always be fully justified. Just like my awesome wife. I was fortunate enough to have a gal who cared enough to make a wonderful birthday for me, who obsessed on every detail to make one of my dreams come true. She did an amazing thing…that was the result. And I’m equally amazed she would spend that amount of effort on dumb ole me. That’s the part that I can’t justify.
Oh well, we left Pennsylvania to return to our obligations of mowing the yard, going to work and paying bills. Vacation’s over, back to reality. Well, at least for me, not necessarily for the Misses. Ever since our return she has been after me to figure out how we can straddle our ranch-style house over the creek. And her birthday is next…looks like I have some relocating to do. Anyone know where I can purchase a house sized red bow?